from the Blog

Communication and Scary Math Problems


Math ProblemI love this graphic. For many, just the mere viewing of this graphic creates stress.

Word problems and math problems have scarred (and scared) more students than not over the years. This graphic to me, however, is symbolic of many of the challenges we face each day in our work lives. We are asked to create solutions based on inputs that often don’t make sense.  We are asked to communicate with clients and co-workers and the value of the message depends on it’s clarity.

Be honest — does your communication sometimes look like this picture? If this immediately put you into shut down mode, let’s see if I can help you get over your anxiety, and perhaps give you a different insight into improving your communication skills.


First, clearly define the objective. What problem am I trying to solve? What am I trying to say. Sometimes it is very clear.  In this case, when we look at all four lines or go to the bottom line it is seemingly impossible.  How can I possibly know the answer when I don’t know the value of the Hexagon, the Circle, or the Diamond.

The next step – organize the available information. In most cases there is a lot of available information, but it needs to be organized differently. Organizing the information also allows you to quickly get rid of extraneous information – especially important in word problems. I think it is important to put the information into a context in which you are comfortable. In this example circles and hexagons are VERY distracting to me – I am more comfortable with algebraic terms x, y, and z.  For many it may be easier to change the first line into three baskets of apples – each basket with an equal number.

x + x + x = 24
x + y = 25
y – z = 8
y + x + z = ?

Break it apart – is there any part of the problem that you can easily solve. Take a look at the first line – forget everything else.  How can you divide 24 apples equally into three baskets?

Apples       ApplesApples

x + x + x = 24
or 3x = 24     24 divided by 3
x = 8     Woo Hoo — each red Circle = 8.


How are you doing?  Hopefully I haven’t lost you yet.


With part of the solution in hand it might be time to regroup.  With each piece of new information the problem becomes more manageable. Rinse and repeat.

The second line —
Circle plus Hexagon = 25.  Remember the Circle = 8.
I bet you got the answer — Hexagon = 17

The third line —
Hexagon minus Diamond = 8.  The Hexagon = 17
You are a ‘rock star’ — the Diamond = 9

 The big finish —
 17 + 8 + 9 = ??     Ta Da     the answer is 34


Why Does this Matter?

Why did we go through this silly math problem? I want to challenge you to think about how you are conveying information to those around you.

Perhaps you are providing a fee proposal to a client — does it make sense, do the numbers flow well, do they add up?  Or are you making your client decipher the code of red circles, grey hexagons, and black diamonds?

Your written words (forget the numbers for a minute) — does it make sense, do your thoughts flow well, or have you created a nonsensical word problem for your clients and co-workers to solve?

Communicating Effectively:

  • Clearly define the objective of your communication
  • Organize the available information
  • Break it into bite size chunks
  • Don’t write long-winded analysis of simple math memes

. . . go have an Awesome Week!
Tom Trabue