Approximately the size of Wales

It’s not easy to come up with quick and easy comparisons that make it clear how big, small, expensive, or devastating an issue might be.  It’s something we often talk about during media training sessions.

Traditionally, burning trees in the Amazon are ‘roughly the size of Wales’, or perhaps ‘twice the size of Belgium’. A satellite is usually ‘the size of a freezer’ or weighs ‘as much as a London bus’.

These are brave – and probably doomed – stabs at the tricky task of grabbing the audience’s attention.

Yesterday two politicians used two different arresting analogies on BBC Radio 5 Live while describing prison policies. They caught my attention because they were both arresting and meaningless.

The first comment was:

"There are twice as many people in prison than there are in the Royal Navy."

The second:

"It costs more to keep someone in prison than to send them to Eton."

I haven’t got a clue how accurate these comparison are, but they are interesting because they have no relation to each other.

There is no meaningful link between the Royal Navy and prisons, so the comparison quickly breaks down.

The Eton comment was presumably used to show both Eton and the prison system in a bad light. At least that was the effect it had on me.

These phrases just made me want to find out how many people are in the Navy and (more intriguingly) how much does is cost to send someone to Eton. The fact that I haven’t got a clue about either of these figures underlines the weakness of the analogies.

At least I know the size of Wales. I used to live there.

Posted on 06 December 2007

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