Comparisons speak louder than words

Comparisons speak louder than words

Humans don’t do well with big numbers and abstract concepts. We’re natural organizers and connectors, but when it comes to really big numbers we have a problem. Your next presentation is likely to have a big number or two. Remember this scene?

Dr. Evil: ...Here's the plan. We get the warhead and we hold the 
world ransom for... ONE MILLION DOLLARS!
Number Two: Don't you think we should ask for *more* than a 
million dollars? A million dollars isn't exactly a lot of money 
these days. Virtucon alone makes over 9 billion dollars a year!
Dr. Evil: Really? That's a lot of money.
Dr. Evil: Okay then, we hold the world ransom for...
Dr. Evil: One... Hundred... BILLION DOLLARS!


If we can’t see it or touch it, it’s very difficult to wrap our heads around it. That’s a problem for you as a presenter, when you’re often challenged with dealing with big numbers — Our growth rate for our cloud services was over 700k last quarter — small numbers — we had a .1 basis point decrease in our churn — or abstract concepts — Our data analysis shows a correlation between customer experience, AHT and repeat visits.

Because we spend so much time preparing our presentations, and are usually the expert in the room, it’s easy to forget this, so we throw around ARPU, 432,000, 2 basis points, and data architecture like it’s confetti, ignoring the glazed looks.

Luckily, there are a couple of easy ways to fix this. Metaphors, and their simpler cousin, comparisons.


Here’s a great example of a comparison in action, courtesy of the NY Times.


That speculative graphic of the Olympic downhill course at Sochi gives anyone that’s been to Central Park an idea of what the athletes are dealing with. For those that like more data, the Times follows with this graphic:


The Times use the same comparison technique in their slopestyle explainer video, where they show the triple cork 1440, with the narrative, “… he can launch roughly 30ft into the air.”


“…that’s a little like being thrown through the third story window of a townhouse at 30 mph.”

While your subject matter may not be as spectacular, you can make these comparisons work for you in your next business presentation.


The ingredients of a good comparison.

You’re looking at 3 elements to make a good comparison. Think of them as the object, the multiple and the contrast. The object is the big (small) number or abstract concept you’re comparing, the multiple is the factor which makes that comparison and the contrast is the known object you’re comparing to.
A couple of tips to make your comparison work.

  1. Pick a contrast that’s real and makes sense for the quality you’re trying to compare. For instance, if you’re searching to make height real, you might say, “the burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building at 2,717 feet. That’s over 100 times taller than the average house.” Saying that it’s eight thousand times taller than a mouse would sound stupid, because you’re highlighting tall as a quality, and the perception filter is usually personal. To you, a two story house is tall. A mouse is small.
  2. Make the connection to the contrast emotional. It should line up to what you’re going for. For instance, “our website got 50,000 visitors yesterday. That’s enough to fill Yankee Stadium.” A visit to Yankee Stadium is much more visceral than “enough to fill 1,000 buses.”
  3. Make the multiple small. Use 1-3, or 10. Don’t bother when it gets into the 100’s, it get’s difficult to comprehend. At a push use 1000 or 100 times. For instance, “the threat level to our network has ramped up. We now average 7 attacks per day.” That’s easier to understand and remember than the shorter, we had 2,564 discrete attacks on our network last year.”
  4. Pick “real” language over precise. “We hired 5,200 new employees last year, that’s more people than the newco acquisition.” Using the word people is better than employees, is better than the more accurate FTE’s. Similarly, say, “That’s about 3 times…” versus, “ … 3.1 times.”
  5. Never contrast a difficult grok with another. For example explaining the U.S. Debt by using multiples of a billion is useless, given that we can’t really get our heads around a billion, so you have to take it in steps. It’s similarly difficult when you get to Exabytes and Yottabytes.

Your turn. Have you seen really good examples of comparisons that make it real? Try it. Throw in a couple of good comparisons for your next presentation. Dr. Evil will thank you.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Rob Biesenbach (@RobBiesenbach) | February 13, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    I noticed that NYT feature, too, and thought it was really smart. Overlaying big objects on a familiar map is really helpful. There’s a website that does this: howbigreallycom.

    Acres are my pet peeve. When the news tells me 50,000 acres of forest have burned, I have no idea how much that is. But tell me that’s an area the size of Chicago (or whatever it is), then I understand.

    • Gavin | February 13, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks Rob. The list of units of measure I can relate to is much much shorter than the vague and fuzzy ones. Acres, Amps, Pascals, Views, Tonnes … the list goes on.

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