Brown Numbers


The first post of a new blog and what do I start with? A steaming pile of crap: literally. Welcome to Engineering Dude! Hang with me, I’ll explain the poop.

brown numbers

Steaming pile of brown numbers

Many years ago I attended a tradeshow with my employer. It was a massive laboratory device event like Pittcon or LabAutomation with all the big companies showing off their bulbous budgets by filling 50′x100′ of surface area with LCD screens, robots, fake plants, and expensive sales men in suits hitting on Booth Babes while away from their wifes. I was at the tradeshow lending engineering expertise to our own booth exhibit, and also enjoying the open bar.

So I was chatting with one of our sales guys, and he says to me “I know 20 people in this room who would buy [our product] if we could just get the right look.”

That was an interesting assertion. Was it true? Did he honestly believe there were exactly 20 people who would buy said product for the right look? I doubt it. So why did he feel compelled to include a fabricated number in his sentence? Did the use of a hard number help him make his point in any way? Or, rather, did it hurt the point he was trying to make?

I wondered, have I heard fake number declarations before? Sure I had. And I started to notice that I hear them all the time.

  • “If we could fix that motor start-up glitch, we would reduce out-of-box failures by 30%
  • “Damn it, I’ve seen this problem 30 times before!”
  • “Just get it done, it will take you 15 minutes.”

Did any of those sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve heard variants. Why do people try to sensationalize their point by using fake numbers? Are the sentences above any more convincing than these below?

  • “If we could fix that motor start-up glitch, we would reduce out-of-box failures.”
  • “Damn it, I’ve seen this problem many times before!”
  • “Just get it done, it will take you very little time.”

No, eliminating the hard number does not reduce the impact of the statement. In fact, I am less likely to believe or sympathize with the root premise of a sentence if I hear an obviously false number. And the speaker’s reputation may even suffer a little.

Brown numbers in use

Brown Numbers in use

So, to show my contempt for the practice, I began referring to fake/unsubstantiated/unnecessary numbers used in conversation as Brown Numbers.

Why Brown? Because the number was pulled directly out of the speaker’s ass. A Brown Number is any number used for the purpose of estimation or exaggeration without the proper clarification that the number is, in reality, just an estimate/guess/imagination.

Some responses to brown numbers include the following:

  • “Leave the Brown Numbers in your ass please.”
  • “Your breath stinks of Brown Numbers.”
  • “That is a smelly Brown Number!”

Please refrain from using one of those retorts the next time your boss tells you he can sell 15% more product if you… [insert design change pertinent to you here].

This post has become more of a rant than I’d initially intended, so I’ll end with a positive lesson to take from all of this.

Positive Lesson:

When you communicate, especially in a professional setting, it is always best to be as honest and factual as possible. Emphasizing or sensationalizing your statements with inaccurate hard numbers may actually do more harm to you than good. Only use numbers if they are accurate or proven. And if you must use an actual number when estimating, then you should clarify that number with ‘approximately’ or ‘about’ such as to notify listeners your numbers are not real. This will reduce confusion and, in the end, improve your credibility.

…which is always a good thing. Eliminating Brown Numbers from your speech will increase your credibility 18% and reduce confusion in daily conversation by 42% . This will enable you to be liked by 67% more people, and this in turn will cause you to have 14 more friends, grow 0.34″ taller, and ultimately live 224 days longer.

About Ed

This Engineering Dude is a contract Mechanical Engineer with 12 years experience in comprehensive electro-mechancial product design. His consumer and OEM products have been sold worldwide in the laboratory, medical, clinical, and research markets. He has also designed orthopedic rehabilitation hardware, firearms, pneumatic weapons, mountain bikes, and even furniture.
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