Human scale in pennies

We use numbers all the time. Think about it – we throw around statistics to prove the value of our products and percentages to show budget savings. We even go on and on about calories in restaurant menus.

The thing is, humans have a problem with numbers that are outside of our real life context. For example, take a million vs. a billion. You know that a billion is a lot more than a million, but do you truly grasp what that means? Most of us don’t.

As explained in Made to Stick, numbers need to be human scale in order to stick with our listeners. If they stick, the listeners will have an emotional response, and are much more likely to change their behavior (read: choose your product, pass your initiative, choose salad over burger, etc.). Yes, numbers need make people feel something!

Human scale is about taking a number and making a comparison to something in our every day context. Below is a great video by @PoliticalMath, which explains a past budget cut by using pennies. (Politics is not the point – we’re looking at their use of scale).

We’ve all held pennies, and when the penny was cut in to fourths, it made $100M understandable in comparison to the rest. Wow.. that’s a small amount. We’re surprised! It’s an emotional response.

In a sales and marketing situation, let’s say you need to sell compact fluorescent light bulbs that last 7 years. A product like that should sell itself, right? Seven years may seem human scale already, but you can make it even more so. “You’ll change this light bulb when you get home from the hospital with your baby daughter, and not change it again until she’s in the third grade.” “Put the bulb in and you’ll never change it again. Average Americans move homes sooner than it’ll burn out.” “This light bulb lasts longer than the average marriage!”

So what about your numbers? Where could you use human scale? Comment with your ideas or areas where you need help, and  I’m happy to respond with some examples.

Click here for a video by Dan Heath if you want some inspiration.

8 comments on “Human scale in pennies

  1. Hi Ben,

    There’s a new website from the Australian Bureau of Statistics relating to the census here later this year. It asks you some questions and then dynamically generates human-scale numbers from your answers.

    Pretend you’re an Aussie for 10 minutes and give it a go!

  2. Hi Ben, I remember hearing a great example of this where someone was demonstrating the number of nuclear weapons by dropping ball bearings. Apparently the original idea came from a chemist called Niels Schonbeck. I can’t remember where I heard the first version, but by the power of google I found another version on you tube:

    Interesting to note that the original version I heard was just audio, which I think was even more powerful at getting the point across as there was nothing to distract from the noise of the falling ball bearings which seemed to go on for a very long time….

  3. Richard & Fred – thanks for your posts. Really does make you think, and hopefully start thinking differently.

    James – you bring up a valid point, I assume sarcastically – about how some companies and people ‘choose’ to not put in human scale so it gets missed. Most of our communicating, we don’t want our audience to miss it – yet they are! That’s why our hope is that those that read this blog start wanting to influence rather than inform, and to do so we need to put our data into human scale statistics so we all get it. We appreciate all your comments, keep it up!

  4. WOW! I “see” what Dan is talking about.

    A visual like that really helps the audience GET IT!, doesn’t it!

    Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers talks about practicing 10,000 hours to become an “Expert.” That’s over 416 days straight practice 24/7, or, if you only practiced 8 hours a day (like a regular job, but with no breaks) it would be 1250 days, over 3 years.

    Any suggestions for a visual?


  5. It is often not in peoples interests to put numbers on a human scale.

    In the UK the chief executive of a local council may well be paid £100’s of thousands. This seams like a big number and results in large amounts of political rhetoric and point scoring. The general public are unable to comprehend that this is actually a vanishingly small proportion of the total budget that the chief executive manages.

    Why would you let the truth (human scale) get in the way of a good story?

  6. Jakki – I love it! And congratulations on the result. It can seem so challenging to get that emotional response, and yet look at what an easy approach you took and got the result. Hope your example is inspiring to others. Keep up the good work.

  7. Hi Ben,

    I used the “human scale” strategy while illustrating the impact our MDM technology had on one of our customers during a presentation.

    Before they began working with Informatica, the largest wealth management firm in the world tracked the time their financial advisors (read revenue generators) spent engaging with customers. The number was 30%.

    I knew this number wouldn’t elicit the reaction I was after. So I used the human scale tip that I learned from Decker. I drew a clock on a flip chart. I explained that on average these FAs worked a 10 hour day. This meant 7 hours of their day was spent searching for and reconciling data (which I shaded on the clock), which left only 3 hours to engage with customers.

    That illustration elicited the reaction I was after and helped the group understand the need for our master data management (MDM) solution, which reconciles inconsistent and duplicate customer data so that the revenue generators in their companies don’t have to waste their time on this task, freeing them up to engage with customers.

    Best, Jakki