Writing by numbers: Help the reader grasp your figures’ meaning

Do the math to provide context and make your point sink in.

Do the math to provide context and make your point sink in

Almost 10 years ago, a $125 million spacecraft known as the Mars Climate Orbiter drifted off course during its voyage and was destroyed by atmospheric friction.

Unbelievably, the heart of the error was a simple mathematical mistake. One of the contractors employed by NASA used imperial measurement, while another used metric — and the difference in calculation led to catastrophe.

If mistakes like that can happen in the scientific community, imagine the mix-ups that amateurs can perpetrate when it comes to math! Studies show that more than half of U.S. adults have only a basic or below-basic understanding of numbers.

As I write this, I feel a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, because I have a huge discomfort with anything mathematical. Show me a number, and my eyes glaze over. I have a hard time understanding exactly what you’re talking about and an even harder time visualizing what you mean.

My deficiency has taught me to be exceedingly sensitive whenever presenting numbers to readers. Here are three techniques to consider the next time you need to throw a numeral in your readers’ faces:

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