Book Summary: Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr

Quick Summary: Chip Heath and Karla Starr offer helpful tips for translating numbers and making them accessible to everyone in Making Numbers Count (2022). They investigate key concepts, such as the emotional dimension of numbers, and explain how to apply them to any audience. There are numerous practical examples provided to help readers understand numbers and share their meaning.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Making Numbers Count Book Summary

The Mystery of Numbers

In the workplace, numbers abound. Statistics are used by everyone, from sports coaches to climatologists to marketing experts, to persuade people to take action, regardless of who they are or what they do.

No one, however, understands numbers. That’s just how humans are. Human brains have evolved to deal with extremely small numbers. Our first inclination will not be toward math. From a physiological standpoint, our brains have not evolved sufficiently over time to allow for this. We lose valuable data when statistics are not translated into intuitive life experiences.

However, with the help of mathematics, we can learn things about our environment that the human brain was never intended to know on its own. If you can use mathematics to explain something that others find difficult to understand, you have a superpower.

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Translation Matters

Humans do not speak a numerical language. When entering data into computers, you can leave numbers alone, but when arguing or making a demonstration, you must translate those statistics into human words. An effort to improve translation yields a significant improvement in accuracy. For example, if you make a size analogy by comparing the surface areas of nations, people’s error rates when trying to remember numerical information are cut in half.

Number translations are intended to convey a message that does not always require the use of numbers. In fact, the key to translating numbers is to avoid them. Attempt to convert numbers into concrete statements that can be understood without the use of numbers. Furthermore, if you believe you have relevant data, get right to the point. It is critical that your audience understands the figures rather than simply communicating them.

Begin with something simple, a clear component of the larger picture, to get people to understand your number quickly. Concentrate on a specific aspect of an event, such as a single visit, day, or calendar month. When numbers take on the form of a single person, you may begin to understand their significance. You sympathize with a real person, not a target market, when you sympathize.

There are two rules for making numbers more understandable. First, round complicated numbers to make them easier to remember. Second, instead of using decimal numbers or percentages to describe whole objects, use whole numbers. Easy-to-read numbers are more effective. For example, swap 5.73 for 6. The meanings are nearly identical, but 6 is much more easily understood.

The Power of Fathoms

If you want your listeners to quickly grasp your new topic, describe it in terms they already understand. You can make your ideas and numbers more appealing and exciting by selecting the appropriate concept, which is known as fathom. For example, 6 feet of social distancing can be translated into 2 baguettes if you’re French, or 1 surfboard if you’re from San Diego.

A strong fathom will elicit questions from your audience. It’s an excellent way to get people talking about numbers in a productive manner. If you can persuade others to discuss your figures, you’ve won.

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From Abstract to Concrete

It is common for specialists to remain abstract because it is their preferred method of problem solving. However, exceptional individuals who can perceive something difficult and make it simple may be able to operate on a much larger scale because they enable others to understand the issue.

If your figures are more concrete, they will carry more weight. Specificity and consistency aid comprehension and retention. Converting your challenge from a numerical to a sensory-based one is a good place to start. A doctor can help a patient understand the seriousness of a condition by comparing the size of a tumor to that of a fruit: a 1cm tumor is pea-sized, while a 7cm tumor is grapefruit-sized.

Quantity Conversion

To understand a numerical value, convert it into another type of quantity, such as length, area, weight, movement, temperature, currency, or time. It’s useful to convert abstract numbers into quantifiable entities. Instead of stating the number of calories in a meal, you could use the distance you must walk to burn off the calories in a meal.

Certain objects are far too large to comprehend, while others are far too small. You must relate to human scales in order to grasp dimensions that are larger or smaller than your experience. Because it immerses you in an environment where you’ve been conditioned to pay attention to even the smallest details, human size allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the world. People can better understand and empathize with others when they see things on a human scale.

Take advantage of the clarity of everyday objects for a proper human-scale comparison. Use specific, well-known examples. Thus, by reducing the scale to a jug of water and explaining how much can be drunk from it, you can compare the volume of drinkable water on the planet.

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Nightingale’s Numbers

During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale rose to prominence. She was a front-line health-care worker and statistician who restructured clinics to reduce fatalities. She gathered information while doing so.

Nightingale understood that people don’t just do things because they know the numbers. When data is presented in a compelling and emotive manner, people are more motivated to act. Nightingale’s data entries employ emotive language, such as comparisons and figures of speech, in conjunction with vivid statistics that connect with the emotions already held by her audience. For example, to emphasize the war’s mortality rate, she would include images of soldiers being lined up and shot.

Emotional Comparisons

It’s much easier than it appears to make a number emotional. Remember one important principle: emotions arise from emotions. All you have to do is find an analogy that already contains the desired emotion, and then use your data to demonstrate why the emotions should translate.

