Why marketing data and numbers often fail to convince

When it comes to developing marketing and educational messages, many businesspeople and professionals find comfort in numbers.

It’s easy to see why, given that numbers are definitive and absolute, without any wiggle room. Sixteen of something is sixteen. $4,863,387.17 is an exact amount of revenue. A specification of 0.0961 inches leaves no room for error.

But there’s an inherent problem with numbers. The people those businesspeople and professionals are trying to reach — their prospects, clients, and customers — may not understand what those numbers really mean.

You’re no doubt familiar with the concept of literacy. But were you aware there’s a similar concept related to one’s ability to comprehend numbers? It’s called numeracy, and a surprising number of Americans struggle with it. In fact, a larger share of Americans cannot understand numbers than their counterparts in other countries.

That’s not just my opinion. A 2017 study called the International Assessment of Adult Competencies concluded American adults ranked well below their counterparts from 36 other countries when it comes to numeracy. Just 20 percent of American adults fell into the two categories indicating the highest levels of numeracy … while 44 percent were in the bottom two categories.

What does that mean in practical terms? Nearly half of all Americans can’t make sense out of numbers. It isn’t that they find math challenging; to them, it’s just as incomprehensible as nuclear physics. They can’t perform what most of us see as simple calculations, can’t compute percentages, and are unable to interpret simple statistics.

So how does that affect you and your business? When you use statistics and other numerical representations to communicate important information, you’re probably losing a large chunk of your audience. Those beautiful tables and graphs you use to explain what makes your product better than the competition’s? To many of the people reviewing them, they might as well be abstract doodles.

And while we’re talking about the people at the bottom of the numeracy scale, the people who rank just above them also struggle to understand what you’re saying. It isn’t that they’re stupid … their brains just cannot register what your numbers so clearly explain to you.

Numeracy explains why you don’t want to jam your communications full of statistics and other numeric concepts. While those numbers may be important to the case you’re trying to make, your effort is being wasted if your audience fails to understand them. Even worse, they may completely misunderstand and come to the wrong conclusion.

If you need to share statistics, look for simpler ways to do so. For example, I once worked for an Indianapolis-based energy company that wanted to trumpet the fact that it managed 225 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually. That’s hard to grasp, so we described it by saying they handled enough gas to fill the old Hoosier Dome 4,500 times.

Turn percentages into more easily understood ratios; instead of saying “20 percent of customers,” say “one customer in five.” Keep graphs and charts simple, and don’t hesitate to use rounding.

Be careful with word choices, too. A statement like “customer satisfaction ranks in the 74th percentile” may make perfect sense to you, but if you want the average person to get the message, say “three out of every four customers are happy with our company.” It may not sound as scholarly, but more people will understand what you’re trying to convey.

You may think it’s silly to have to “dumb down” your message to others, but what’s the point of sending that message if your audience can’t understand what you’re trying to say? Instead of impressing them, you’ll just frustrate or confuse them. Communication is all about making effective connections, and you’ll never connect if people can’t understand you.


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