Making Numbers Count

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A book review of Making Numbers count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath & Karla Starr

A book review of Making Numbers count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers by Chip Heath & Karla Starr

Stars: *****

Avid Reader Press (2022)
Business Mathematics
208 pages

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This post contains affiliate links.

Summary: A clear, practical, first-of-its-kind guide to communicating and understanding numbers and data—from bestselling business author Chip Heath.

How much bigger is a billion than a million?

Well, a million seconds is twelve days. A billion seconds is…thirty-two years.

Understanding numbers is essential—but humans aren’t built to understand them. Until very recently, most languages had no words for numbers greater than five—anything from six to infinity was known as “lots.” While the numbers in our world have gotten increasingly complex, our brains are stuck in the past. How can we translate millions and billions and milliseconds and nanometers into things we can comprehend and use?

Author Chip Heath has excelled at teaching others about making ideas stick and here, in Making Numbers Count, he outlines specific principles that reveal how to translate a number into our brain’s language. This book is filled with examples of extreme number makeovers, vivid before-and-after examples that take a dry number and present it in a way that people click in and say “Wow, now I get it!”

You will learn principles such as:

SIMPLE PERSPECTIVE CUES: researchers at Microsoft found that adding one simple comparison sentence doubled how accurately users estimated statistics like population and area of countries.
VIVIDNESS: get perspective on the size of a nucleus by imagining a bee in a cathedral, or a pea in a racetrack, which are easier to envision than “1/100,000th of the size of an atom.”
CONVERT TO A PROCESS: capitalize on our intuitive sense of time (5 gigabytes of music storage turns into “2 months of commutes, without repeating a song”).
EMOTIONAL MEASURING STICKS: frame the number in a way that people already care about (“that medical protocol would save twice as many women as curing breast cancer”).

Whether you’re interested in global problems like climate change, running a tech firm or a farm, or just explaining how many Cokes you’d have to drink if you burned calories like a hummingbird, this book will help math-lovers and math-haters alike translate the numbers that animate our world—allowing us to bring more data, more naturally, into decisions in our schools, our workplaces, and our society.

Making Numbers Count

When I requested this book, I just knew it was a new mathematics book and it sounded interesting. It turned out to not be what I expected but it’s still a five star book! It’s a book I didn’t know I needed or wanted.

This numbers book is about explaining things that contain numbers in a way people can really understand. For example which is more clear:

  1. A very small percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
  2. Among Fortune 500 CEOs, there are more men named James than there are women.

The first one doesn’t surprise us, but the second one did. It really iterates the discrepancy in Fortune 500 companies. The book gives hundreds of examples like this of a statistic or some other explanation with numbers and how you can make it easier to comprehend.

The book includes obvious ones like rounding the numbers up but mostly ones you might not have thought of such as using human scale, converting abstract numbers into concrete objects, using emotion or making something to scale. You will find tons of examples of each way to do it that make the numbers come alive.

The book was very interesting just from a “cool book” stand point but would also be extremely useful to anyone who regularly reports facts with numbers like journalists.

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About Kathleen

I've been a nonfiction lover for as long as I can remember. I love children's nonfiction as well and love to share my knowledge and the books I gained them from, with the world. I wish more people would give nonfiction a chance.