Technical Writing by the Numbers

By Brian Lindgren | STC Fellow

Numbers directly correlate to technical writing, and how to handle numbers in text has probably been debated since the first written languages. As with words, it becomes very distracting if numbers are used in a way that is unusual or uncomfortable to the reader. If an article is laden with typographical errors, the reader can lose focus, and it weakens the credibility of the content, because if the writers and editors were this sloppy, how thorough is the research? The same is true with numbers.

One phrase I find unsettling is “a number of.” What exactly does that mean? Five is a number; so is 100. People who say “a number of” (or the even more unsettling “any number of”) will argue that it means several or a few. Note that either several or a few contain less characters than a number of and either allows better visualization of an amount.

A convention many of us follow is to spell out numbers one through nine then use digits for 10 or above—exceptions to this include using digits if it’s a particular value (e.g., 5 inches, 6 millimeters) or spelling out the number regardless of value if it starts a sentence. Lawyers and other technical writing deviants will, for emphasis, often spell out a number then follow it with digits in parenthesis. You’ve probably seen this six (6) times today already. Obviously for any math- or science-related documents, numbers can be integral to content, and in these contexts digits alone will be the default.

Tweaking numbers to make a point is certainly nothing new. For decades, U.S. gas stations have had gas prices in 9/10 of a cent to make it sound lower, and this apparently still works. A specific metric such as 48% can be described as “less than half” or “nearly half,” and depending on tone could be used to subliminally sway an audience. A stronger showing, 76%, could be propped up as “more than three quarters of individuals” or the opposition might say “nearly a quarter of those polled disagree with this.” Speaking of polls, we can summarize metric manipulation in two words: Presidential campaign. There is one in the United States this year, in case you haven’t noticed.

In this article I’ll take a look at a few instances where the use of numbers was misguided.

Nothing to Sneeze At

The ad campaign for Flonase allergy medicine is a real piece of brilliance. When comparing Flonase to other allergy medicines, they note that Flonase addresses six symptoms as opposed to just one. That is good. Then they presume that isn’t clear enough, so they add “Six is greater than one.” Well, sure, unless it’s six hundred dollars versus one thousand. I’m reasonably certain they’re talking integers here. But the slogan isn’t finished. In its entirety, it is “Six is greater than one and that changes everything.”

It sure does change everything. I actually had two unsuccessful runs for the position of STC Treasurer. Had I known that six was greater than one, I surely could have upped my game. In fact, during my second run for treasurer in 2014, I got so many fewer votes than the winner, Jane Wilson, but also fewer than anyone who ran for STC board that year. I believe I was directly responsible for a surge in STC membership because, based on the numbers, new members were joining STC just to vote against me.

But I digress. I’d actually be curious to know who green-lighted a multimillion dollar ad campaign based on “six is greater than one,” and if that is even effective worldwide. Did a committee come up with the line? Was it a vote by majority rule? Since the campaign has been ongoing, the writers behind that metric apparently retained their jobs. Whoever wrote that line is someone I want on my team, because shortly after convincing Flonase executives that it was a winning slogan, he/she probably sold them a bridge that went all the way to Brooklyn. This is who I want on my team when I’m pushing a business case.

Tiresome Metrics

Buying tires used to be a technical writer’s dream but everyone else’s nightmare. Well, not necessarily buying the tires, but getting the price quote. That was like a virtual exploded-view diagram: “It costs $X for the tire, $X for the valve, $X for the stem, $X to have the tires mounted and balanced,” etc. I’m sure some tire shops even costed out the air that filled the tires and the energy required to torque the lug nuts. The problem is these virtual exploded-view diagrams were enough to make one’s head explode when a quick fix was needed to eradicate a blowout. Fortunately, in recent years getting an out-the-door price for new tires has become less painful.

This is not to say that tire pricing has gotten any better or more logical. Several tire shops run promotions like “Buy three tires, get one free.” Sounds like a good deal, but conventional wisdom tells us we should replace tires in pairs, that the front tires often wear differently from the back tires; this is why a tire rotation during an oil change is a good idea.

