photo of Karla Starr with books

Karla Starr is a columnist for Medium and write the newsletter The Starr Report on Substack. She has appeared on NPR and CBS Sunday Morning and has written for The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and The Guardian. She won an award for the Best Science/Health story from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Karla’s first book, Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others, was named a Fast Company best book of the year. She wrote book #2, Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, with Chip Heath (SwitchMade to Stick). So far, Making Numbers Count is a hit with The Wall Street JournalKirkus ReviewsAdam GrantNPR, and the Next Big Idea Club. When Karla is not working, she enjoys cooking, teaching herself graphic design, reading actual books (here’s a list of her favorites), and taking long walks with her dog Daisy. Plus reading random things online and binge-watching TV.

Episode Notes

Karla’s Website
Karla on Twitter
Making Numbers Count
Made to Stick
Jon Schwabish talking about Goofy Comparisons

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, I’m very happy to have author Karla Starr, coauthor with Chip Heath of the new book Making Numbers Count. This is a topic that’s sort of near and dear to my heart because especially for working in the federal government for a long time, how do we effectively communicate large numbers, do you have any idea what $27.5 trillion means, do you have any idea even if I compare that to stacking Empire State Buildings on top of each other that they would go from here to the moon and back – I don’t know if those comparisons are correct, by the way. But are those even relatable, does that even help you? I don’t think so. And Karla and Chip have written this great book, it’s a really nice, short, easy read, I really highly recommend it, about making these better comparisons, and how we can all do so, and we talk in the interview about doing this kind of verbally within our writing, but we also talk a little bit about how we can apply it to our data visualizations, which is not a focal point of the book, but, of course, for listeners of this show is particularly important. So I’m going to head off and let you listen to this interview with Karla Starr, coauthor of the new book Making Numbers Count, I hope you’ll enjoy it. 

Jon Schwabish: Hi Karla. Welcome to the show. Great to see you. 

Karla Starr: Thank you so much for having me, Jon, great to be here. 

JS: I’m very excited to chat with you. New book, Making Numbers Count, you and Chip Heath, you got your name right there. Oh look at that, right on [inaudible 00:01:46] our copies of the book right on the bottom. It’s got a nice big ruler on it, yeah, I love it. I mean, I think you have hit on a huge problem/challenge, I don’t know if it’s problem, but huge challenge in data [inaudible 00:02:02]. So maybe you can give folks a quick synopsis, but more, what I’m interested in, for folks who haven’t heard about it or read it, you can maybe give a quick synopsis, but what I’m interested in is why did you come to this, why was this the book that you wanted to write, what was the motivating factor behind it. 

KS: Well, Chip and I had been discussing books to write together for a while, and we’ve gone through a bunch of different topics, and then he told me that for his class [inaudible 00:02:36] made me sick, they were talking about the importance of not using numbers for a while. And then during some year [inaudible 00:02:44] and he’s teaching it, some person who [inaudible 00:02:46] in his class, I was also his [inaudible 00:02:51] he said, I can’t not use numbers, numbers’ not my world. So he started developing this little module with the class on how they could use numbers within the [inaudible 00:03:00] district framework. And so, that was the inspiration or the basis for the idea. And so, when I started doing research and started doing all this really fascinating research about numbers and communication, and we hit upon the idea that numbers are a foreign language, they’re everybody’s second language at best, and I think a lot of times people might think that they are very bad at math, or they are bad at numbers, and they’re just not a numbers person, but really, no one is a numbers person. Our brain evolved to deal with physical, concrete things that are right in front of our face, not with the abstract 5% or 1 trillion. So, because of that, you can’t talk about numbers in a way that people understand them, but you need to really understand how to translate them, and that’s why I wrote the book. 

JS: Yeah. So can you give me an example, like, just a quick example, to sort of set the stage for folks, like, give me an example of making that trillion dollars or five, whatever the debt is now, trillions of trillions of dollars making it more understandable and relatable? 

KS: Yeah, so the example in the book is the US national debt is $27 trillion, I think now it’s higher. 

JS: Yeah. Pre-COVID versus post-COVID, right? Yeah.

KS: Oh man, I know, well, that’s the thing, this book was out of date the second it was printed. So $27 trillion, per person, that’s $82,000. So if you just think about every single person, you see $82,000, $82,000, that’s a lot of money, obviously. So that’s one of the examples that we use in the book, or, it’s just, I mean, our brains can’t process $27 trillion, so I just, I do want to say that I think my favorite [inaudible 00:04:54] in the book is one that I actually remember from TV, from when I was a kid, it was Earth Day, and I was watching some special online, not online, there’s no internet when I was studying. 

