Better than Billions and Billions?

A fellow science communicator once said to a speaker we were working with that “Science makes the mundane fascinating and the fascinating mundane.”  Scientists engaging each other are often the latter.  After all, if you’re constantly blown away by what you’re working on, it can be difficult to work efficiently. In times of pandemic, many would be constantly in tears. Sometimes it’s very necessary to take a purely objective approach – keep your head down and move forward. 

But when science is shared beyond scientists, it’s time to bring the WOW! Or the REALLY?! Even the HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE NOW IN THIS DAY AND AGE? In putting audiences first, leading with emotion can be far more effective at captivating attention. If you draw attention to your presentation, more in your audience might remember it.

Fascination can stir action.  The trick is to fascinate helpfully. 

When it comes to numbers in scientific presentations, there are many opportunities to fascinate.  So when scientists talk to each other (or students), they use “scientific notation” and metric prefixes to keep the conversation efficient. So the Earth is 5.97 x 10^24 kg, the nearest star is 1.3 parsecs away, a bacterium is 1 micrometer long,  and molecules react in mere femtoseconds. 

silhouette of person holding glass mason jar
One of the choices when searching for “science” – Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

But these mundane abbreviations are hieroglyphics to many audiences. For some, the sight of math is a clear signal that this talk is not for them. While it might make the talk credible to use specialists’ notation, it will disengage audiences of non-specialists: the exact opposite goal of public engagement. 

So many science communicators turn to analogies to bring the arcane into more accessible forms. Analogies can be great means to fascinate – if they are used carefully.   

What do I mean by “carefully”? I often find that analogies are too fantastical to be useful. Over the years I have encountered earnest analogies to convey mind-blowing numbers:

  • areas in football fields 
  • number of things as stacks to the Moon
  • tiny things as fractions of a human hair 
  • or my favorite love to hate analogy: how many Olympic swimming pools would be filled by some amount of liquid.

Why do I find these problematic? When in my everyday experience am I going to come across multiples of really large things or be able to cut already small things? As someone who has never been in an Olympic sized pool, I just do not know how to think of more than, well, maybe, two. 

bird s eye view of swimming pool
Photo by Tom Fisk on

So when I have to include a large number in a presentation, I think hard about how to express it using numbers less than 1000, better yet, less than 10, in a way that can be easily expressed in a sentence.

Choose analogies that resonate with the audience.

For example, I worked with Dr. Samiah Moustafa on her talk about the darkening of the Greenland ice sheet at the National Academy of Sciences. She wanted to convey the sheer volume of meltwater pouring off Greenland every year. I wanted to avoid the Olympic swimming pool analogy at all costs, so I decided to think bigger. Rivers occurred to me as a potential, because the largest island in the world sweating is like hundreds of rivers of some size. So I checked Wikipedia for the discharge volumes of large rivers. 

But a couple of problems quickly arose: choosing a river somewhere in the world would not necessarily help the Washington, DC, audience. Also, it occurred to me that we don’t really think of rivers as delivering water – more that they “are” water. Even though we understand that a river goes somewhere while a lake does not, beyond geologists, engineers, and people who boat on rivers, who really thinks about how much water is involved? 

I needed something that people could stand next to and see nothing but gushing water. Like – a waterfall.  An iconic waterfall: Niagara Falls. 

It turned out that the water that left Greenland in one year was the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls about every four years. A good small number. Now to phrase it in a context for a Washington, DC audience:

In one year, Greenland lost as much water as goes over Niagara Falls every U.S. presidential term. 

landmark evening long exposure dusk
Photo by on

By putting audiences first, you can deliver information in a way that gets talked about. It takes a little extra work on your part, but better than wasting time figuring out how to type scientific notation in PowerPoint for a talk that might be forgotten.  So as you think about how to fascinate your audience to captivate their attention, instead of figuring out fantastically “clever” analogies, ask yourself this:

What do you want your audience to be talking about after your talk?

Then choose your numbers accordingly. 

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