Presenting Numbers: Bring Your Statistics to Life

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One of my students recently delivered a persuasive speech on straws. The single word STRAWS glared across the first slide of her visual aid, and I wondered how on earth she planned to hold our attention for nine minutes.

The answer was surprising: statistics. In order to inform the class about the harmful global impact of a seemingly inconsequential tube of plastic, she used compelling data that helped us to understand the massive scale of the problem.

“Americans use 500 million straws per day,” she began. “To put that number in perspective, that’s enough straws to fill 125 school buses every day. That’s enough straws to fill Yankee Stadium 9 times a year, or to wrap around the globe 2.5 times. And that’s only Americans.”  

She could have stopped at 500 million, but what does that number really mean to an audience? We don’t have a clear picture of 500 million plastic straws unless she provides one. She knew that in order to connect her audience to the problem, she’d need to present her data in a way we could see it, feel it, and understand it.

To put that number in perspective…

If you have a presentation full of numbers, statistics, ratios, dates, or dollar amounts, consider ways to bring that data to life for your audience. Here are three places to start:

#1: Make numbers concrete and relatable

Analogies and comparisons are a simple way to help us remember and understand your statistics. Phrases like more than, bigger than, roughly the size of, the population of, could fit inside of help us wrap our heads around numbers. We can’t exactly picture 300 feet, but we can picture the size of a football field. We can’t fully understand the size of the Great Barrier Reef, but we know it’s big when we find out it can be seen from space.

If you need to illustrate a ratio or percentage, consider using the people in the room as your example. It may help us to understand 15% if you point out that it would include everyone in the front row of the auditorium. You can do the same for dates. Help your audience to understand the time period by telling them what else was happening in the world. Who was born? What were the latest inventions? Simply saying a number, date, or dollar amount out loud won’t resonate with your audience unless you provide them the context and perspective to visualize it. The more creative you are with your comparison, the more memorable the numbers will be.

#2: Make numbers visual

Imagine trying to take a math class from a teacher who doesn’t write down any of the problems on the board. You have to understand them all simply by hearing them said out loud. It sounds impossibly difficult, which is why it’s so important to make your numbers visual for your audience. Showcasing important statistics on your visual helps your audience, and it helps ensure your data correct. (Don’t forget to cite the source!)

However, make sure you’re using a visual aid to simplify the numbers, not to complicate them. Avoid putting a cluttered and complicated graph in front of an audience. They’ll spend too much time decoding it and will likely miss your important analysis and commentary. Instead, provide a relevant image and the number to help highlight its importance. (If you have charts and graphs that you think your audience needs to access, you can provide them in a handout.) Use infographics (we have tools that help you design them here) that show us exactly what 1 out of 340 sea turtles looks like. Tools like simple maps and timelines can help to give us context just like comparisons can.

#3: Humanize your data

It’s important to remember that even the biggest numbers and most staggering statistics can’t tell a story by themselves. To truly reach your audience, you need to give those statistics a face, a name, and a story. In her riveting 1992 speech, A Whisper of Aids, Mary Fisher understands that a single story is as powerful as a six figure number.

“Tonight, HIV marches resolutely toward AIDS in more than a million American homes, littering its pathway with the bodies of the young. Young men. Young women. Young parents. Young children. One of the families is mine. If it is true that HIV inevitably turns to AIDS, then my children will inevitably turn to orphans.”

When one million feels abstract or out of reach, the key is to focus on one. Mary Fisher’s description of the AIDS epidemic is heartbreaking not because of the scale of the problem, but because of its impact on individual people and families.

More than a statistic

And that brings us back to straws. Yes, the magnitude of American straw usage came to life when I pictured nine Yankee Stadiums filled with plastic straws. But, the impact of the problem truly resonated when I watched a sea turtle struggle to breathe with a straw stuck through its nose. That image is what will compel me to refuse a straw next time I’m at a restaurant, not the number 500 million. If your speech is singularly focused on the statistics, you’re forgetting who those statistics represent. Bring numbers, dates, amounts, and ratios to life by telling real stories about those they represent. Your speech, research, and data will be far more memorable, engaging, and moving.

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