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I was walking with a friend some years ago and we got to talking about fitness and various body dimensions. As with most Canadians my age, I gave these in Imperial: six foot two, 215 pounds. Then I remembered he’d grown up in Europe, so I translated: a metre 88, 96 kilos.

“Really?” he said, startled. “I didn’t think you were that big!” (I guess I carry it well.)

Systems we use to measure the world carry gut-level meaning. They’re instinctual. Unfamiliar measures demand processing; they don’t carry the same instant recognition.

I’m from the hybrid generation who came of age while Canada was adopting the metric system. I’m still more comfortable with feet and inches than metres and centimetres. I sorta know that a man two metres tall is a big fella, but if you tell me he’s nearly 6’ 7 ½”, I get a very specific picture in my mind. Give me your car’s mileage (kilometre-age?) as 6.7 litres per 100 kilometers and I’ll give you a deer-in-the-headlights look while I frantically try to convert that into the measure that makes sense to me (35 mpg – pretty good!)

Numbers also evoke an emotional response. 220,000 litres of oil spilled from a pipeline – a disaster! Wait… that’s about two train tanker cars worth. Would we be all twitchy if there was a derailment and two tanker cars ruptured? Maybe, but it certainly paints a far less urgent mental picture.

Beware of weasel words such as “twice as likely” and their ilk. Saying something is twice as likely to give you cancer tells you nothing. Twice what? Something carries a one-in-a-million chance of killing you; now it’s two in a million.

Still worried?

Again, maybe – what the heck is “one in a million” anyway? It’s one second in a little over 11 days. It’s two-and-a-half litres in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Still makes no sense? Then look for context: is there anything else that creates an easy-to-grasp mental image of one-in-a-million?

If not, it may be time to throw out the numbers entirely and reboot from first principles. What am I trying to say? Who is my audience and what language makes sense to them? How will my message make them feel?