Truth, Lies & Percentages
Do you know the difference between a percentage and a percentage point? It’s the kind of question you’d rather not be asked at a job interview. Luckily, I was prepped by a friend to expect this question at the Financial Times. It was also the only interview where I was asked about my high school math score. It never came up at six previous newspapers, not even at two I edited. It wasn’t something I was keen on talking about having dropped math early, and with my other exam results not being too hot.
I was being interviewed for a position as a contract sub-editor. That wasn’t my long-term goal but I was Australian and didn’t understand yet about the cul-de-sacs, glass ceilings and golden escalators of the FT career edifice. (Later I worked out that life at the FT was what I made it.)
At the time I knew little about world affairs, economics, management or the global tourism and travel sector, or even about writing. I hadn’t studied Economic and Social Policy at the University of London. And I had never thought about percentages and percentage points.
But my friend had advised me well. So when the night editor, IBJ, asked me to name the UK’s biggest company, I was able to say It was ICI (then, now part of AkzoNobel). There was no Google then.
At the end of the interview, there was one more thing to do. IBJ handed me an editing test and left me in an adjacent office to complete it. The story was about Gatwick Airport. I was stunned when I read it. No, it wasn’t the detritus of errors bobbing about in a pond of lifeless prose. It was because I’d sat the same test elsewhere. I took this as a bonus.
So how did I answer IBJ’s classic question? It came late in the interview at a point where I’d begun to think he might not ask.
Do you know the difference between a percentage and percentage point?
My answer was “Yes.”
He didn’t ask me to explain. On that day a healthy percentage of self-belief prevailed. But I was ready too just in case. It’s an important answer too, because mistaking percentages and percentage points sometimes unintentionally or deliberately obscures the truth.
Percentages explained here.
Marian Edmunds, The Writing Business