TUESDAY 24TH APRIL 2018
A leaflet in a GP practice reads “Did you know that 10,000 people in Wales die every year from Coronary Heart Disease?” It’s one of those 3-way folded leaflets, and it’s in pristine condition – no one has yet opened it up to find out more.
My first impression of the statistic on the cover is that this is probably a lie anyway, because 10,000 is a very round number, but it is also a number which requires some interpretation. Is 10,000 a lot or not? You would assume it is, or someone wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of producing the leaflet and distributing it to practices all over Wales.
The headline statement is intended to make us think, “wow, that’s a lot!” But that’s more about the way it is phrased, rather than the actual number. We would probably feel the same if it was 20,000 or 50,000, or indeed if it was 2,000. If we even felt anything at all.
Of course I had a closer look. The message in the leaflet was compounded on the other pages by further numerical information… that only 29% of the population in Wales do the government-recommended level of physical activity (150 minutes per week), and which would significantly reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes and other long-term conditions by their relative percentages... more numbers.
I wondered if the reason the surgery was quiet was because everyone in the waiting room had in fact rushed out of the GP practice with a copy of the leaflet in hand, inspired and raring to grab their trainers and get started! (Yes, that’s a little joke from me.)
To be able to decode the layers in the message in the first place, you’d probably need to be comfortable with base rates, percentages and risk, have a calculator in hand and access to local population statistics. Is 10,000 a lot of people? How many people live in Wales? How many people die in Wales each year? How old were they?
The numbers in themselves don’t make us feel anything. And if there’s no connection and no feeling, how will it inspire us to want to adjust our behaviour? What does 10,000 people even feel like?
I was working with a health board in Scotland in 2013 and they were using a similar number – they had approximately 10,000 employees. We delved into what 10,000 people would look and feel like if they were all together in one place.
If all 10,000 of their employees formed an orderly queue at Starbucks, the queue would be about 6.5 miles long. If you were at the back of the line and it took 45 seconds for each drink to be made, it would take you 5 days and 5 hours to get served.
Or you could think instead of the capacity of indoor sporting and music arenas. Many in the UK are approximately 8,000-12,000 in capacity. 10,000 people is about what you’d expect to find at a concert in the SSC Glasgow, Wembley Arena, Newcastle Metro and the Liverpool Echo Arena. That suddenly feels like a lot more people. (And one hell of an offsite for those 10,000 employees!)
Are you using big round numbers in your comms and marketing and stakeholder presentations? If so, can you go a bit further to help the people you are talking to better understand what the number feels like?