By Anna Faherty
For non-accountants like me, getting your head around large numbers can be a challenge. Talk about a few pounds and I relate the cost to a pint or two of beer; mention a few hundred or thousand pounds and I think of furniture, holidays or cars; bring up millions, billions or even trillions and I quickly lose perspective. So what can you do to help your colleagues and clients grasp the relevance of numbers on this scale?
Making numbers – or any remotely technical issues – accessible to non-specialists is all about linking them to subjects and situations relevant to your audience. Unfortunately, most normal people don’t spend hundreds of thousands of pounds or more very regularly. But, as Benjamin Franklin once famously confirmed, one thing we all do is pay tax. And tax was the surprising way in which the coalition government Chancellor, George Osborne, brought big numbers to life in his June 2010 budget speech.
Referring to individual families who receive £104,000 a year in housing benefit, Mr Osborne equated this amount to "the total income tax and national insurance paid by 16 working people on median incomes”. Brilliant. Personally, I’d have avoided the word ‘median’ but even so he got his message across: a gang of 16 people had to work their socks off paying tax into the coffers of the HMRC, only for it all to be handed over to just one single family as a benefit. If that’s not a striking way to communicate with the man or woman in the street, I’ll eat my tax return.
What George didn’t say, of course, was that his own – no doubt hard-earned – salary is equivalent to at least 20 of these ‘taxpayer years’. He also missed the opportunity, taken up instead by the Evening Standard, to highlight the inefficiency of Lord Mandelson’s £300 million car scrappage scheme in the last government by likening it to the tax bills for almost 50,000 working people.
I’ve no idea if taxpayer years will catch on as a common way of measuring the cost and value of public sector activities, but they’re certainly an interesting way to bring abstract big numbers to life. So go on, you know you want to, divide your earnings by £6,500 and work out how much you’re worth. And if you want to learn more about communicating specialist financial information to non-specialists check out my Communicating Complex Ideas course – it’s all about tailoring your message to your audience, just like George did.