Why is everything compared to the size of Wales?
You may have noticed that, in news stories, geographical features such as ice sheets or rainforests often get compared to the size of Wales. It's a good way to help readers understand scale, and you can use this trick to make your own writing more memorable.
This was the caption on a graphic in a recent BBC news story about a rift in an Antarctic ice shelf that was threatening to create a break-away iceberg. The hierarchy of how the story conveys the size of the iceberg is interesting.
- First, the headline uses an attention-grabbing adjective, describing it as “huge”.
- Then the caption compares the iceberg to the size of Wales.
- Next it’s referred to as “one of the 10 largest ever recorded”.
- And only then does it refer to its size using a unit of measurement – 5,000 sq km.
Why is this? Because storytelling in any form, even in a news article, is about getting readers to respond emotionally. In this case, it’s about getting them to think: “Wow, that’s big.”
So why not just say the iceberg is 5,000 sq km? Because only a small minority of readers will be able to comprehend immediately whether that’s big or not.
On the other hand, most readers in the UK will have a better idea of the size of Wales. Many will have been there, and can perhaps imagine crossing a vast stretch of ice to go on holiday to Pembrokeshire.
Comparing difficult-to-comprehend volumes, areas, weights and other measurements to familiar things makes them easy for the reader to visualise. If your company sells 1,000kg of a product each year, that’s a thousand bags of sugar. If it has 500 clients, that’s more than the capacity of a Boeing 747 passenger jet.
The BBC news story takes this a step further. Having got people to visualise a huge iceberg a quarter of the size of Wales, it then provides further context. “Is this big for an iceberg?” is the natural question readers might be asking. The story answers that by stating that the iceberg is expected to be one of the 10 largest ever recorded.
You can use this trick yourself by looking for the “-est”. Is the thing you’re writing abut the largest, the smallest, the tallest, the highest, the quickest? This gives readers the final piece of context, helping them to understand and remember your story.