Nearly Half a Dozen Ways to Improve Your Numbers
- Forget the "1 to 9" rule. "Proper" English, if there is such a thing anymore, tells us to spell out numbers one through nine, and write numerals for 10 and above. Forget it. In direct marketing, use the form that fits your emotional message.
- Numerals highlight, spelled-out numbers diminish. Write numerals to draw attention to numbers, spell them out to bury them. Not only does "nearly five months" sound longer than "149 days," it even looks longer. In this particular context, the mere fact of being written out enhances the feeling of boredom and time dragging on.
- Tell the reader how to feel about them. Sometimes readers are on your wavelength, sometimes they're not. Since facts and figures can reduce their emotional involvement with the message, use qualifiers like "just," "more than," "only" and "up to" to help the reader see a number from your perspective so she knows immediately whether it' big or small.
- Round off effectively. "Nearly 500 people" sounds like more that "a little over 400 people." Rounded numbers work with other qualifiers to help readers think about numbers they way you want them to.
However, when you do round off, make sure the numbers are actually round. "Nearly 100" of something is emotional shorthand. The reader knows instantly what you're trying to indicate and she doesn't get diverted from your larger message. On the other hand, "More than 97" is a distraction. It's neither specific nor rounded off. It forces the reader to stop and think about it, and in that moment, the emotional continuity of your message can evaporate.
Ironically, the technique for using concrete numbers effectively is not very concrete. It requires judgment, empathy, euphony, context and experience. But it can mean money in the bank if you take the extra time and thought to make sure your numbers add up to more emotion in your message.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.