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Communicating with Numbers

Ep. 171 – Warren Buffett once famously said, ‘If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark – nothing happens.’

This humorous analogy holds a valuable lesson, especially when it comes to numbers.
No matter what industry you are in, chances are high that at some point in your career you will have to convey complex information through numbers.
While not everyone is naturally adept at this, the good news is that effective communication with numbers is a skill that can be developed with a little practice. In this episode, I’ll be sharing some key tips on how to improve your communication when it comes to sharing numerical information.

Episode 171 Transcript:

Ramona Shaw [00:00:00]:

This is episode 171 of the Manager Track Podcast, and we’re going to talk about how to communicate using numbers. Here’s the question how do you successfully transition into your first official leadership role, build the confidence and competence to lead your team successfully and establish yourself as a respected and trusted leader across the organization? That’s the question and this show provides the answers. Welcome to the Manager Track Podcast. I’m your host Ramona Shaw, and I’m on a mission to create workplaces where work is not seen as a source of stress and dread, but as a source of contribution, connection and fulfillment. And this transition starts with developing a new generation of leaders who know how to lead so everyone wins and grows. In the show, you’ll learn how to think, communicate and act as the confident and competent leader you know you can be. Welcome to the Manager Track Podcast. I am thrilled that you’re interested in learning how to communicate better with numbers.

Ramona Shaw [00:01:00]:

Now, a lot of the people that I work with, a lot of people in my coaching programs are fairly analytical. They often work with numbers day in and day out. They might be engineers, data analysts, data scientists, that might be architects, that might be financial analysts, that might be in the finance and investment or in the accounting space. And yet, despite them being really good using numbers, the skill of communicating with numbers is still something they all have to learn or had to learn at some point in their careers. And if you are moving into a leadership role, you will naturally, whether or not you’re actually dealing with numbers in your profession, you will have to learn the skill of using and leveraging numbers effectively and then putting them into context as you communicate. And now, while we’re going to talk about communicating with numbers in this episode, the topic of developing strong communication skills, something I want to briefly highlight. I love this quote by Nat Turner good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity. Or as Warren Buffett says, if you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential now.

Ramona Shaw [00:02:20]:

Kind of a funnier quote just to complete the picture. He also says, if you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark, nothing happens. You can have all the brain power in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it. So the topic of communication and communication skills is just generally really important. And I think as much as we invest in developing technical skills or professional skills early on in our careers where we learn about whatever we’re doing be this you might learn about products management, you might learn coding, you might learn about marketing, we might learn about architecture. Whatever else your profession or your interest may be, those are things that we invest a great deal of time and energy learning. And then once we develop that expertise and continue to expand it, that actual expertise, the technical expertise, becomes less and less important, relatively speaking, to the leadership skills and the communication skills that you’ll have to develop in order to fulfill your fullest potential and have the impact and influence you likely want to have. Because let’s be honest, otherwise you wouldn’t be listening to a podcast called The Manager Track.

Ramona Shaw [00:03:34]:

So this episode is about one of those aspects. It’s literally just a sliver of what communication skill training would look like and what are some of the things that you want to continuously work on and develop. And even within that sliver, what we can cover on a podcast like this is also just high level information if you feel that this is a topic. Communication skills specifically something that you haven’t paid a lot of attention to. Whether it is in how you communicate and bring a message across, how you might pitch a product or an idea, or how you pitch yourself, or how you communicate with your direct reports, or with more senior leaders, as well as how you might be presenting when you are in a room with people with a lot more experience or seniority levels. Those are all topics that coaches like myself can help you with. And we do this all day, every day, behind the scenes, behind closed doors. So if you ever wonder, does this apply to me? And I don’t think anyone else in my field or in my company is doing this, I challenge you because there’s a very high chance that people are, but you don’t know it because they don’t proclaim, that they don’t shout this from the rooftops.

