SD #02: How Much Bigger is 1 Billion vs. 1 Million?

businessstorytelling businesswriting communication content context data datastorytelling Jun 30, 2022
The image is of cash used in a blogpost about the difference between 1 million and 1 billion.

This week's storytelling tip focuses on the power of context when writing about data. We're often so passionate about we do and we're so used to communicating in our own lingo that we miss opportunities to reach a larger audience.

Why is it important to have your numbers make sense to a larger audience? What if you are pitching, raising awareness, or fundraising? You need to reach your audience, so that what you are sharing is relatable and your target audience is inspired to respond.

But how do you put facts and figures into a story? You have to put things into context. Paint a picture in your audience's mind, so that they can relate to what you are saying.

Here is a great example from the book, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers:

"Consider this thought experiment designed to help people understand the difference between “a million” and “a billion.” You and a friend each enter a lottery with several large prizes. But there’s a catch: If you win, you must spend $50,000 of your prize money each day until it runs out. You win a million dollars. Your friend wins a billion. How long does it take each of you to spend your lottery windfall?

As a millionaire, your encounter with runaway consumerism is surprisingly short. You go bust after a mere 20 days. If you win on Thanksgiving, you’re out of money more than a week before Christmas. (Sorry, Cousin Ana, the lottery money ran out before we bought your present, but we did get you the Orange Crush umbrella!)

For your billionaire friend, resources would hold out a tad longer. He or she would have a full-time job spending $50,000 a day for… 55 years. Approximately two generations. Almost 14 presidential terms. One wait to hear your name called at the DMV. 1 billion—1,000,000,000—is a number. We might think we understand it because it’s right there, in black and white, but it has so many zeros that our brains fog up. It’s just “lots.” When we see how much larger it is than a million, it comes as a surprise."

Source: Heath, Chip; Starr, Karla. Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers (pp. XI-XII). Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

The next time you're sharing numbers, remember to provide context to your audience.


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