The danger of editorializing raw numbers

A few years back, I wrote a post about how numbers without context are almost meaningless.

We see this mainly in the media, where $10 billion are spent here, fifty thousand jobs are created here, and 150 new cases of H1N1 popped up there. There’s usually no context. How does fifty thousand jobs effect the national unemployment rate? Is it a 1% decline, a tenth of a percent, a hundredth of a percent? Numbers need context. Otherwise they don’t help — unless you are intimately familiar with the numbers in play already.

Then, they really do help.

Recently, I’ve made an effort to get rid of all the superlatives and adjectives relating to numbers when talking to clients or our team.

When we’re ready to launch a project, there aren’t “a bunch of things left to do” or “a few loose ends we need to take care of.” There are “12 things left to do” or “3 loose ends”. The danger of phrases like “a bunch of,” “a few, or “tons” is that they editorialize numbers. Twelve bugs might seem like “a lot” to me, but feel like “a couple” to someone else.
Replacing quantitative adjectives with real numbers also forces you to figure out how many there really are. Pretty obvious, yes. But, accurately quantifying things means doing that extra bit of grunt work that could otherwise be swept under the rug by adjectives. It’s a good reality check too. Sometimes you might think there’s just a few things left when, by all accounts, 65 doesn’t qualify for a few.