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Columnist Crawford Hollingworth Making sense of numbers W 1. Where possible, avoid using numbers e all know the importance of plain English for The first rule of thumb for communicating numbers simply is actually improving consumer understanding and decisionnot to use them at all. Take a Bloomberg headline from April 2023: making. Much has been written on how to write Women CEOs (finally) outnumber those named John. It is equally effectively. Most recently, Harvard behavioural possible to make the statement using numbers: For the first time, scientists Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink published Writing for there were 41 female CEOs in the S&P 500 and only 23 Johns or busy readers: Communicate more effectively in the real world. Jons out of a total 500 CEOs. However, the key message to convey Sadly, we have not seen the same focus when it comes to is that the number of female CEOs is still small but rising, and this tackling numerical blindness, yet many lack basic numeracy skills, doesnt need numbers. A simple verbal comparison is clearer and with the UK one of the worst performing nations in the more memorable. Make your point without numbers if possible, but, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. if they must feature, identify only the key figures, and cut the rest. A 2011 survey found that nearly half the working-age population has the numeracy levels expected of a child aged 9 to11. Only a fifth are 2. Make numbers simple or shorter what we call functionally numerate the equivalent of a GCSE There is a long-standing debate about the trade-off between precision grade 4 (C) or above. and comprehension when it comes to Chip Heath, professor of organisational rounding numbers. On the one hand, it behaviour at Stanford School of Business, feels intuitive that people would prefer has said: Maths is no ones native We can add emotional rounded numbers. Indeed, research has language. At best, it is a second meaning by framing numbers, found that people find single-digit numbers language, picked up at school through which can help people focus on easier to remember than teen numbers, formal training. the most important aspect and double numbers for example, 33 Just as behavioural science has easier than other double digits. Yet, there highlighted how plain English can increase is also evidence that we are more likely to comprehension and action, it has also believe a precise number is true the likelihood of being able to shown how to communicate plain numbers making numerical precisely measure an unfamiliar quantity with round numbers is information easier to comprehend. Simply disclosing numbers extremely low. When an expedition team measured Mount Everest to to consumers is not enough, particularly in the context of the be 29,000ft, they opted to report it as 29,002ft to remove any doubt consumer duty that took effect from the end of July 2023. that they had rounded it. Two behavioural science-inspired principles can help us tackle number blindness: cognitive ease and anchors. A recent study (Nguyen, Hofman and Goldstein, 2022) set out to test the impact that rounding has on peoples ability to remember Building cognitive ease numbers. Researchers asked participants to read news snippets that We experience cognitive ease when information is presented in a way cited numbers in either a precise or rounded format and then recall that requires minimal mental effort to absorb and understand it. them. For example: Among the admitted students were 28,752 When it is presented in this way, allowing the reader to make (30,000) transfer students who were offered spots at UC campuses. decisions using more of their automatic or effortless (System 1) When researchers compared recall accuracy, less than 50% of thinking, we can say information is high in cognitive ease. responses in the precise condition were approximately correct, Conversely, if people are forced to engage System 2 where it versus nearly 70% in the rounded condition. People were also more takes more effort to comprehend information they are less likely likely to make faster estimations in the rounded condition. to act on the information and may give up trying to read it at all, Many people fall into the trap of using big numbers to sound particularly if they are busy. 44 Impact ISSUE 44 2023_pp44-45 Crawford.indd 44 05/12/2023 12:13