Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why you shouldn't put numbers in text


Read any piece of business writing, and you're bound to encounter this sort of gibberish:
In the total throughput table, XYZ is ranked at the market leader, with a throughput of 66.3 million units, up from 60.9 million units in 2006, and a global share of 13.3%. ABC is in second position, with 60.3 million units (12.1%) followed by PQR with 54.7 million units (11%), DEF with 43 million units (8.7%) and JKL, which moved 27.3 million units and has a market share of 5.5%.
Business reports typically have dozens of tables. That’s where the numbers should go. We can’t completely avoid putting numbers in the text, but it should be avoided wherever possible. 

Here’s why.
If you can decipher the following quotation (academics often seem incapable of writing clearly, even when their studies are about comprehension), it explains why we should keep numbers separate from words:
Locating information such as facts, names, or numbers in text is a reading task requiring comprehension that is distinct from text recall in two respects:
(1) cognitive processes that control reading comprehension and locating information are expected to be different;
(2) the frequency of engagement in comprehension and locating are expected to be independent.

Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 79(3), Sep 1987, 220-227. Guthrie, John T.; Kirsch, Irwin S. 
Put simply, a person reading text has his mind in ‘story mode’. To understand any facts or numbers that appear in the text, he needs to stop and switch to ‘data mode’. Either he won’t bother, in which case your numbers have no value, or he will switch mental modes and so lose the thread of your argument. This happens automatically when you break your reading to look at a graph or table, but it doesn’t happen at all when you read text - unless you stop reading.

Readers don’t absorb numbers in text, which is why we can write “rates improved by 25% from $3,000 to $4,000” without noticing the error. You usually have to read it twice to spot the mistake, switching your brain from narrative mode to mathematics mode. This means you have to read it twice to understand it. You should never have to read anything twice.

To demonstrate, try reading the following paragraph, which is a typical piece of business writing and is by no means the worst example I could have found. Read it once only and at normal reading speed, as if it were part of a 30,000-word report and you didn’t have a spare week to get through it all (which most of our readers don't):

“In fact, net sales fell from $3,470 million in 2009 to $3,227 million in 2010 – a reduction of 7%. A similar impact was felt on operating income, which fell by $39 million (26%) from $147 million in 2011 to $108 million in 2012.”

If you're familiar with financial reports, you probably feel you understood it. But all you really understood was: “Sales fell and so did income.” If you’re a skilled and attentive reader, you might also have gleaned that income fell by quite a lot. No reader can absorb 11 items of data in one 43-word paragraph. The author spent a lot of time finding those numbers, working out the percentages and carefully transcribing them. That time was completely wasted.

Moral: Tables are for supplying data. Text is for telling a story. It is only by telling a story that we convert data into knowledge

15 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. It shed new light for me on the type of technique that writers of reports should use in the summarization of test results--for example, school psychologists who are reporting the results of IQ assessments. Normally this information is presented in both table form and narrative form after the table. What you're saying is that the narrative summary of the results should stick to the verbal interpretation of the scores and leave the actual numbers out. For example, the table can say Johnny scored a 98 in Verbal Comprehension on the Wechsler, but the narrative following the table should just say that Johnny's score was within average range. Similarly, the narrative is not the place for percentiles, just the table?

    This is valuable information to know, especially when considering that the least prepared audience for interpreting these reports is parents, to whom the results are absolutely crucial regardless. If they have trouble switching from "story mode" to "data mode" to understand what a school psychologist is trying to convey about Johnny's ability, it behooves the psychologist to present the information in the easiest-to-digest format.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Seen on a boxing website:

    WBA female light minimumweight (102-pound) champ, Japanese footworker Ayaka Miyao (16-5-1, 1 KO), 99.75, retained her belt for the third time as she fully utilized her speed and finesse to earn a unanimous decision (97-93 twice, 96-94) over mandatory challenger Gretchen Abaniel (13-5, 4 KOs), 101.5, Philippines, over ten fast rounds on Thursday in Tokyo, Japan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment sir :D

