While talking about the use of visuals during a small-group presentation skills clinic I was conducting, I cited a study that suggested how persuasion rates among audiences increased by 43 percent when they saw something as well as heard something.
“That’s interesting,” replied one of the participants. “And did you know that 72 percent of all statistics are made up?”
Numbers are wonderful things. We use them to measure, to keep score, to prove a point.
When in the wrong hands, though, numbers can rip the heart out of a good presentation, bleed it of its power to persuade, kill an audience’s desire to learn more.
Numbers require a lot of processing. It takes time for the typical brain to make sense of figures it has just heard. (“Let’s see… he said it was 31-point-9 percent… um, isn’t that something like one-third? Or is it closer to one-quarter?”) And while the brain is processing your numbers, it isn’t processing your message.
Where a real problem begins for some presenters — and thus for audiences — is the obsessive use of data to make a point:
“Sixty-three percent of all children are small. Compare this to a 1998 study that suggests 12.9 percent of that total actually is 47 percent less likely to grow by more than 3 inches over an 18-month period of time. This of course presupposes that the initial sample is less than 16 percent of the total surveyed over a 45-day trial period.”
Huh? Wait! Would you repeat that more slowly? In fact, say it a couple of times; once so I can hear it and then again so I can start writing it down.
Better yet, why don’t you just tell me what your point is.
If precise data are essential to your presentation, then deliver them in a published or projected format; as a hand-out or overhead, for instance. Let people read and assimilate the data at their own respective rates of comprehension — and give them time to do so before moving on.
Use your spoken words to create context for the data, to offer examples, to make your case; not to parrot the numbers themselves.
Translate your numbers into units of reference that add meaning. Create an image for audiences to see in their own minds. If making a case for highway funding, for example, instead of just declaring “50,000 cars use that intersection in a 12-hour period,” embellish and illustrate by following up with something like “…or the equivalent of the entire parking of the Live Oaks Mall every 90 minutes.”
(A caution, though: Avoid the cliché analogies that really don’t do the job. For example, don’t tell me that something is as long as three football fields. I’ve never seen three football fields end to end, so the picture still can’t form in my mind. And what about people who’ve never seen a single football field?)
The power of numbers is in their drama, in the stories they suggest. Look for that drama, the extremes, and use them to illustrate your point, to draw attention to it. These are what form the memorable images for your audience.
“By the time I finish this sentence, four more miles of road will have been paved in the country…”
“…six more children will smoke their first cigarette…”
“…two people will get sick from contaminated meat…”
“…six new blogs will be launched.”
Understanding and context for most minds involves shapes and forms and experiences. These are seldom numerical in nature. Paint a picture with your numbers. Set a tone. Establish a premise.
“Ladies and gentlemen, by the time this hearing concludes, 9,000 cars and trucks will have passed through the intersection we are discussing this morning. By the end of today, and each and every day that follows, that will amount to the equivalent of the entire population of this city. It was not designed to handle that much traffic volume and cannot continue to do so any longer. With this funding proposal, however, we have the chance to do something about it.”
Then carry on with your conversation.
Always remember, the point of your presentation is not to impress but to make an impression. Too many numbers, too much data, can trigger a wrong impression among an audience that simply wants to know the bottom line.