“If I lined up all the bottled water the United States consumes in a week, the line would reach from here to the moon and back seventeen times.”
You know, I don’t actually know how many bottles of water we consume in a week, and if this sentence were actually true, I’m still not sure I’d understand how many bottles of water that meant. I know it’s a long way from here to the moon, but I have no real perspective on that distance. I haven’t been there yet.
For instance, in Harvard Business Review’s Jan/Feb 2016 article “Vision Statement: How to Make Extreme Numbers Resonate,” the author wanted to make a point of how massive 18 billion coffee pods are. To do it, s/he illustrated a building that took up an entire New York City block and extended to a height of thirty stories. Add some little cars on the road to show just how big that building is and, wow, that’s a whole lot of coffee pods.
Let’s do one together. In 2012, total U.S. bottled water consumption increased to 9.67 billion gallons. (That’s actually a real fact, thank you very much International Bottled Water Association!) That’s a whole lot of gallons of water. The number sounds impressive, but how can we make it even more impressive?
Well, the average back-yard, in-ground swimming pool holds about 20,000 gallons of water. We pretty much all know what one of those looks like. So when we say that the U.S. alone consumed 483,500 swimming pools worth of water, that sounds pretty impressive. If you still think that’s a hard thing to get your arms around, then compare the consumption to a nearby lake, or a water tower in the area.
Let’s try some more:
- Over 158,000 people are expected to die from lung cancer this year. Think about the tragedy of September 11 happening once a week all year. That’s how many people will die of this disease.
- More than one billion people are on Facebook. If they all lived in one place, they’d be the third biggest country in the world.
So how about really small numbers? The best and most familiar example might be a description of your chances of winning the lottery – you have a better chance of being hit by lightening (and you have a very small chance of being hit by lightening. I think that’s pretty good, but try using a visual to show your audience just how the odds are stacked. Make them look for a pinpoint on the slide, and the fact that it’s so hard to find will illustrate your point.
Before I close, I want to share with you a favorite example, offered by Duarte. Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini did when he presented at the 2010 CES in Las Vegas. He said:
“Today we have the industry’s first-shipping 32-nanometer process technology. A 32-nanometer microprocessor is 5,000 times faster; its transistors are 100,000 times cheaper than the 4004 processor that we began with. With all respect to our friends in the auto industry, if their products had produced the same kind of innovation, cars today would go 470,000 miles per hour. They’d get 100,000 miles per gallon and they’d cost three cents. We believe that these advances in technology are bringing us into a new era of computing.”
Everyone owns a car, right? The perfect example of showing just how small and fast a number is.
So help your audience understand just how big, how small, or how impressive your number is by taking something that’s familiar to them, and using it to illustrate your fact!
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