1280px-Snowy_street_in_Madrid_(Spain)_01I recently relocated to Charlotte from Ohio. Its South, but not so much so that it doesn’t get cold and yes, sometimes there is even snow. As I become acclimated to things down here, I am always surprised at the response that folks from here have to snow. They dislike it immensely and are often fearful of it. Now, I grew up in Pittsburgh which has a lot of snow. Ohio has a lot of snow too. So, this past weekend we had some weather reports that hinted at snow. They used a particular term that peaked my interest. The weather forecasters predicted that there would be a “high accumulation” of snowfall.

This is always the difficulty with verbal labels used to define measurements. Being that I am from the North, where snowfall is frequent, High to me means 6-8 inches or even 1 foot of snow or more. I imagine those from even farther North than I, probably laugh at my ranges and speak only in double-digit feet when measuring “high” amounts of snow. As it turns out, here in Charlotte “high accumulation” means between 1-2 inches. Oh, and that snow was mostly melted about a day and half later (for those that don’t know, this is a marginal amount of snow and the ensuing overreaction is largely comical to us Northerners).

When communicating risk, the same problem is endemic to that process. Just saying high, medium, or low is problematic. No one is able to divorce themselves from their biases and experiences. As a result, when you say “high risk,” there will invariably be those that think $10M, and others that are thinking in terms of $100K or even less. Why? Fundamentally speaking its because there are no numbers. Think about how much more plain it is to speak in terms of dollars or inches. We may disagree about what the relative impact of those units of measure, but one is not likely to argue that an inch isn’t an inch.

So as you go through your risk work, know that if you aren’t speaking plainly in terms that are universal (frequency and magnitude), then know that you may be perceived as shouting at clouds…