JS: Yeah. 

KS: There’s no online. 

JS: No online, yeah. Somebody would listen to is like what do you mean there’s no online, yeah, there’s no online, yeah. 

KS: [inaudible 00:05:20]. So the statistic was 97.5% of the earth water is salinated, and of that 2.5% that is freshwater, most of it is dirty or trapped in glaciers or underground, meaning that only 0.01% of that is available for our consumption. So our translation for that, and this is what was shown on TV on Earth Day when I was a kid, and I still remember very clearly, there’s a woman holding a gallon jug of water, and she said, if you took all the earth water and put it into this gallon jug, humans would only be able to drink that last drop. 

JS: Wow. Yeah. So yeah, I mean, and the fact that it’s stuck in your head, like, I mean, that’s kind of the whole point. But do you, to the debt one, because the debt one, having spent a lot of time in government, the debt one strikes me as very, a challenge I always had, boil it down to per person, do we lose the sense of the magnitude, does the magnitude, like, is it just so big that it doesn’t really matter in the first place? It’s like kind of looking at the Grand Canyon, and you’re like, I can’t fathom that, so it doesn’t really matter. 

KS: Right. It’s like you’re looking, you know, last night, I was looking at stars, it was just a beautiful, clear night, and I was like, that is very far away.

JS: Right. 

KS: It’s like, okay, yeah, like, [inaudible 00:06:47] 

JS: Yeah.

KS: I think [inaudible 00:06:49] and actually, one of the things that I wanted to put in the book was a little example of US budget or at least the debt, but put it into smaller terms, we have this framework at the end about making scale models a thing that I really, really like, and I think that that really seems to resonate with people. If you take the same numbers, but you just chop off a few zeros, and then you can talk about maybe in terms of a family’s income and their expenditures, a family’s budget, and then you’d get a sense of, oh, this is how much we are spending per person, this is how unsustainable our spending practices are, you know, we’re spending… So we actually were kind of working with a little example, like that [inaudible 00:07:30] okay, so if the US government was a family, they would spend about half of their income on a security system. 

JS: Yeah, right. So then what about this connection or trade-off between accuracy and the more effective communication, like, if something is $1.85 trillion, sometimes that 0.85 is really important. If we said it’s about two or if it’s $80,000 per person, or whatever it is, we sort of lose that accuracy. So how do you think about that trade off? 

KS: Right, so there’s this [inaudible 00:08:06] called user friendly numbers, that would be saying $2 trillion would sit with people and resonate with people, people will just understand that a lot better than 1.85 trillion. If you think about like your brains having to store one unit of information versus three units of information, I think, it really just comes down to know your audience so much, because I do find that people, a lot of times when they’re talking within their industry or within their discipline, like, I’ve been talking with all the financial advisors lately, and they’re so used to using compound interest, and interest rates, and all of these different things, and so, they can talk to each other, but it’s just fine. The problem is when they try to talk to a client or potential clients, and then they forget about the fact that for the client, user friendly has a much different definition than to accommodate, and their framework was much different. So I do think a lot of this does depend on know your audience, what would be friendly to that particular user. And then, also, I think, to your point about sometimes if you’re in the government, you have to use 1.85 trillion, instead of 2 trillion, I guess, I would push back with why, you know, why it’s so important, is it because everybody in the audience would know that you’re rounding, and then, they would begin to doubt the [inaudible 00:09:28] the truthfulness of your data, or do they think that you’re trying to advance some sort of agenda by rounding something. 

JS: Yeah-no, I think that’s right, and like you said, it depends on who you’re trying to communicate with, your audience. So the financial advisor example is really interesting. So when you talk to folks in, say, the financial industry, and you talk about these comparisons, and you talk about the – because you mentioned, like, the other words, like, compound interest. I wonder, as people you’re talking to and working with, you get them to start thinking about phrasing numbers in a different way. Do they also start thinking about just the other words that they use – like, for example, I can imagine someone saying 1.25% compound interest, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and both of those things might be really difficult for a non-specialist to understand. So do you find as people start to make the numbers more relatable, they also start thinking about just the other words that they use and how they communicate? 

