6 Keys to Using Numbers in a Presentation
Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers, [they tend] to suspend our sense of emotion, but we respond very, very well to stories. Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.
– Edward Maibach
By John Millen
Sooner or later you're going to have to make a presentation to convince people to support you, your ideas, or your projects.
You’re often going to have to present data – numbers – to make your case. And in some jobs, numbers may be the bulk of your presentations. I’m looking at you, CFOs, CMOs, actuaries, investor relations and financial experts.
The problem in talking about numbers is that human beings are not naturally gifted to understand or relate to numbers. Data quickly becomes white noise. Instead, as humans we are hardwired for telling and hearing stories.
As my friend Kent Stroman, a conversational fundraising expert for nonprofits, likes to say, “numbers numb, but stories store.” Kent calls him self a "recovering accountant" and has effectively learned to seamlessly blend stories and numbers.
You’ve probably experienced the fact that numbers numb, but stories store yourself. You might sit through an hour-long presentation of data and not remember a thing, but if the speaker had one good story, you’ll be able to recall it immediately.
With this in mind, here are six tips for using numbers in your presentation:
1. Tell your story
First, and most important, remember that numbers don’t stand alone. They are meant to support a larger narrative. Never lose sight of your story.
For instance, at the highest level, your organization’s big message might be: We’ve had some challenges, but we’re moving in the right direction. Your job is to highlight and emphasize the numbers that support this argument.
2. Less is more
As an analytical person your instinct will be to give more and more data to support your case, but the truth is that the more numbers you present, the less effective and persuasive you will be. You are no doubt familiar with the concept of diminishing returns. In a world of information overload and minute attention spans, less truly is more.
This concept becomes clear when you read this book I highly recommend: Making Numbers Count: The Art and Science of Communicating Numbers, by Chip Heath, a Stanford Business Professor and science writer Karla Starr.
3. Hide numbers in a story
As I wrote previously, Stanford Business School research concluded that data included in a story is 22 times more likely to be remembered than data on its own. And you want your numbers to be remembered, don’t you?
In line with telling a story, you should pare your numbers presentation to a manageable set. Consider using a photo to illustrate your point or a slide with only one key number blown up large. Help them understand why this number is so important in the context of your organization’s story.
5. Think like a teacher
By focusing on presenting fewer numbers in a more meaningful way, you develop opportunities to educate your audience on key concepts.
Consider taking the time to drill down on a meaningful idea. For instance, you might ask, “Why are we pushing so hard to reduce expenses?” Show the effects of each dollar saved in context. Talk about what it means to your stakeholders and the impact it will have on those in the audience.
Your listeners always want to know, “What’s in it for me?” You're much more likely to get support when people understand your rationale, the "why."
6. Show your personality
I know you have a lot of interests, but your colleagues may not. Bring your personality to your presentation. Do you run marathons? Use a running analogy: You’ve heard the old sprint versus marathon metaphor. Talk about race times and how your financials compare. “It’s our personal best!”
One of my clients is a CFO who is wicked smart but also has a dry sense of humor that he seldom shared in presentations. I coached him to start slowly to reveal more of himself. When he started opening up and sharing himself, he got great feedback and improved his reputation inside and outside the company. He told me he felt “liberated” by being himself on stage and in meetings.
There are also other benefits to becoming a better presenter of numbers. In addition to engaging your listeners more effectively, you will position yourself for greater success. In any organization today, the ability to communicate is the career differentiator.
Too many CFO’s and other “number crunchers” don’t get top jobs because they don’t inspire other people. They are “crunched” by their numbers if you will.
The leaders of your organization are looking for people who not only have technical skills but also leadership and communications skills. If they have to choose between two “numbers people,” the one who can communicate effectively will win every time.
Also, I know it might be hard to believe, but you’ll start enjoying your presentations and feel more confident when you know you’re engaging people.
For more strategies, check out my article How to Communicate with Numbers.