Published July 1, 2002 in Corporate Writer & Editor
by Mike Haney

“The small staff we have are not really numbers people,” says John Blake, editor of Mass Mutual’s employee magazine, M. “We prefer words instead of numbers.”

Sound familiar?

Many writers shy away from using numbers in their stories, fearing they will confuse both themselves and their readers. But Blake and others say that knowing how to use numbers effectively is a vital skill for any writer.

“I like numbers stories,” says Mike Glynn, who edits the employee newsletter Infonet for the energy company Aquila. “It adds a real credibility when you don’t just say things are rosy or bad, but you back it up with real figures.”

Perhaps the most common–and feared–numbers story in the corporate world is the earnings report, which often contains several complex figures and financial terms. Experts say it’s crucial in these types of stories to give the numbers some breathing room.

“Do it in small doses,” says Blake. “Too many numbers at once overwhelm people.”

Glynn agrees. “We try to balance them throughout the story, so the reader isn’t just facing a wall of numbers.”

Matt Baron, a free-lance journalist who also trains reporters and corporate communicators in the art of writing about numbers, says one way to keep the story light is to write out numbers when you can. For instance, instead of writing “26.6 percent,” you can say “about a quarter.” Or instead of saying profits were $998,378, you could write “just shy of $1 million.”

But numbers can lose their punch if readers don’t understand what they refer to.

Carl Mueller, an internal communications manager with Liberty Mutual Group, says that’s especially true with earnings stories. “We just have to keep in mind we have 42,000 employees and the vast majority don’t know what combined ratio and other terms mean,” he says. “So we always try to translate things into plain English.”

Glynn says his staff has started running a regular sidebar called Business Buzz, which defines commonly used but often misunderstood financial terms such as EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, for those of you who don’t know) and market cap.

Adrian Ciletti, editor of JC Penney’s employee magazine, JCPeople, runs a similar column called JCPeople Looks at the Numbers. “I call it my Corporate Finance 101,” she says.

Mueller approaches the problem in another way: His staff posts financial reports to the company’s intranet. When the cursor rolls over a term, a little definition box pops up. Mueller says that kind of interactivity can make complex stories less daunting and more fun for readers.

Experts say graphs or charts can also help readers make sense of numerical information. But the same rules apply here: Keep those visuals simple and define what’s being shown. If more than one trend is illustrated in a graph, make sure the numbers are relevant to each other.

Aside from corporate staples such as earnings reports, where can writers find numbers stories?

“Anything that is interesting will have a numerical component,” Baron says. “The key is to let it emerge naturally.”

He advises that writers brainstorm story ideas without thinking about the numbers behind them. Once you’ve got a good idea, he says, find the most interesting numbers that will help tell that story.

Thinking this way can help writers sort out the valuable numbers from the trivia. “View numbers with skepticism like you would anything else,” he says.

Baron reminds writers not to forget the people behind the numbers. “It always goes back to humans,” he says, “whether it’s a human being making a claim about a number, or if it’s a group of human beings the numbers refer to. The more writers keep that in mind, the better off they are,” Baron says.

Ciletti says she always talks to financial officers or other experts to make sure her stories add up. “I know I’m not a finance person,” she says. “So if I can’t understand it, my reader is not going to understand it.”

Matt Baron:
John Blake:
Mike Glynn:
Carl Mueller:
Adrienne Ciletti:

Quick Tips
Here are some things to keep in mind as you tackle your next numbers story, adapted from Matt Baron’s seminar, Go Figure:

Don’t clutter numbers together; keep them a respectful distance from one another.

If you can write it better than a number says it, then write it out.

Convert awkward percentages to fractions that are easy to grasp, like “about a quarter” instead of “26.6 percent.”

Don’t settle for someone’s age; get a date of birth and do the math yourself.

Have someone else double-check your math

Use information boxes and graphs to give your stories breathing room.