Your Numbers – What’s Your Communication Grade Level?

Nov 10, 2015

In “Donald Trump, grade level and your financial writing,” Susan Weiner observes that the frontrunner presidential candidates in both parties are the ones that speak the simplest English. She cites a Boston Globe article pegging the complexity of Donald Trump’s verbiage at fourth-grade level, Ben Carson’s at fifth, and Hillary Clinton’s at seventh. (If you’re curious about your writing grade-level, you can use Microsoft Word, or an online application like Readability-Score or Hemingway Editor, to assess your writing.)

Susan’s post made me wonder: What about how we present numbers? Flesch-Kincaid and other scoring algorithms use factors like sentence length, word length, sentence complexity, and adverb use to score language comprehensibility. Can we assess quantation in a similar way? If we did, here are some factors we should consider:

  • Number of numbers. Are you showing your audience an appropriate amount of information, or are you deluging them with data, thereby making it hard for them to find the important stuff?
  • Number of digits. Are you presenting financial information to the nearest penny, when rounding to the nearest dollar, or thousand or million dollars, would be just fine? Or percentages and ratios to four decimal places? Those extra digits aren’t just unnecessary; they crowd out other potentially important information and look intimidating to boot.
  • The words. Are your captions – those things that go down the left side and across the top of our spreadsheet – plain, terse English? Or are they wordy, distracting the reader from the important stuff (i.e., the numbers) and using up valuable real estate? Do you use terminology that only a CPA would understand?
  • Ratios and other key indicators. Do you use wisely chosen, comprehensible metrics to add meaning, context, and comparability to your raw numbers?
  • Intuitive organization. Do your reports flow from left to right and from top to bottom in the same way that your readers think about the information?
  • Consistency. Do you make life easy for your audience with a consistent style and approach to designing all your reports? Or is every report you produce a new and different cognitive experience for your readers?

Just as with speaking and writing, the audience for our numbers reports is getting more and more distracted, busy, and loaded down with other information from many sources. It’s no wonder that people are looking for the CliffNotes, or the sound bite, or the elevator pitch. The trick is to address your audience’s needs without dumbing down your information into meaninglessness.

Perhaps someday there will be Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score for our quantation.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable.  I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples.  Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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