Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Making big numbers relatable

October 11, 2017

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Big numbers are hard to visualize, but there are some easy tricks to help your audience relate. ("Calculus" by "fitrihandayani" via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Big numbers are hard to visualize, but there are some easy tricks to help your audience relate. ("Calculus" by "fitrihandayani" via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A calculator and some quick research can help you make enormous numbers more understandable to your audiences. Advertising research shows that millennials prefer a personal connection. They don’t want to be “spoken to,” but would rather be “spoken with.”

That strategy works with numbers as well as it does with other topics. When you’re dealing with a huge sum—say, the national debt—it pays to break it down into something the audience can relate to. Instead of throwing a massive number at them, engage them by putting the number in more easily understandable context. 

Most people will have a hard time wrapping their heads around the figure $13.62 trillion, America’s current national debt. It’s impossible to picture, and so vast it defies understanding. Something much easier to visualize is the size of Canada. Or the cost of going to medical school. You can play around with those types of figures in order to translate 13.62 trillion into a more human-scaled representation.

The current U.S national debt of $13.62 trillion would pay for:

• An Ivy League medical degree for every Canadian citizen with cash left over

• $41,907.69 for every American

• A $1.6 million cash handout for every New Yorker

• 142 Venti Caramel Macchiatos for every human on earth

• 436 years of Netflix for every American

• 293,000 Spacex Falcon 9 Rockets

• Weekend passes to Disneyland for every American elementary school student for 32 years

• 380,000 $35 million mansions

• A 2017 Tesla Model X ($141,000) for the U.S. population east of the Mississippi

• $1,830.15 for every human on earth

Paying it off would require:

• Every seat in every NFL stadium (2.15 million) selling for $6.33 million each

• All of the Airbus A380s in the world, fully loaded, charging $117 million per seat

• America’s highest-paid CEO, Charter Communications’ Thomas Rutledge, who earned $98 million in 2016, working for 138,979 years

• Every American over the age of 19, earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40-hour weeks for 196 weeks

• All 38 million American children under the age of 10 receiving an allowance of $10 per week for 676 years

When you write a story that involves large numbers, five minutes of eighth-grade math can turn those gargantuan sums into something more relatable and understandable.

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