Get the Numbers Right

by Helen, published 05/23/2013
This post is by Brenda Greene and Helen Cunningham, authors of “The Business Style Handbook, An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job.” You just put your email through spellcheck and asked a colleague to give it a quick read for typos. Everything looks good and you send it to your boss for approval. Two hours later, someone in purchasing calls your boss to question whether you meant to write 1,800 ergonomic chairs instead of 18,000. You’ve made yourself and your boss look bad. Still, you were lucky. Someone caught it before it went out. Often that’s not the case. Consider the recent story about 80,000 New York subway maps. The price of a pay-per-ride subway card was listed as $4.50 instead of $5.00. According to the New York Post, that typo cost the transit authority $250,000. And then there was the error in a Macy’s catalog that priced a $1,500 14-karat gold and silver necklace for $47, calling it a “Super Buy.” Your grammar and spelling may be excellent but, in business, you’ve got to get the numbers right, too. Numerical errors can result in monetary losses and reputational damage to the company, missed deadlines and meetings, wasted time, confusion and irritation. The stakes can be high, whether for the company or your personal credibility.

10 Check Points

Never overlook the numbers in your communications. Proof them with extra care. Here are some other guidelines.
  • Add them up. If you’re writing revenue numbers from three regions along with the total, do the math to be sure the numbers compute. When putting a number before a list of items, check that the number matches the total. For example, the subhead in this article is “10 check points.” Count the bullet points to ensure they total 10. During the review/editing process, the number of items in a list can change, so review the final version carefully.
  • Copy and paste numbers to avoid errors and retyping when possible. If you have to enter the numbers yourself, double-check them against the source material.
  • Check consistency. Be sure numbers cited more than once within your communication are exactly the same.
  • Confirm dates. Be sure you’ve got the dates right, otherwise it creates confusion and a possibly a string of unnecessary follow-up emails.
  • Double-check phone numbers. If it’s a conference call, ensure the call-in codes are correct. If you get it wrong, especially on large conference calls, it can create havoc and waste time.
  • Put the currency symbol before values, as in $2 million or €2 million. If you’re not using a symbol, spell the name of the currency after the amounts: 2 million dollars or 2 million euros.
  • Put the denomination after numbers. Is it thousands, millions, billions? It’s surprising how often the eye will gloss over a number without a denomination when proofreading. Also be sure the denomination is correct: big difference between a million and a billion.
  • Check that decimals are in the right place. Also be consistent with the number of digits following a decimal. If you’re using one digit, be sure all related numbers in the communication have one digit after the decimal point.
  • Double-check rounding. If you need to round numbers up or down, be sure you got it right.
  • Check page numbers. If your document is paginated and you refer to something on another page, confirm that the page number is correct.
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