      EDC

      Delete
  3. This is a well-intentioned suggestion, but overlooks the purpose of much of the writing to which you refer. It is not intended to be read as if it were 'faits divers' (I am sure there is an English equivalent, but at the moment it escapes me); moreover the suggestion of 'story' mode raises the question of how one would read Rimbaud or Henry James, Beckett or Sterne. The intended reader does want the figures, and is prepare to mull them over. A table needs interpretation (particularly when most tables are so badly presented). That is presumably the function of the text you quote, which saves the reader the trouble of reading throught he detailed accounts.. (Perhaps I could draw your attention, if you have not come across it, to Andrew (A.S.C.) Ehrenberg's "Data Reduction", which guided me when working as a statistician.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The idea that readers want the numbers and will make an extra effort is often used to justify such writing, but studies by psychologists have shown that this isn't the case. Regardless of their job, readers read as human beings. As you say, text should be used to analyse the data (to turn data into knowledge), but it shouldn't be the medium for presenting raw data. You don't correct bad tables by producing bad writing.

      Delete
  4. I realize I’m late to the table but I just wanted to add my ‘thank you’. I’ve been working with scientists who have to write reports for non-technical audiences and this research explains what I’ve been saying but in a much clearer way! I really like the ‘story mode’ and ‘data mode’ contrast.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Having, unfortunately, had the displeasure of reading a number of your posts, I do find myself breathing a rather large sigh of relief that you have, apparently, run out of the hot wind that fuels your diatribes of uselessness. Your sanctimonious ramblings are only designed for one thing and that is to fuel the ego of a hopeless writer and critic who hides behind a pseudonymn, in the hope that those who he spouts forth about don't happen to come across him and give him a taste of his own medicine to his face. You call yourself the "angry sub-editor", perhaps you should re-title the blog to "pathetic cowardly sub-editor". Mind you perhaps as it appears your blog has ceased, some kind individual made your realise that the utter rollocks you have been writing on this blog, is really not worth the effort, or perhaps you have finally landed a job and don't have the time for such pointless meanderings anymore... heaven help whoever you work for, and those who work with you... I am sure you are the perfect work colleague and have lots of friends.... on the other hand, perhaps not. Anyway, now I have lucidly stated my thoughts, I do want to thank you, for stopping positing your ridiculous garbage in the recent months. I do have one final request....please don't start again......

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "…a hopeless writer and critic who hides behind a pseudonymn…"

      I only wish I had your courage, Mr (or Ms) Anonymous.

      By the way, the ellipsis is three dots only, not four or six. If you want it as a simple glyph, use ALT-0133 on a Windows computer. Maybe I should write a blog post about it…

      Delete
  6. People DO want to see figures in stories, but they should be made as simple as possible: never to more than three significant figures, and clearly and concisely. So: "sales more than doubled", not "sales rose 105%". Don't write "$3,470 million", write "$3.47bn". And that par you quote can be simplified as follows:


    “In fact, net sales fell 7%, to $3.23bn, from 2009 to 2010, while operating income fell by 26% , to $108m, from 2011 to 2012."

    ReplyDelete
  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The students have so many options to develop better environment for education. The reword paragraph generator is now available for them by which they can write error less text.

    ReplyDelete
  9. A good statement must be easy to read. Spending time ordering your thoughts and connecting ideas is vital to the overall impact of the essay. Above all else, don't wait until the last minute to write the statement. See more llm essay

    ReplyDelete
  10. Numbers are one thing, but the terms are the key. I don't remember ever seeing a journalist report of revenue and profit that did not state one as dollar figure and the other as a percentage, as in: "Jabberwocky Gimbels reported a revenue increase of eleven billion for the quarter, while profits rose 12%" Information free data. Which, come to think of it, pretty much defines most journalism.

    ReplyDelete