Why You Should Separate Your Data from Your Story

Having solid mathematical data lends veracity to your posts. But in your rush to present readers with loads of great data, you might be undercutting their comprehension and making your text less readable overall. Words and numbers don’t always work well together — not in your readers’ brains and not in your blog posts.

What’s going on

When someone starts reading a blog post like this one, he is in what editor Patrick Neylan calls “story mode.” The reader is using specific language-based parts of the brain to read and understand what you’ve written.

The brain processes numerical data and calculations in a different part than the grammar and reading comprehension part, though. So when the reader is cruising along the text and then hits hard data, percentages and other numeral-heavy text, his brain has to switch to “data mode” in order to comprehend the message. At this point, one of two things happens, and neither of them is good:

  • The reader skims over the numbers, rendering them meaningless.
  • The reader stops and rereads the section in order to get the full meaning. (And no one should ever have to read part of your post twice.)

What to do about it

To make reading your posts smoother, pull your hard data out of the text and put it in charts, graphs, tables or infographics, and leave the commentary for interpretation of the data. When a reader sees a chart or table, she automatically switches to “data mode” thinking anyway. Plus, pulling that data out of the text lets her skip it altogether and then come back to it after she’s done reading — when her brain “resets” to data mode.

Numbers cannot be completely eliminated from text, of course. But in general, you should isolate the lion’s share of your data to tables and graphics and leave your commentary for summarization and interpretation of that data.

TextVSData

What other things trip you up or slow you down when you’re reading online content?