Book Review: Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath & Karla Starr

Numbers surround (and smother?) us in our daily lives. They describe our status, our health, our relationships.

But numbers aren’t the central focus or objective of any walk of life. They’re a language we use (with varying degrees of success) to communicate ideas and of course; to persuade.

Numbers are integral to so many of the big decisions we make.

Making Numbers Count (click for price) is a guidebook to mastering this art of communication.

Review of Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr

Financial Expert Rating: 4.5/5

Presenting and explaining numbers in different ways can male the difference between successfully getting a point across and being remembered, or missing the mark.

This is more than just a collection of tips on how to simplify a message. It’s about generating intrigue, creating a story, and crafting meaning through proper context.

In ‘Making Numbers Count’, Chip & Karla walk a reader through an exhaustive list of rules and tips for how to convert any data into a meaningful and impactful piece of information.

Forget about the blank faces of bamboozled board members, and say goodbye to your impressive statistics getting a muted reception from the audience.

You could be simply making one of many common faux pas when using numbers, such as falling victim to ‘big-ism’.

Chip Heath & Karla Starr have created an eminently readable title that doesn’t ask to be read in a single, linear slog. ‘Feel free to flick through’, they offer, ‘look at the tips we have to offer and read what interests you.’

The book is full of Anglo-American examples that will feel relevant to readers on both sides of the pond. It’s rare to find a page devoid of a real example to get across the point they’re making.

The chapters in the book sit under the following overarching principles:

  • Translate everything into user-friendly numbers
  • To help people grasp your numbers, ground them in the familiar, concrete and human scale
  • Use emotional numbers – surprising and meaningful, to move people to think and act differently
  • Build a scale model

If you were to pick up the book in a bookshop and flick through the pages, you would be forgiven for assuming that this was all common sense and therefore that you know it already. I’d say two things about that:

  • That something is ‘common sense’ to read doesn’t mean that you were actively cognizant of it
  • Understanding the ‘jist’ of an overarching principle like ‘translate everything into user-friendly numbers’ is leagues away from knowing the 4 individual rules or logical steps to apply to make this happen. 

This is a book that achieves high readability, but I fear will go un-bought because of this dilemma. This stuff sounds simple but years and years of working in business has made it totally evident that it is not being used. 

My advice is to buy this book and use it very practical as a yardstick for your next written communication project, be it a presentation, a charity campaign or a written report for non-technical management. 

By periodically flicking through the sections of this book alongside a project, you can ask yourself: “Am I falling foul of that?” or “Have I actually translated this number into the most accessible, impactful and memorable way possible?”. One of the most interesting tips is to consider avoiding using a number altogether.

The principles in Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr (click for price) are valid. They work. 

Having read this book, I’m now beginning to identify great and poor examples of number translations in the wild as I read other books. And this, in turn, is helping to reinforce a clearer idea of best practices for when I write about numbers next!

Making Numbers Count is available in paperback and ebook formats on 13 January 2022.