KS: I do think that using other words, sort of, naturally follows, if you think about the numbers a little differently. So, for example, with the financial planners, I used the example recently, I was considering having the floors redone in my home, then I [inaudible 00:10:52] and so, I had people come in and give estimates, it was like $8000. So I was thinking $8000, okay, from the financial planner’s standpoint, they’d say, okay, so what would that look like, that would look like, in a few decades, or however many years, it’d be $20,000; or put another way, so the savings goal that I have, I would be able to reach my savings goal maybe eight months faster. If I didn’t have my hardwood floors done, so then, now I am [inaudible 00:11:23] data time. Right? So now, that’s my unit of currency, so now, I’m thinking about my hardwood floors, and that’s eight months away, and it has nothing to do with compound interest. However, if you take the $8000, and you put it in a bank account, well, compound interest, blah, blah, blah. So you don’t really even have to talk about that, all the specific things, because now I’m just talking about time, and I’m just talking about how much work I would have to do in order to save the floors or what I would be using, but the tradeoff would be for the floors. 

JS: Right, yeah. So it’s just really sort of re-couching or restating or reframing – it’s really reframing it. 

KS: Exactly. You’re reframing it in a common vocabulary, so that you don’t even really have to talk about all the nitty-gritty specifics about compound interest. And I find too that it’s one of those things where people, I think we’re all slightly scarred from some math class or some math lesson [inaudible 00:12:19] we want to admit it. So I think sometimes you just say the word interested, like, oh, but if you talk about in terms of time or a tradeoff or any other kind of a unit of measurement that just feels more natural and they were more [inaudible 00:12:34] say, like, oh, you can get the harder floors or you wouldn’t be able to go on vacation, for how many years. Now, we’re talking about a currency that is very important and near and dear to my mental health. 

JS: Right. But then there’s that added piece, I mean, I guess, it’s separate from the numbers, but the added piece of – I’m just looking at my scratched up floors – the utility of having those floors look better for the next X number of years, like, I have to retire eight months later, but I have the floors looking nicer for at least part of that time until someone scratches it. Right? 

KS: Exactly. Yeah, so there’s always a tradeoff. There was one example, again, we’re working with [inaudible 00:13:17] on the book, and so, when I moved here, a year and a half ago from New York, so my furniture, now I’m in Portland, Oregon, now I actually have a little bit of living space, which I did not have before [inaudible 00:13:30]. I was thinking, like, all of these things, like, what’s the trade off, like, should I buy the nice couch, or should I buy [inaudible 00:13:38] couch, and I was, I want this – I think that some of these things really, you can’t quantify exactly, because what is the tradeoff, right? If I bought the crappy couch, okay, so maybe I would reach my savings goal a little bit sooner. However, I wouldn’t really like my living room as much. I wouldn’t be as comfortable for the next few decades, and that’s too important to me, like, how can you put a price tag on that? 

JS: Yeah, no, that’s right. It’s consumption, investment, and all these things are sort of, they’re often mixed together, but I think to the core point of the book, it’s about communicating those numbers. And there’s not a lot about the data visualization part in the book, which is what a lot of listeners of this podcast are primarily interested in, but I would suspect that if, and I’m not going to, but if I were to give you a million dollars to write the Make Numbers Count visual book, the follow-up… 

KS: [inaudible 00:14:32] 

JS: Well, so much for those new floors, let me tell you. But if you were to write the DataViz version of this book, I would assume that the lessons would be basically the same, right, that when you make the bar chart of national debt, you still turn it into per capita numbers, or you stretch it out over time and still make those comparisons. Right?

KS: Yeah, 100%. I think one of the basic lessons in here, like, this assessment is a book about communication, and where are [inaudible 00:15:07] show don’t tell. So I think if there’s one takeaway from this book, it would be show don’t tell was [inaudible 00:15:16] your numbers in something that’s concrete, something that’s tangible, something that we don’t have to think about, something that we just immediately grok, and I think it’s the same thing with visualization. Because obviously, it’s possible. 

JS: Yeah. There is a really interesting part, and it’s kind of halfway through the book, where you talk about a comparison where you’re comparing the population of one city to multiple cities, and in that section, you talk about large cities in China, which probably most people in the United States, including myself, like, I’m looking at my little notes here, because I don’t know those cities, but large cities compared to cities in China – and so, I guess the question is how do you think and how do you talk about knowing your audience in their society, their culture, their community, their country is for this whole discussion? 

KS: Right. So I like to think of it in terms of what I call the MacGyver Principle. So what did MacGyver do whenever he was trying to solve something? He would just look around him, and he would just use whatever tools were available to him. I think when you’re trying to figure out what would resonate well with your audience, it’s the same principle that you’re using whatever geographical references would resonate with them. You’re using – so there’s a section in here about the social distancing measures and how jurisdictions around the world reference those. So I think, you know, California, some of the public health announcements were, once [inaudible 00:16:49] in France, it was like [inaudible 00:16:52]. 

