"Plain English"? Yes, and Numbers Are Words, Too!

Apr 22, 2011

Arthur Levitt, former SEC Chairman and Wall Street statesman, has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal, pleading for more “plain English” in financial disclosures. Invoking the ghosts of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, he observes that most readers and listeners react with suspicion when they encounter language that seems more complex and uses bigger words than necessary. Moreover, he suggests that audiences should react that way, because all too often the presenters of that un-plain English intended to obfuscate or confuse. Chairman Levitt, you are dead right.

Something similar goes on with numbers. You might not think so – after all, it’s not as if there’s a “thesaurus” where you can find a more highfalutin’ “synonym” for, say, “56,712.” But yes, in quantation – that is, the craft of presenting numbers – there is the equivalent of “plain English.” How you lay out your numbers on the page, how many numbers you present, how many digits you present in those numbers, and how you use the helper words around the edges of your report, all can have a huge impact on how quickly and how easily your audience understands your information. In other words, there is a “grammar” to presenting numbers.

All too often, we’re confronted with reports loaded with numbers that are just plain incomprehensible. And while I share Chmn. Levitt’s concern about information presented in a way that is intended to mislead or confuse, much, much more often the information isn’t deliberately incomprehensible, it’s just that the presenters simply don’t know how to present numbers coherently – they have never been taught the rules of quantation.

Look at it this way: Numbers are just words, presented using a different set of characters. If you can’t understand the numbers in front of you – whether they’re in a corporate income statement, or a mortgage loan disclosure, or, gosh, a federal budget – maybe, just maybe, it’s not your fault, it’s the presenter’s. So stand up for your right to have numbers presented to you in “plain English”!

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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