Communication Techniques That Prompt Action

I would not describe myself as a “numbers person.” Math and statistics are not exactly my sweet spot. However, in the world of work, I’ve learned to embrace their value in creating a compelling business case for change or validating the rationale for the best decision.

Data analytics is becoming an essential skillset across a wide variety of functions, not traditionally focused on numbers, like the people-side of the business. But numbers can tell a story and offer a burning platform for change. In the book,Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr, the authors offer creative ideas about using numbers to deliver a powerful, memorable message for any situation.

Here are my favorite ideas about how numbers can be leveraged to create persuasive and provocative communications:

Paint a picture with your numbers – “Pictures are worth a thousand words” (or numbers). We’ve heard this saying for years, and it’s true! Pictures are memorable, and a good visual can eliminate the need for an exhaustive amount of words. The examples below highlight this approach:

    • A department made a case for shifting to a central purchasing model after learning that they were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves across all their factory locations. Each location had a different negotiated price, from $5 to $17. They made the numbers come to life rather than creating a PowerPoint slide with these numbers in a chart! The group collected a sample of each of the 424 gloves, tagged with their price, and covered the conference table. When the senior decision-makers walked into the room, they saw the extent of the problem firsthand. That image convinced the team to shift to a central purchasing organization.
    • The use of numbers in medical/health environments can be confusing. A 10 cm tumor is harder to grasp vs. a tumor the size of a grapefruit. Putting the size of the tumor into a context that the patient can understand informs the treatment plan. If the tumor is the size of a pea, surgery may not be appropriate, but the size of a grapefruit may compel a patient to take action. Another example – a healthy portion size of meat is easier to visually measure if it’s a deck of cards vs. 3-4 ounces. Does that portion of steak on the plate look the same size as a deck of cards?
    • When describing the impact of employee turnover, try applying the percentages to a smaller group – like a work team. Make the analogy more relatable for your audience. For example, Our current trend is 60% turnover, which means that 6 out of 10 people on a team will have to be replaced and trained this year. YIKES!

Recast your number in different dimensions – If a number, calculation, or comparison doesn’t make immediate sense, try converting it to a different dimension, like distance, speed, temperature, money, or time. When we hear large numbers, it’s hard to truly get our head around it. How much more is a billion compared to a million? If we take large numbers and put them in a context, we more easily understand. Here are a couple of examples:

    • A million minutes ago is about two years ago. A billion minutes ago was 2000 years ago. Caesar Augustus ruled Rome. That’s a big difference. I now have a better understanding of how much more money a billionaire has vs. a millionaire…but still mind-bending!
    • A single M&M has four calories. It takes walking two flights of stairs to burn those four calories. Considering there are 20-22 M&Ms in a regular pack, that is 40-44 flights of stairs. Ugh! Having that visual may prompt someone to re-think their snack choice.

Let’s not forget we use numbers to describe all aspects of life. How many miles we travel, how much weight we lost/gained, the nutritional content of food, the passage of time, income, expenses, etc. The list is endless. Some think that numbers speak for themselves, but translating numbers into a language that people can understand, remember, and use is where the magic really happens. It’s a powerful tool to prompt action from your audience.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at