When Numbers Speak Only of Numbers



Numbers. Meaningless on their own.

Yet both sets – when put in the proper context – elicit passion, desire, rage, hope, belief and more…the full and deep range of human emotion.

Therefore, if I tell you that 34 to 31 refers to the final score of this year’s Super Bowl – the annual US Football Championship gladiator blowout – between the Baltimore Ravens (34) and the San Francisco 49ers (31) – the story behind the numbers starts to bubble…wild swings in quarterly scoring, electrical blackout, Beyoncé and half time, a struggle between brothers – the numerals start to live….

4 to 1 refers to the recent match between Real Madrid and Sevilla in the more global game of football (soccer in the US) where Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the world’s best players – scored his 20th (I believe) hat trick (that is, scoring 3 goals in one game) – and clearly is now poised for World Cup play. Again numbers become living entities and in this case, even take on a seer-like presence as the story they tell unfolds.

Bottom line…with stories, meaningless digits take on deep meaning and sets and sequences of figures come alive.

As Rav Yair (who inspired this and thanks Will) said – it’s never about the numbers – it’s always about the story.

Try this one:

5 stars

3 stars

2.5 stars

Depending on the context – the story – this could be anything – but sometimes even the context isn’t enough.

For example, here I am referring to hotel ratings – stars – in and of themselves there is a context – a level of quality (sort of) agreed to by the hotel industry around the world.  However – we all know that the swings of what they really mean are erratic at best – and without the full story behind the ratings – the right recommendations from people you trust who have been and are in the know – disappointment and often anger are fairly common in the sector.

In fact I will go deeper on this one – using the ratings alone in a computer auction environment like Hotwire – is akin to gambling.  You know the ratings are “guidelines”; you know their choice sucks – and worse, there is poor customer service to solve your dilemma – so not only isn’t the story of the hotel there – neither is there a story around service and customer support….

A number of weeks ago I wrote about the US elections and the mistake of thinking that somehow “Big Data” won the day.  In fact all sides used similar tools – it was in how they used them – the stories they created and told with them, the difference they made with them – that won the day….

Joel Benenson said it best in his New York Times piece after the election:

“The president’s victory was a triumph of vision, not of demographics. He won because he articulated a set of values that define an America that the majority of us wish to live in…”

Brands are created in the same way – it’s the stories behind them and around them that make us buy them – not the retargeting – and it amazes me that some still don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – numbers are powerful entities – understanding them, controlling them, manipulating them can teach us a lot and give us an edge – but in the end, without the stories in front, behind and on the sides, they simply remain numbers.

Patrick Rothfuss, in The Wise Man’s Fear, wrote:  “I am no poet. I do not love words for the sake of words. I love words for what they can accomplish. Similarly, I am no arithmetician. Numbers that speak only of numbers are of little interest to me.”

So try these….

$15; $30; $75; $100

If you thought the context was mathematical you looked for a pattern; if you thought it was about shopping you looked for a product – truth is, I took them from UNICEF and the story attached to each number is mind numbing when placed in the context of the lives that so many of us have…:

$15 – 12 packs of high-energy biscuits for starving children

$30 – antimalarial treatment for 33 kids

$75 – 128 polio shots

$100 – 357 measles vaccinations

And as you see, each number has other numbers associated with it – meaningless on their own – devastatingly powerful when coupled with a story.

I’d argue that stock markets have crashed and financial institutions crumbled because we fixated on numbers – we lost the stories behind them – and when the stories finally see the light, we ask how come we didn’t know, why weren’t we told – and I might add – why didn’t we ask….

Let me end with two great thoughts…listen:

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” Stephen Wright

Start with the story – always start with the story – it makes the numbers so much more powerful by giving them meaning and life.

And finally – from one of my favorite sources…listen:

“Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.” Albert Einstein

And there you have it….

What do you think?







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