What is number translation?

Maybe you can add 2+3 with confidence and clarity. Or calculate the sales tax on a purchase, toggle between imperial and metric sizes, or explain batting averages. But eventually, a situation arises when you feel outmatched by the figures in front of you, and the meaning of a pie chart, bank statement, or weighted GPA is fuzzy. Maybe they’re simple numbers… but there are simply too many. It’s fruitless; your brain has gone on strike.

At this point, you might make the familiar confession: “Sorry. I’m not a numbers person.”

There’s comforting news: no one is a numbers person. Not one of us. Numbers are abstract tools that were invented to help us navigate the real world—they’re a foreign language for everyone.

And yet, somehow, we’re expected to show up in the world as a fully-fluent numbers person. Every citizen, employee, and student on earth is bombarded with critical issues and complex discussions on topics that encompass an endless range of sizes: a national budget or a company’s market value (trillions or billions of dollars), population of countries and cities (billions and millions of lives), virus and bacteria (microns), and athletic records.

You’ve done your homework. You’ve run the numbers. Maybe you’ve worked with consultants, analysts, and accountants or read the right report. You can explain every last decimal point and fraction to your audience. You can justify percentages and every clause. You appreciate complexity, accuracy, and nuance. After all, the devil is in the details.

That’s backwards. Details are the devil.

Think about a recent number-related encounter: an article about a medical advancement or natural disaster. A presentation at work, in class, or a report you had to read. It could have been a single statistic you saw on Twitter. Maybe you were discussing the importance of a new investment strategy with your boss or tweaking the household budget.

Afterwards, do you remember thinking:

  • “I really wish they would have carried that figure to more decimal points and used more fractions.”
  • “That statistic was too easy to understand.”
  • “Just one whole number? How am I ever going to remember that?”
  • “They used math that a kindergartener would understand. It can’t possibly be right.”
  • “That presentation would have been a home run with a complex equation.”
  • “I WANTED 10 MORE PAGES OF BAR GRAPHS.”

No one has ever said those things.

Math is a mental tool that clarifies our world and solves problems. In this spirit, our first order of business is to make sure that our numbers don’t cause more problems than they solve.

Numbers already appear in complex ecosystems of information. Your year-end forecast might have news about the marketing department that’s foreign to some. Your class is learning all sorts of information about rocks or planets in addition to their statistics.

Complicated numbers—660,000 gallons, 43% fewer pages, 10.7 miles worth of home runs—do not clarify situations. They require more thought, and that extra second we spend trying to grasp the figure makes the big picture fuzzier. To wit: “honey, I went to the track and lost twice as much as half of our life savings” buys you a few seconds; “honey, I gambled away our life savings” does not.

Math is a universal tool used to communicate, but at best, it’s everyone’s second language. Without knowing how well others can speak it, it’s always best to err on the side of simplicity. If you were lecturing to a group of gringos in Spanish, you’d favor muy over extremadamente. We can handle muy. It doesn’t intimidate. Muy had us at hello.

Get the cheat sheet for Making Numbers Count here:

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