It’s a safe bet that not many tire buyers are thinking, “Well, as long as I’m buying two tires, I’ll buy a third.” A much more logical approach would be, “Buy two tires, get the second pair at half price.” Money-wise this is exactly the same as four for the price of three, but it opens more doors; it leads the buyer to think about the more logical replacement of pairs, and might even spur the thought of getting the second pair for another vehicle, which could in turn lead to more business. It’s also logical because other major retailers of items with rubber bottoms—shoe stores—frequently use the promotion “buy one pair get the second at half price.” Stated differently, it could be, “Receive a 25% discount when you buy four tires.”

Electric Hand Dryer

The electric hand dryer in the locker room of my gym was really what inspired this article. Full disclosure: since advertising has been a focal point of this article, the establishment to which I refer has the slogan “We’re not a gym.” Fair enough. They also claim to be a “Judgement-Free Zone,” although I have always judged them for putting an “e” after the “g” in judgment. But once again, I digress.

Wall-mounted hand dryers usually have printed instructions to the delight of the technical communicator in all of us. The instructions typically read:

  1. Press button
  2. Rub hands together under air flow
  3. Dryer stops automatically

The fourth step, “Wipe hands on pants,” is generally not printed, although countless freelance editors and proofreaders have handwritten this most accurate instruction through the help of Sharpie markers and a comic sensibility.

This particular dryer had printed on it, “High speed energy efficient hand dryers are now being used instead of paper towels.” Yes, it was punctuated (or not punctuated) in exactly that way, and yes, it is a general statement that could be more effective had it said, “This high-speed, energy-efficient dryer replaces paper towels.” That notwithstanding, the message continues by introducing metrics: “One ton of paper consumes 17 trees, three cubic yards of landfill space and pollutes 20,000 gallons of water.”

One ton is 2,000 pounds. A paper towel is approximately 0.10 ounce, which means there are 160 paper towels in a pound, so it would take 320,000 to reach one ton. The problem is there is nothing to connect the metric to the average user. Some who quickly do the math may be thinking they’ll never use 320,000 paper towels in a lifetime, let alone a year.

Then there’s the issue of 17 trees. Really? How many trees are cut down every year by Christmas tree farmers? I guarantee I’ve driven past Christmas tree lots with more than 100 trees cut and ready for sale. Maybe these trees are being recycled into paper towels. We have no way of knowing, but certainly 17 trees does not make a very good case.

Three cubic yards also does not sound very substantive, particularly when one considers that the U.S. football field (which to some has more religious significance than a Christmas tree) is 100 yards long by about 53.33 yards wide. Three cubic yards sounds about the size of two Gatorade coolers. (When those coolers are dumped on the winning coaches’ heads, I can assure you they will use towels and not hand dryers to dry off.)

The key metric, polluting 20,000 gallons of water, is very serious and compelling, but it’s so far down in the mix that the reader’s mind has already strayed. The biggest problem is there is nothing to connect these metrics to the user. Even if the sign said, “The average individual uses two tons of paper in a lifetime,” it would have some relevance. Then there are completely no specs about the dryer itself. They call it “high speed and energy efficient,” but how so? Might the heating elements be exacerbating global warming, adding undesired particles to the atmosphere, or damaging an already addled ozone layer?

The whole scenario is of dubious value anyway, because there were two paper towel holders on either side of the dryer. In one of the two non-gym establishments I frequent, the dryer was removed outright and three more paper towel holders were added, then about eight paper towel stations throughout the exercise areas. This definitely makes one wonder if “judgment free” pertains to their business model.

Closing Thought

No matter how you choose to present numbers, do so in a way that makes sense. If an article is laden with typographical errors, the reader can lose focus. If you use numbers in a way that the reader or listener starts veering from the content, it can be a major distraction from the message (unless that’s your goal, such as in a political campaign, in which case, have at it).

BRIAN LINDGREN, PMP, is an STC Fellow and Chair of the Associate Fellows Nominating Committee. He is currently a program manager at Engility Corp. in Charleston, SC.

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