JS: I don’t know how [inaudible 00:17:01] okay, yeah, I got the point, yeah. 

KS: So I think, if you’re, right, so you could use whatever cities that your audience will be familiar with, and I think that if you start [inaudible 00:17:14] and it’s like, I don’t know, I have no idea how big those cities are in China, I know that China is big, kind of, like the Grand Canyon, or it’s just very big. I do remember hearing those statistics about how many cities in China have more than a million people, and I was like that’s a lot. That’s really all I know. And I feel like an idiot because like, I know Beijing, I know Shanghai, I know nothing about China. 

JS: Right. No, it’s really – no, it’s just an interesting kind of cultural observation, that we sort of know our own experience, and you’ve already talked about it in lots of different ways, but like, our own experience includes where we’ve grown up and where we’re currently living, and those comparisons. And they don’t necessarily translate globally. I would guess the same is true for units of measurement, you know, meter versus yard, of course, we’re the only ones who do that. 

KS: Right, which, again, is my [inaudible 00:18:14] I think, because it’s yard, or, you know, when I wrote the book with Chip, I was in New York, and he was in the Bay Area. We would also talk about ice, so we tried to think of, okay, if you had to play a household [inaudible 00:18:27] that would be like if a person was a [inaudible 00:18:31] and the three-story building a one-story building, or if a person was I think as tall as paperclip, that it’ll be a three-story building, and I was thinking like, oh, that makes sense to me, because I’m in New York, there’s plenty. But, for him, he was in the suburbs, who was like, one-story building. Yeah, so they were going back and forth, well, this makes sense to these people, this doesn’t makes sense to these people. So even just that might be something that is much more intuitive to an audience, and I think that is, again, one of the reasons why time works so well, because time is universal, and I think even $1000 would mean something completely different from, say, a neurosurgeon in a major city to, say, a single mother with kids in Oklahoma, $1000 [inaudible 00:19:16] completely different about five minutes. 

JS: Right. It’s also the comparison that I think a lot of us have seen a lot that I never found useful is like, oh, if you put the dollars in the debt, the physical dollars, like, laid them out, it would go from here to the moon and back, and I’m always like, well… 

KS: Exactly, but how many times we say, oh my gosh, honey, I’m so sorry, I did this, but when I was out buying groceries, or there happened to be a sale at a sporting store next door, so I went in, and I spent two inches worth of dollar bills. 

JS: Right. Like, what? Yeah. 

KS: Well, yeah, do whatever with that. 

JS: Yeah, I mean… 

KS: That’s an example of something that happens all the time in governments, and policies, people try to wow us with, oh, this seems really big. Right? Or, oh, it’s three Empire State Buildings’ tall, or, oh, if you took [inaudible 00:20:14] and you turned into pennies, those pennies would be as much as half of the moon or something. And I’m like, I have no idea what any of those numbers mean. [inaudible 00:20:25] it’s like, we’re really just trying to wow people with quantity, but there’s no [inaudible 00:20:33] we have absolutely no idea what that means. It’s just completely abstract. And I think people actually get away with using those kind of sappy examples, because a lot of people have this narrative that they’re playing, like, I’m not a numbers person, I’m not a numbers person, I don’t know what this means. So therefore, that must be impressive, and I don’t want to say anything, because I don’t want to sound like an idiot. Really, the [inaudible 00:20:55] should be I’m a person who’s doing the communicating, and who could make that not just wow, but wow, and I understand that. 

JS: Yeah. It seems like the underlying theme is putting everything in personal terms for your audience. 

KS: [inaudible 00:21:12] 

JS: Yeah, depending on who that audience is. Right? 

KS: Yeah, or just kind of looking at what their typical frames of reference are, yeah, exactly, what kind of measurements we use on a daily basis, or, what kinds of items we use on a daily basis, which I think is like, counter intuitively, maybe being small and boring can actually make them very impressive, counter intuitively. So, say, if you want to talk about how small percentage of something was, you could say, hey, this pen, say, this entire pen was our budget, the amount that I’m spending is only one line. Right? 

JS: Right. 

KS: And [inaudible 00:21:51] so that we can say that as a percentage of like, we have this example here, like, the National Endowment for the Arts, and if you try to balance the budget by taking away that NEA funding, say, $150 million, like, that actually sounds like a lot, but in terms of percentages, it’s not. So if you tried to balance the budget by removing NDA funding, it’s the equivalent of trying to edit I think a 60,000-word novel by moving forward. 