Ramona Shaw [00:04:47]:

No, they go out and they present well. But the chances are pretty high that they have received training that they’ve practiced, that they may have worked with a coach in order to develop their skills. When I talk to companies or to leaders and I see behind the scenes and I can share some of this information back to the frontline leaders, their jaw drops. They would have never assumed or expected that senior leaders with decade long track records of success still invest that much time in terms of hours and energy and sweat equity into creating and delivering a message that lands. They often think that they’re natural, either just charismatic and natural, or that that is just something that they’ve learned over the years and now it comes really, really easy to them that in most cases now granted, there are some exceptions, but in most cases that is not true. So if you feel like there’s something that you want to do, I highly encourage you to look into options that are available to you if you are interested to find something on your own. If you want to learn more about the work that I do with the leaders that I coach, check out the show notes. There’s always a link down there to schedule a strategy call and touch base.

Ramona Shaw [00:06:02]:

Now, let’s get to the core of this episode because the title is how to Communicate Using Numbers. Now, the first mistake that I see leaders make, or employees, professionals overall, is that they communicate without any numbers. So they would say things such as significant amount or lots of errors or lots of bugs or we’ve got several complaints. So there are just these vague words that aren’t numbers. Right. So that’s the first mistake. If you want to be influential and if you want to make a request or make a case, and other people will see you as someone that they can trust and as someone that is credible, you got to know your numbers. When we say significant, significant, what does that even mean in relative to what? Right? When we say a lot of errors, a lot.

Ramona Shaw [00:06:57]:

In which way, and what is the intensity of that? Put that into context. So speaking of putting these things into context, let’s talk about what do I got here on my notes. I got five suggestions on how to better communicate with numbers. The first one piggybacks off what I just talked about with using numbers in the first place. But you have to put those numbers into context. If I said something such as sales increased by 10%. Now, yes, my boss, if I was in the sales team, my boss was the chief revenue officer, they would probably know whether that 10% is good or bad. But other people in my audience may not know, is 10% increase in sales? Is that good, bad? What drove the increase is it actually could also just be currency rates changing.

Ramona Shaw [00:07:45]:

It could be inflation, and actually our profits stayed the same. What does that mean? So putting it into context, for example, as simple as sales increased by 10%, which is the largest increase in five years now, okay, good. It seems like we’re moving up. This is positive, right? So 10% is the largest in five years. I got some additional context. Now, of course, I may still wonder, well, but what drove the increase in sales? And we may say it has to do with market expansion or the main driver of the increase was market expansion and securing new clients, or securing new clients in addition to an increase in renewal rates from our current clients. That would put this whole thing into a very different perspective than if I just said sales increased by 10%, right? Okay. Sales increased significantly or somewhat better, or sales increased by 10%.

Ramona Shaw [00:08:45]:

So the more context that you add, the more meaningful your number and the more credible and trustworthy you appear as delivering the message. The second one is to use whole numbers and to round where appropriate. So not only do we want to communicate and communicate accurately, we also want our message to be memorable and impactful. So if we say we add decimals, fractions, or percentages, we reduce the likelihood that others will retain that information. So 4.7, for example, is better to be phrased as shy of five. Or instead of saying five out of eleven, you’d want to say one out of two, right? Also not 66%, whatever it might be. Also not 44%, it’s roughly one out of two. Now, there’s only one exception.

Ramona Shaw [00:09:38]:

The exception would be if you’re talking to experts who wouldn’t take the one out of two if it was a five out of eleven. To an expert, that may be a big difference. And in that case, you got to tailor your message to the audience. But if the audience, they’re not experts and they could care less if whether it was five out of eleven or one out of two, go for the simpler version that has a higher chance to be retained. So that was number two. The third one is to make the implication of your number clear. Sometimes we throw out these numbers without explaining why this number is relevant. So answering the question so what is really important going back to the sales increase, so we increased our sales by 10% year over year, which puts us closer to our year end target by 20% and the best case scenario for our year end, which puts us also at 90% of our target goal for year end.

