Make the numbers make sense

Long before Dick Cheney became famous as the hawkish architect of the Iraq War, he first rose to prominence by putting free market thinking at the heart of the Reagan administration’s economic policy.

It began one day when he was having lunch with an economist named Arthur Laffer, who had an idea about tax that he was keen to promote.

Laffer’s idea was that, beyond a certain point, hiking tax levels is counter-productive, because it prompts people to work less hard and look for ways to avoid paying tax. Whereas lowering taxes encourages people to be more productive and compliant, which means you raise more tax revenue in the long term.

This was not a new idea (Laffer borrowed it from a 14th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun), but it was very much contrary to the prevailing thinking at the time and he wasn’t having much luck getting his point across.

Cheney shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I don’t get it. How can you get more money if you charge people less tax?’

Frustrated, Laffer grabbed a napkin and scribbled this sketch on it.

make the numbers make sense

All at once, the penny dropped. Cheney picked up the sketch and used it to reformulate the Republicans’ economic strategy for the next election (which they won by a landslide).

That was the moment when Reaganomics was born, along with all the dreadful yuppy nonsense that went with it.

But let’s ignore the junk bonds, shoulder pads and big hair.

The point is that, if you want people to engage with data, you have to bring it to life – and the best way to do that is with a picture. Which is why infographics have become so popular in recent years.

Apart from anything else, the process of turning complex numerical data into a single image forces you to be simple. It makes you think about the information in the way your audience might think about it. It forces you to delve into the mountain of data and pull out the one key point or pattern that explains exactly why it matters. And it allows you to express it in a way that your audience is likely to grasp.

Because the really important thing to remember about numbers is that they don’t matter. What matters is what the numbers mean.

 

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