Numbers: It Depends on How You Look at Them

You would think that a number is a number is a number, that it means the same thing regardless of how it’s presented. But that’s not true, as an example in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal shows.

If your reliability is 99.7% and your next best competitor’s is 99.4%, that doesn’t sound like a large enough difference to be worth touting. That’s because you’re starting from zero. But if you start from 100% and work backwards, the picture totally changes, as you can see in this explanation:

“Last year, Delta canceled just 0.3% of its flights, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com. That was twice as good as the next-best airlines, Southwest and Alaska, and five times better than the industry average of 1.7%.”

Seen in this light, Delta is 5 times better than the industry average. It is totally accurate and there is nothing underhanded about saying it this way. If you had to choose between two airlines for an important trip, would you pay a little extra for the one that has half the chance of being cancelled? Maybe the practical side of you says the chances of cancellation are so small in either case that you wouldn’t spend the premium, but what if the choice was between two surgical procedures, would that change your decision?

The point is that even something as objective as a number can mean different things to different people, depending on the context that it comes wrapped in. Think carefully about that when you use numbers in your next presentation.

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