Friday, June 17, 2005

February 2005

Place value on your story telling—don’t settle for “several”

By Matt Baron

Batman has The Joker and The Riddler. The Boston Red Sox have the New York Yankees. And I’ve got Several.

All right, so that was a cheap way of working myself into the same paragraph as the caped crusader and my beloved World Champion Bosox. But anyone who has heard me rant about the scourge that is several knows that I view the nebulous numerical approximation as a formidable obstacle to making numbers count.

Just how much or how many is several, anyway?

Do you see a single number, center-stage? Or do you see a chorus line of numbers high-kicking this way and that for your attention? Take a poll of several people—I’ll leave it to you to determine how many that is—and see what they say.

Guaranteed you’ll get two things:

*Any one or more of a variety of looks, from befuddled to bemused to downright annoyed at the random absurdity of the question.

*A surprisingly wide spectrum of opinions. (Mostly, it spans anywhere from three to nine, though when I poll people, sometimes they tread into double-digits.)

If you’re looking for precision, the dictionary isn’t much help. As “several” relates to numbers, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers three definitions: “more than one” and “more than two but fewer than many” are the first two, but in drops the curve ball “being a great many.”


With all of several’s evident shortcomings, we still allow this shady character to creep its way into our stories. The word especially comes up when reporting:

*Time elements

“Several months ago, the city council banned common sense from all financial decisions… Several years ago, a car accident sent Jones to the hospital…”

*Crowd sizes

“Several citizens complained about the dog catcher… Several hundred protesters gathered outside the ventriloquist’s house, chanting `Dummy, dummy!’…Several thousand people attended the political rally.”


“Several million dollars needs to be slashed from the general budget… The business has monthly expenses amounting to several thousand dollars…”

*Stories that are complex or murky in nature

“The labor union cited several concerns about work conditions, including loud disco music… Several factors prompted the police chief to resign, though he declined to detail any of them…”

As you can tell, the problem is compounded exponentially when we hitch trailers to “several”—words like thousand, million and billion. And, hey, do a search of “several trillion” at Google and see what pops up.

What might seem like a minor distinction when using the word on its own can create an enormous gray area. The order of magnitude simply magnifies the fundamental problem.

When you encounter the word, you can be sure that one, or more, of the following factors are at play:

*The writer is lazy. He knows he should get a specific number but he can’t be bothered.

*The source is hazy. The writer tries to get a specific number but the source is either willfully withholding the information for some reason or is simply unsure of the figure.

*The situation is crazy. Sometimes, there’s just no way of knowing the specific number. This comes up in coverage of fires, as deadline looms while flames are still doing their damage and the beleaguered fire chief isn’t sure if everyone is safely outside, let alone the estimated extent of damage.

No matter what the reason for using “several,” the end result isn’t pretty. Depending on the varied preconceptions of our audience, we stray from telling a story into the realm of multiple-choice interpretations. Whether they consciously realize it or not, what looks like “four or five” to Reader A may strike Reader B as “about 10.”

Though we know it’s hard work to make things seem so simple, good story telling can become great when vivid details carry the audience along with seeming ease. Conversely, muddled and murky writing undermines an otherwise good story. Instead of a clear view of the road, the audience gets a foggy windshield.

If all of the preceding points are not enough to steer you away from “several,” then consider a few extreme examples that illustrate the word’s limitations.

Would a bank ever cash a check for several thousand dollars? Would you ever tell someone you had several children? If a doctor told you that you had several months to live, would you fail to press him for more specifics?

No, no, and not on your life. So what makes these premises so ridiculous? In every instance, we apply inherent value in each unit of measure. When we place that kind of value on our stories, it demands more from us than trotting out “several” at the slightest lazy, hazy or crazy obstacle.

BARON BIT: In sales, I’ve heard it said, “a confused mind says `no.’” In much the same way, readers will rightly reject a story that is confusing. To extend the sales analogy, make your stories so clear that they’ll be something people will gladly “buy into.”

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