However, some items are too magnificent to be associated with anything else. These are known as the “incomparables.” You want to draw attention to something incomparable. To do so, you can either explain why its competitors are inferior or demonstrate how, even when a quality of the incomparable is removed, it still outperforms those below it.

Instead of relying on a single emotional note, a combination of elements may produce a resonance that is richer and more complete than any single ingredient could achieve on its own. The key to this type of translation is to choose topics that are similar enough that they complement one another but not so similar that they become redundant. For example, you could compare the sugar content of a meal to that of many donuts, then add sugar cubes on top of the image. These combined elements highlight the meal’s high sugar content.

Personal Numbers

We are more likely to remember new information if it is linked to our current web of mental connections. The self is the most complex and fastest-accessing network of them all. The most effective speakers figure out how to make the abstract personal.

Assume that none of the information in a presentation is of interest to you. Even so, the appropriate tone can theoretically lead you to consider how the presenter’s numbers may affect your life.

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Audience Involvement

We remember things we’ve experienced more vividly and thoroughly than things we’ve only heard about. Furthermore, they become stories that we can remember and retell.

People have a tendency to forget what is said to them. Because of their increased memory capacity, they will remember more of what they see. Whatever they do, it remains a part of their lives on a much deeper level, buried in their memories and reflexes. So, engage your audience by allowing them to personally experience your data. If you truly want to engage an audience, use role-playing to persuade them to become invested.

The effect known as “psychological numbing” increases as the number increases. To express the enormity of the number while still generating awe, you must convert it into an unfolding process. For example, in the United States, there are 400 million guns, one for every person, with 70 million left over. More accurately, there are enough guns left over to provide one to every newborn child for the next two decades.

Indeed, our daily activities are so familiar to us that they serve as ideal building blocks for imaginative constructions we haven’t seen yet. Break down your data into easy-to-follow steps to make it more understandable to your audience.

Managing Fulfillment

Speakers can use numbers to play on their audience’s expectations, similar to how musicians do encores at their concerts, offering more to an already satisfied audience. We become numb to receiving a large amount of information all at once. However, you can make a bigger impression by showing only a portion of your numbers at first, then revealing the rest as an encore.

The element of surprise has a significant impact. Using this useful tool, you can persuade others to focus on the right things. Surprise is created by challenging established patterns and rules.

To defy a rule, you must first create it. This method is known as crystallize-break because it requires you to crystallize a concept in someone’s mind before shocking them by shattering their expectations. Talking about surfers, for example, creates an expected image, and then shows an 80-year-old riding the waves. The technique’s effectiveness stems from the fact that it appeals to listeners regardless of their level of familiarity with the subject.

It’s critical that you give your audience a few key points of reference so that they can understand a new number without having to be experts in the field. For example, you could show an audience the normal body temperature landmarks before shocking them with the low number that someone actually survived.

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Scaling Problems

Scales are required to explain anything. A well-executed scale model can be an effective learning tool. It should start with a model that allows your audience to understand the most important aspects of the topic at hand.

Scales are adaptable and versatile. Adding new variables and factors to test new hypotheses is simple if you understand the fundamentals. A scale, regardless of the system, simplifies the dynamics and allows us to collect all of the data in one place.

Numbers Are Essential

You will come across numbers on a regular basis no matter what industry you work in. You will be more successful in your endeavors if you can convey the significance of your figures. Finally, when used correctly, numbers have the potential to improve the world. Using fewer numbers with greater impact is a great way to develop good numerical habits.

Making Numbers Count Review

Chip Heath and Karla Starr’s writing style is approachable, with a heavy emphasis on evidence and examples to illustrate theories and concepts. Their guidebook provides direct applications to its concepts, allowing the reader to grasp and apply them quickly. Including examples in comparative tables is especially useful in this situation.

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About The Author

Chip Heath received his PhD in psychology from Stanford University and currently teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Chip has co-authored four New York Times best-selling books and has assisted approximately 530 start-ups in improving and optimizing their strategy and objectives.

Karla Starr is a Medium contributor who has also written for O, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and the Guardian. The Society of Professional Journalists honored her with the Best Science/Health Story award.

Making Numbers Count Quotes

“And if we flew past it for as long as it took to cross Arizona (if we fly domestic) or Italy (if we’re international), it would be a truly otherworldly experience.”


“Half of the time, subjects wrote that they had a felony drug conviction and served 18 months in prison.”


“Without the translation, we may lose the audience before the gut punch can land.”


“The misconception is something we have labeled ‘big-ism.”


“400 million is a large number, but it’s not as large as 1 when it comes to the impact of guns on society.”

View our larger collection of the best Making Numbers Count quotes. 

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