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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

How can we illustrate data effectively and help audiences make sense of numbers?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

A computer touch screen shows illustrations of data

Numbers, data, and statistics make up much of what we communicate about nutrition. From simple statements like “make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” which is easy to conceptualize, to more complex ideas such as:

We analyzed the home-delivered meal program in response to the COVID-19 on 33 California AAAs of 49 weeks (combining PSA 19 and 25). This program served older adults with diversity. From the CDA’s report for the nutrition program, in the fiscal year 2019-2020, there were 60164 people of age 60+ participating this program. Among them, 53.9% were females and 46.1% were males; 52.4% white, 18.9% Hispanic, 13.5% black, 7.5% Asian, and the others 7.7%; 38.8% age 60-70, 30.5% age 75-84, and the rest 85+; 16.4% in rural; 50.9% lived alone; 53.2% in poverty; and 68.0% with high nutrition risk. Source:

This example uses percentages, which are understandable by most audiences, but can you easily picture these results? How could they make more sense? Let’s take a closer look at why we struggle with numbers and how we can overcome the challenges of presenting them effectively.

What’s the inherent problem with presenting data and statistics?

“Nobody understands numbers.” That statement is in the introduction to Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath and Karla Starr. So, if you thought it was just you that struggled with numbers and statistics, that statement should come as a relief: I’m not alone!

Heath and Starr go on to explain that people of all cultures easily deal with numbers up to five, but after that, we think of higher numbers as “lots” whether the number is 50 or 50 billion. Everyone struggles with conceptualizing larger numbers.

The authors use this example to illustrate that point:

“You and a friend each enter the 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? (Pause and write down your guess. No calculators allowed.) As a millionaire, your encounter with runaway consumerism is surprisingly short. You go bust after a mere 20 days… 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.”

Be honest, did you think there would be that much difference?

Without context and translation, numbers lose their meaning. They are like a foreign language, or as Heath and Starr put it:

“Math is no one’s native tongue. At best, it’s a second language, picked up in school through formal teaching. The more you can relay your message in the native song of your people – without math – the better.”

There are effective solutions to presenting numbers that help them make sense. Let’s learn them and put them into practice.

What are the principles for illustrating numbers more effectively?

For numbers to be useful to an audience, they must be meaningful and relatable. The approach used must make sense to the audience. First principle, know your audience. Use words and examples they will understand.

Secondly, make your illustration memorable, possibly surprising, for the greatest impact. Look for ways to make it personal so that audience members feel the impact. The example using an illustration of lottery winners used you and a friend. And you ran out of money first.

Additionally, simplify when appropriate. In our example regarding home-delivered meal programs, depending on who was being reported to, a phrase like “2 out of every 3 participants had high nutrition risk” is easier to picture than 68%. And it feels more related to real people. We can picture three people.

Lastly, paint a picture using words or illustrations. Data and statistics can be effectively illustrated using words or pictures, or a combination. Read on for how…

Visual depictions can be effective

Data and statistics are often illustrated with graphs and charts. A pie chart is effective when illustrating parts of a whole, as in the racial distribution of participants in the home-delivered meal program:

A pie chart depicting racial distribuition

To be most effective, use the type of graph or chart most appropriate to the type of data, such as a scatter plot chart to illustrate the relationship between two variables as well as to visualize the distribution of data when there are many data points.

A popular way to depict data that impacts entire populations is with maps. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has many examples.

Whether conveying data visually or with words, determine what your main point is and make sure it is clearly depicted. For example, making a bar graph with one bar of a different color to highlight a particular finding.

A great resource on effective data visualization is Stephanie Evergreen, author of Presenting Data Effectively & Effective Data Visualization. Read more at Her data visualization checklist is on page 113 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide.

Meaningful descriptions can be effective

We tend to think of pictures as more effective than words, but a well-crafted description can be just as effective, if not more effective. Analogies, stories, and comparisons are just a few of the ways descriptions can make numbers more meaningful.

When you describe a number, use something the audience can easily picture. What is used should be familiar to your audience and something that translates into fewer data points than the original number.

For example, 3 ounces of meat is depicted as one deck of cards.

Illustrate numbers effectively by comparing them with more familiar examples using time, distance, size, or money.

For example, picturing all the world’s water is too large to imagine. Bring it down in size. Imagine a one-gallon jug holding all the world’s water. To illustrate how little of the world’s water is drinkable, it’s less than 20 drops. The rest is salty or frozen.

As described above, personalize the description to your audience even when the numbers are not about them. Help them relate to the statistics in a way that motivates them to take the desired actions.

For example, most people in developing countries spend about half of their weekly income on food compared to only 10% in the United States. To put that in perspective, imagine spending over $500 a week on foods like millet and rice.

Other effective ways to illustrate numbers and data include demonstrations and infographics, which both combine meaningful visuals with meaningful descriptions.

To be effective, select an illustration that is meaningful to your audience and make it memorable by making it personal and impactful.

“We live in a world in which our success often depends on our ability to make numbers count.” ~ Chip Heath and Karla Starr, Making Numbers Count

Check out this video with Chip Heath.

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