Stop Leaning on Numbers to Tell Your Story

Stop Leaning on Numbers to Tell Your Story


17 August 2021


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Consider the following two paragraphs:

The Conservancy celebrated the opening of its 9th nature preserve on Saturday with a brief ceremony and ribbon-cutting. At 264 acres, the Sykes Ridge Preserve is now the Conservancy’s largest preserve. It is home to at least 4 rosy-cheeked warbler nesting pairs each year and beloved to the nearly 2,000 annual birding visitors.


The Conservancy celebrated the opening of its most recent nature preserve on Saturday with a brief ceremony and ribbon-cutting. The Sykes Ridge Preserve is now the Conservancy’s largest preserve. It is home to rosy-cheeked warbler nesting pairs each year and beloved to hundreds of annual birding visitors.


The second version is written to eliminate all the numbers. Why would you want to do that?

Because numbers are essentially meaningless, and removing them changes the emphasis in each sentence to words that help the reader feel. And that will help you communicate more effectively with members and donors.

The two paragraphs look the same to the writer, but are received differently.

  • Instead of focusing on 9th, the emphasis becomes “celebrated.”
  • Instead of focusing on 264 acres, the emphasis becomes “largest.” (And few people know what an acre is anyway.)
  • Instead of focusing on 4 and 2,000, the emphasis becomes “home” and “beloved.”


Numbers are intellectually appealing to us because we have context for them. A ninth preserve might be important because of how long it has taken to complete the project, or perhaps because few other local land trusts have that many. 264 acres sounds enormous, but only to people living in the East. And even elsewhere, 264 acres might be critically important if they connect two much larger pieces. Four could be compared with none or with twenty.


The point is that the numbers, by themselves, don’t communicate anything of any real value. Breathing value into them through explanation wastes energy and distracts from more important messaging: celebrated, largest, home, beloved.

Yet we do it all the time. There are counters on our websites. There are numbers in our newsletters, email, and fundraising letters.

Here’s the lead paragraph from a well-respected land trust. I’ve obscured their identity, but that took the changing of just two words. With only slightly different numbers, this could describe any number of land trust organizations across the county.

Land Trust was founded in 1992 by three visionary leaders and 31 Charter Members. The Trust is a respected local organization and is recognized as an innovative leader in conservation. The staff, board members, and 400 active volunteers are joined by over 1,700 family and business supporters (members) to protect the most important and beloved places in the county. Today, the amount of land and habitat protected by the Trust has grown to over 8,000 acres, including more than 40 miles of shoreline. The Trust is currently working on a dozen new projects under the guidance of a Conservation Strategy that helps protect the best, most at-risk, and beloved lands first.


Why do we do this? To some extent, I think we’re just lazy. We look at paragraphs without numbers and they look plain. We believe that adding numbers somehow adds weight and importance.

And here’s the thing – it does add weight and importance for some. And leaning on numbers to tell our story tends to attract people to us for whom this kind of communication works.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. And the ones we’re missing are increasingly the ones we need. Being more relevant in our communities means being able to communicate more effectively with everyone.

As an exercise, consider asking a volunteer to go through printed copied of every communications piece you have produced in the last several years and highlight all the numbers. Consider that this might be a good job for a new Board member (fresh eyes and perspective).

Now look holistically at the result.

Can you find a better way to tell your story?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Celebrate finding a new home for your beloved largest numbers! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)


PPS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



Photo by Marina Fuchs courtesy of Pixabay.

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  • David Lillard
    Posted at 08:58h, 17 August

    I find this so freeing. So often, in workshops instructors do emphasize quantities and numbers. This post gave me an aha moment. The numbers might be important to some foundations and government funders — they are reporting up the chain to a board or boss about impact, and for them numbers are an efficient way. It’s not the same for individuals…although I do love the AB’s hippo analogy!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:03h, 17 August

      Good points about writing for institutional funders and audiences.

      Thank you for the comment!


  • Trish
    Posted at 08:31h, 17 August

    Great post. Seeing your examples makes the difference very clear. I feel that over the past 5 years there has been a huge push to add in the numbers, that it was THE way to show outcomes. We focused on making info graphics with little icons and numbers, you know; ‘1,400 trees planted’ ‘8million families’ ‘2,000 volunteers’ with little graphics depicting the tree, the family and the volunteer. Then we translated the infographic into text and used it for newsletters, membership renewals, etc. It was what we have been focused on and now I’m literally seeing how that reads as heavy and unnecessary in most communications. Thank you!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:57h, 17 August

      There is a time and place for infographics. Just not all the time and all over the place. And even then, we need to be careful, because numbers are meaningless without context. Have your infographics show progress and impact – both. If you’re 25 years old – who cares? Even if you were 24 least year – still, who cares? But if you can show that fish are returning to the stream you’ve cleaned – that’s important, and inspiring!

      Thank you for the comment!


  • AB
    Posted at 08:03h, 17 August

    Great invitation to stop and think before automatically including numbers. In 2020 we redistributed xxxxx pounds of food (don’t remember off the top of my head), but in our annual appeal I added “the weight of 2-1/2 hippopotamuses.” I agree that without the full context we have for just how much that number represents, readers can be left guessing. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:23h, 17 August

      The redistribution of food is a great example. As Judy mentioned in an earlier comment, the focus on the number distracts from the focus on impact. Tell a story about one child or one family whose lives were impacted because the food was redistributed. Bringing in hippos might help readers visualize how many pounds it is, but it doesn’t help people understand how important it is.

      Thank you for the comment!


  • Judy
    Posted at 07:46h, 17 August

    Yes. You are on pointe. Numbers numb. And many numbers cause readers to forget the impact of the work. We do it to justify our efforts. And there are some who will know what the numbers mean. So choose them carefully and sparingly.

    And focus on the impact so the reader sees the ongoing need for conservation.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 08:26h, 17 August

      Right on. I love the phrase that people care more about what they do with their money than they care about what we do with it. The stories we tell should help people understand what THEY are doing with their money – the impact. As a generalized statement, numbers don’t help us.

      Thank you for the comment!


  • Jim Perry
    Posted at 07:34h, 17 August

    David, I don’t believe this is as black or white as you make it seem. Rather, I believe it depends on the individual reader. For some, numbers add greatly to the message, and to others, not so.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 07:48h, 17 August

      In other words, know your audience, right? Mostly, here, I am referring to communications that are institutionally broadcast – website materials, for example, or newsletters. Many fundraising letters fall into this category. If including numbers will help you with some and not so much with others, but NOT leaning on numbers won’t hurt you even with the “some,” why not use fewer numbers? I didn’t say so explicitly in the post, but using story is more effective in general.

      Having said all that, I would certainly agree that when writing to specific individuals or even to small groups of like-minded people, the gray area is significant. But let’s not ever lose sight of the fact that even intellectuals make important decisions emotionally.

      Thank you for your comment!