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How to Present Data to People Who Are Scared of Numbers

How to Present Data to People Who Are Scared of Numbers

Do you suffer from arithmophobia? As you might be able to guess, it’s an irrational fear of numbers.

I often get the feeling that some people at work love numbers: They love spreadsheets, metrics, and management ratios. But there is another (often considerably larger) group of people that doesn’t like numbers. These people don’t like working with them, don’t like discussing them and, in some cases, actually suffer from a phobia related to dealing with them.

Interestingly, this anxiety doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s ability to do math. It’s about having to deal with numbers in public. Sometimes even calculating the gratuity or splitting a restaurant bill can be enough to send people with math anxiety into a panic. Even people with higher-level degrees in mathematics can be numbers phobic when it comes to calculating sums – or even remembering a pin number or building code – in public.

And the problem is more common than you might think. One study found that six out of 10 university students suffered from diagnosable math anxiety.

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And while you are not likely to face an algebra pop quiz once you have left school, a phobia related to numbers persists and can be a major problem in the workplace if management information is circulated in spreadsheets full of numbers.

A phobia related to numbers is an extreme circumstance, of course. But you are likely to encounter in the work environment a good number of people who simply don’t like working with numbers, don’t absorb information presented in numeric form particularly well, or simply learn better another way.

What do you do, then, if you have to present data compiled in spreadsheets to an audience that doesn’t like, or even fears, working with numbers?

Become better at visualizations.

5 Ways to Improve your Visualizations

There are some tools and strategies that can help you create better visualizations and help everyone in your audience – arithmophobes or not – understand the data.

  1. Use benchmarks.  Instead of just laying out the numbers, consider including a benchmark, like percent change, so that people can easily see the difference between two large numbers.
  2. Use color. Color can pass along a message more easily than numbers in some cases. For example, if you use red for a negative percent change and green for a positive percent change, viewers will be able to quickly and easily see the difference.
  3. Use pictures or metaphors. Simple graphics like smiling or frowning faces, pluses and minuses, check marks, or even weather images (sunny, cloudy, stormy) can convey positive and negative change and help the audience relate to the numbers.
  4. Use motion or animation. If you are working in a format (like a digital presentation) that allows animation, it can be a wonderful tool for demonstrating change over time. Don’t get caught up in animation just because it looks cool, though; make sure you are using it appropriately to convey a message.
  5. Use words and word clouds. If you can easily explain the meaning of a set of numbers in words, do so. You never know how your audience will best receive information. Word clouds are also a wonderful way of visualizing certain kinds of data.
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