Put numbers into context

Last night I heard a speaker reference a familiar number from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell claims that it takes 10,000 hours of study or practice to become truly accomplished or expert in a given field. Like most people, this speaker just cited the number and left it at that.

It is hard to appreciate the impact of a number – especially a large number – unless it is put into a context that we can understand. Ten thousand hours sounds like a lot, but we can’t be sure. An hour on the dance floor with a new love seems to fly by, while an hour in the doctor’s waiting room seems interminable. So what does 10,000 hours mean?

Well, if you work forty hours a week and take only two weeks vacation, you put in two thousand hours a year. So 10,000 hours is the equivalent of working full-time for five years. If you’re hoping to become a world class violinist or ice skater you probably don’t practice forty hours a week. Having put our 10,000 hours into this context, we begin to appreciate the magnitude of the number.

If you wish to persuade, don’t just throw numbers or statistics at your audience. Think about the numbers, the various ways you can express them, and the effect you are seeking. Then choose the way of expressing the number that has the greatest impact from your perspective. Put the number into a context that is meaningful to your audience.

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