We all like an attractive figure. So what’s yours?

It was late at night, and I was hunched over a laptop in my boss’s office. His ghetto blaster poured out the usual eclectic mix of tracks (Def  Leppard, Handel, Iron Maiden, Corelli) to help get us in the mood. “Got it,” I said, dragging and dropping into the appropriate cell. “Next year’s growth will be 15%.” (This was back in the 90s, when anything less than 10% growth in software sales was grounds for corporate hara-kiri.) “I think you mean 15.37%,” he mumbled, scarcely taking his eyes off his spreadsheet. I checked the numbers. It was definitely 15% – and I told him so. “15.37%,” he said again, with not a moment’s hesitation. “Where do you get the .37 from?” I asked, peering at my figures to see nothing after the 15 but two fat zeroes. “Made it up,” he mumbled, clicking to save his own calcs. He looked up at me, and then broke into a broad smile. “Round figures make people suspicious. Whole numbers seem too…” he paused, “…whole. You need to break ’em up.” Def Leppard moaned approval from the silver dream machine on his window ledge. “Nobody, but nobody, argues with two decimal places,” he said. “They simply wouldn’t dare.”

Think of a number – any number

There’s no denying it: numbers are powerful. When you’re buying, you want to know you’ve got the fastest, lowest, highest, biggest or smallest. Even if it doesn’t matter. If somebody promises me 16Mb broadband instead of 8Mb, I’m tempted. Now I’m not a gamer, and I don’t watch TV online, so I don’t need that kind of speed. But the mere fact that it’s a bigger number is enough to make me stop and think. The same goes for books. If my local branch of Borders is offering ‘3 for 2’, I know that means one free – and that’s enough to make me buy. And yet, it shouldn’t be. Why not? Well 3 for 2 means just a 33% discount – and then, only if all the books are the same price. Remember, it’s usually just the cheapest one that’s free, so if the others are more expensive, then that 33% drops even further. On Amazon, I know I could get a 40% discount on one book. No commitment, no struggling to find a third (has that happened to you too? I’m glad it’s not just me.). So you see? If I analysed it, I’d realise it was a bad decision. But most people don’t analyse – they act, based on simple triggers. £9.99 (or $9.99 or €9.99) is cheaper than 10. Not by much, but it’s enough to make a difference. Buy one get one free is just another way of saying 50% off or half price. In this case, the simple – but endlessly powerful – word free trumps the others and clinches the deal. And it works – I ended up with eight (count ’em) bags of dates recently, simply because there was a buy-one-get-one-free offer. So I bought four, and…well, you can guess the rest. And I’m not even that keen on dates. (Especially not now, after eight endless bags of them.)

Pick ‘n’ mix

If you are going to use numbers (and you should) then make sure they’re consistent. Never, ever, fall into the trap that most journalists rush headlong into: The Dow Jones climbed by 3%, while in London, the FTSE 100 closed 300 points higher. So which rose more in percentage terms? Or this: One in six people say they’re not taking a holiday this summer, while 25% say they’re still undecided. You can see what the journos are doing: they’re striving for variety. But in the rush to be different, they make their numbers meaningless. So keep your numbers simple, make them instantly attractive, and keep them real. But make sure you use them. It could make all the difference. In fact it does – in 87.34% of cases. Trust me.