JS: Right. No, I would just say it’s kind of like, in some ways, that approach is almost the opposite of Wowism, right? I like this term Wowism, it’s kind of the opposite of that, it’s saying, okay, if a human was the size to what you sort of were playing around with earlier, if a human was the size of a paperclip, then this building would be the size of blah, blah, blah. And same thing here, right, it’s, if you’re editing a book, everybody sort of can think of a novel, it’s about editing foreword. So it’s like, it seems like it’s just boiling everything down to the something, yeah, it’s the opposite of Wowism, which, I don’t know what that word would be, but yeah.

KS: Human scale.

JS: Human scale, but doesn’t have the same ring as Wowism. 

KS: I know. Right. 

JS: [inaudible 00:23:06] it does, yeah. 

KS: Yeah. So I think that it is very counterintuitive, but you actually get more of a, oh wow, reaction when you shrink them down. Because, again, our brains evolved to deal with concrete things that are right in front of our face, like, probably the first sentence ever said was, yeah, oh shit, there’s a fire. 

JS: Right, it is, yeah.

KS: Exactly. We have to do something about this right now, not, oh, in that field over there, there are [inaudible 00:23:40] we have to think about those, like, [inaudible 00:23:45] the immediate, emotional, tangible reaction that we want. So I think it is people constantly try to handle these [inaudible 00:23:53] numbers, they are not even taking them away, because the [inaudible 00:23:56] once you reach the certain threshold, it’s just you’re not going to get their reaction, you’re not going to have people understand the ratio that you want to talk about. 

JS: Yeah. Well, very good, it’s a really fun book. I’ll also say, like, it was a really nice, easy read, you guys are good writers. So that’s another reason for people to pick it up, like, just you get to it. I wanted to just ask one more question on where people can find you, and where they could learn more about, because, I’m guessing, there are lots of people who are like, well, I don’t work in the federal budget, but I work in my company, and we are serving tens of thousands of people with our product or service but we have the same fundamental problem. 

KS: Yeah, so you can find me online, that [inaudible 00:24:45] 

JS: That now exists, right. 

KS: Yeah, that now exists, right. So you can find me in my office in Portland, Oregon, I miss my dog, more accurately, you can find me online at 

JS: Awesome. That’s great. 

KS: Yeah, it’s kind of a lot of fun talking to different readers and helping people figure out how to use these techniques in their own lives, and they’re worth – I’m doing it, also working with people helping with presentations, which has actually been really fun, because I think it’s just, it’s so clear, it’s so sharp. I just [inaudible 00:25:25] but I was helping somebody understand, they’re trying to figure out how to teach the importance of budgeting to teenagers, [inaudible 00:25:34] and so, we did something I figured is kind of the opposite of the scale model actually. It was celebrity bankruptcies, because I think people don’t like the idea of budgeting because they think in terms of small, like, oh I have to take this money out [inaudible 00:25:51] support people. But if you actually round up and you look at, no, for every single [inaudible 00:25:55] Nick Cage made $40 million in one year, and now he has nothing, it’s because he just had this horrible spending addiction. 

JS: Yeah. So framing it the other way, so that is a little bit of Wowism, but just – but again, to the audience, to teenagers who can at least sort of tap into that. 

KS: Exactly. Right, so they can see the importance of it. It’s not just for people who have no money, it’s really something that’s important for everybody. 

JS: Right. All right. Well, on that note of teaching kids how to be better with their money, Karla, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been great chatting with you. Thanks for the book, appreciate it. 

KS: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Jon, it’s been great. 

Thanks everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that, I’m going to put links to the book and Karla’s website and a couple of other resources in the episode notes section of the webpage, so please do check that out. Also, check out all the new opportunities where you can support the podcast. I have my existing Patreon page, I’ve also started a new paid version of the newsletter, I have the free version. If you just want that, that’s great. The paid version will give you some behind the scenes insights, some sneak peeks at new YouTube videos, and an opportunity to meet with me every once in a while in person to ask questions and have conversation and just chill out for a little bit. And I’ve also got the Winno app that I’ve started up where I’m shooting out some short little database, things that I observed via text message if you’d rather get text rather than emails. So check all those out. They’re all listed in the episode notes page of this podcast episode. I hope you enjoyed that interview, I hope you will think carefully about how you communicate your next set of numbers. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening. 

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