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How to bring numbers to life

I am posting here a link to a brilliant bit of radio that brings to life the impact of the Syrian civil war by relating it to the UK.

The opening sentence gives you a chilling flavour of what is to come.

“Say you are one of the two and a half million people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester, and then you leave; all of you.”

The Syrian cause is close to our hearts here at The Media Coach. We have more than one client working in this now dangerous and desperate country. People we have trained in the last year, daily put their own lives at risks to provide a desperately needed lifeline to others.

syria children

Have of all Syrian children are no longer in school

But this is a blog about bringing numbers to life. Particularly large numbers. Getting an audience to really understand huge numbers of people can be done visually – by an arial shot of a vast refugee camp, for example, or most memorably in the past few weeks by the sea of ceramic red poppies around the Tower of London to represent the dead solders from the First World War. But to do it on radio, giving your audience something they can relate to is a surefire method and this is great example. Much later in this two and a half minute clip Michael Blastland of BBC Radio 4s More or Less programme, turns his attention to the millions of children in Syria who are no longer getting an education. He asks us to imagine this happening in the UK.


Michael Blastland, author and BBC Radio Presenter

“Go to every school in the land and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be. About five million of them, to correspond with the fifty percent of children in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.”

The ability to make numbers mean something is a real skill and one that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Michael Blastland for bringing these particular numbers to life.


A good number goes a long way with the media

This morning, the UK’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger did an interview on the BBC’s Today Programme in which she argued that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present because we know:

“A single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than in a typical house.”

The interview (which you can listen to here for the next 7 days) and figure Ms Berger quoted have been picked up almost verbatim by the mainstream media including The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

As someone who does a lot of work on risk communication I was immediately struck by the 23x figure, partly because of its numerical value and partly because of the visual picture it conjured up of smoky cars and houses.

When humans assess a new risk the brain initially does so by generating images (also known as mental models). This goes some way to explaining why some experts or campaigners are better at explaining risks than others.  Numbers are important as proof – but numbers which create pictures or explain relationships are even better because they allow the bit of the brain that deals with risk to process them more meaningfully. This is something that scientists or other ‘rational’, evidence based professions often overlook when talking about the risk posed by issues as diverse as fracking, GM or chemicals.


The brain assesses risk in pictures

But it’s a lesson that can equally apply to other number-heavy professions when preparing experts for interview. Ms Berger only used two figures in her interview (the other was 500,000 children a week) but they were simple, meaningful and clear.

Picking a few clear numbers and taking the time to put them in context is a far better use of interview preparation time than digging out 20. I have no idea where Ms Berger got her figures  (nor am I implying that they aren’t true). But clearly, they made enough of an impact on the mainstream press who picked them up unchallenged thus ensuring even more free PR for the policy and presumably more exposure for Ms Berger.

A good number counts for a lot with journalists: and some might say its value can’t be measured.