Ramona Shaw [00:10:42]:

So answering this. So what? The fourth one is to use visuals and graphs. Whenever possible, look for ways to demonstrate a trajectory or a trend. Again, this is providing context. Whatever number you’re looking at now, it may be employees or retention rates, it may be expenses, it might be a timeline that you’re looking at what did it look like last year versus this year? What was it for that audience versus another audience? Or for this group of clients versus that whatever you’re trying to compare it to, the more that you can visualize things in graphs and charts, the easier it is for you to simplify what you’re trying to convey that message. And the fifth one is to add reference points that your audience understands. So for example, you can make local comparisons that you could say there are 252 restaurants in this city and if you look at our market reach, we’re in communication with 112 out of the 252. So you make a reference to anything that’s local.

Ramona Shaw [00:11:53]:

You could also make references to the company culture or other cultural events that the company is already familiar with and it’s part of the company language. You could also make reference to other projects. For example, compare it to a project that happened a few years ago or a project that’s currently happening in a different part of this business. Again, to put your number into perspective and to add more meaning to that number that you’re communicating, the last one is to use a reference point to make something more graspable. So for example, if you’re using big numbers, or lots of miles or millions of dollars. Sometimes breaking it down into it costs you a cup of coffee a day, right? That’s why newspaper subscriptions will say it’s less than a cup of Starbucks a day. It’s because it helps us put the number into connection with something that we’re familiar with, something that we can graph, but we know exactly how much a cup of Starbucks will cost us every day. And then that makes it easy for me to remember.

Ramona Shaw [00:12:56]:

Another example that I heard that I thought was really good was to say that actual drinking from all the water on this planet, actual drinking water is like 0.2%. But to make that more graspable, you could say if there was a gallon of water in front of you, the part of that gallon that we could drink would be at the last few drops in that bucket that holds a gallon of water. So these are for different ways to add reference points. Now, let me quickly recap. First, use numbers. That’s the big one. When you do new use numbers, keep these five things in mind. One, put the numbers in context so the 10% increase alone not as meaningful as when you add more information to it.

Ramona Shaw [00:13:37]:

Two, use whole numbers, or round them where appropriate. Three, make the implications clear the so what. Four, use visuals, such as charts and graphs, or tables even. And then five, make reference points to add more color to what you’re doing. It could be local comparisons, company culture, or other cultural comparisons. It could be other projects internally, or other work related data points that you could use or to make something big more graspable. I hope this was helpful. As I was saying in the beginning, this is tiny sliver of what the topic of communication skills entails, and even talking about communicating with numbers, which is scratching the surface here, yet it’s important.

Ramona Shaw [00:14:19]:

I hope you found this valuable. And if you notice that you haven’t invested in your communication skills in a long time, then I highly encourage you to make a plan and to look at options that would work well for you and be a fit. For what is needed in your role and maybe even check in with some of your peers on what they’re doing or with your manager on what they suggest. Thanks so much for tuning in. I’ll be back with another episode of the Manager Track podcast next week. Bye for now. If you enjoyed this episode, then check out two other awesome resources to help you become a leader people love to work with. This includes my best selling book, The Confident and Competent New Manager, which you can find on Amazon or @ramonashaw.com Book, and a free training on how to successfully lead as a new manager.

Ramona Shaw [00:15:07]:

You can check it out @ramonashaw.com, masterclass these resources and a couple more you’ll find in the show notes down below.

Discussion Questions:

1. How do you think communication with numbers differs from other forms of communication?
2. What strategies or techniques do you use to effectively communicate numerical information to your colleagues or team members?
3. What steps could you take to invest in and improve your own communication skills, specifically when it comes to using numbers effectively?
4. How do you typically provide context and answer the question “so what” when presenting numerical data? Can you think of any examples where this was particularly effective?
5. How can you incorporate familiar references or comparison points, such as the cost of a cup of coffee, when communicating numbers? Can you think of any other creative reference points that might resonate with your audience?


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00:01:00 Analytical professionals need to learn communication skills.
00:04:47 Training and practice make leaders successful.
00:09:38 Simplify numbers for non-experts, clarify relevance.
00:11:53 References, comparisons, and relatable examples make communication easier.
00:14:19 Invest in communication skills, seek advice.

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