Book Review: Making Numbers Count

I have always enjoyed numbers. I liked all of my math classes in school and typically got A’s in them. Learning math always seemed to come easier to me than other classes like English (Ugh), History (Ugh), or the Sciences (2xUgh).

When I got into the business world, it was the same way. I enjoyed looking at financial statements. Calculating financial ratios. Looking at charts and graphs. Using spreadsheets.

I also noticed when I got older that not everyone seemed to enjoy nor understand numbers as much as I did. Particularly many of my small business owner clients. Their eyes would often glaze over whenever we examined their financial statements. It was almost painful for them to translate their numbers into something that made sense to them.

Bestselling author Chip Heath’s new book, Making Numbers Count, is all about helping people both communicate and understand numbers better. This book could not have come soon enough for many small business owners and their constituents.

Chip Heath co-authored several of my favorite books, including The Power of Moments, Decisive, and Made To Stick. He has a way of taking very difficult subjects and making them easier to digest and apply. Heath is also a great storyteller, and he effectively uses stories to exemplify his main points in the book.

In Making Numbers Count, the author makes two important cases. First, numbers are essential and we use them every day to make sense of the world. Second, humans aren’t built to understand them. Even worse, while numbers in our lives have become more complex, the wiring of our brains remains the same.

Heath filled the book with dozens of different ways to translate numbers so that they are more easily understood. Here is a simple example:

“Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored over 35,000 points.”

“Throughout the first 18 years of his career in the NBA, LeBron James scored an average of over 27 points per game.”

Which of the two statements is easier to grasp? Of course, the second one. It’s hard for any of us to understand 35,000 points in a career. It’s much easier, particularly for a basketball fan, to understand 27 points a game and how difficult that is to achieve.

Here’s another example:

“There are about 400 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States.”

“There are about 330 million citizens in the United States, and more than 400 million firearms, or enough for every man, woman, and child to own and still have around 70 million firearms left over.”

The first statement suggests to us that a large country with many gun enthusiasts has lots of guns. But when we compare the number of guns to the number of citizens, we get a very different picture of gun ownership.

This book shares over 30 principles designed to make numbers easier to understand. I have been a strong advocate for businesses sharing their financials with employees for years. But it only works if the numbers make sense. I think this book will be invaluable to anyone who is responsible for making numbers count.