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Make Numbers Work for You.

Speakers can use numbers to support key points. But too often, speakers use their data in place of key points, piling on number after number and, in the end, driving their audience to despair. Here are a few tips on how to use numbers to good effect.

Data do not speak for themselves.
Don't just deliver the data and leave it to the audience to figure out what they mean. As a presenter, your job is to make a series of points. The data should merely support those points. If you don't state your conclusions, you're inviting your listeners to form their own. The distinction between an informational briefing and a persuasive presentation is critical. (See our article, Is It a Speech or a Presentation? in the Winter 2003 issue of The Total Communicator.)

Be accurate.
Accuracy is important whenever you use numbers. So double-check the numbers you use. Be sure that both the numbers and how you present them are not misleading. And be sure to use the most current and relevant numbers.

Focus your use of data.
Your job is to be selective, not all-inclusive. This isn't always easy, since you may have more data than you need to support your points. But people don't process numbers as easily as they do other types of information, so drowning your listeners in numbers is a sure-fire way to weaken, or even sink, your presentation. Start with the main points you need to make to persuade your audience, and then determine which data you need to support those points. Many presenters start by designing their data slides and never get around to making their points. The result: many presentations are data-heavy and pointless, both figuratively and literally. If you're not making points, you're probably wasting time.

Round off the numbers and put them in context.
There will be times when exact figures are called for, such as when presenting scientific data. But there's no need to be exact every time, especially when using lots of numbers or when you're trying to quantify large ideas. So try a little creativity. No one, for example, is likely to absorb or remember "8,956,401." "Almost nine million" is better. And, if it applies, try something like "40 percent," which for some audiences is not as good as "four out of every 10." And no one needs to know there are 278,058,995 people in the United States. Rounding off to 278 million is better and much more likely to stick with your listeners.

Numbers without context are not helpful. If a public official proposes tax cuts of $522 billion over the next 10 years, how meaningful is that to the average taxpayer? On the other hand, if the speaker says that amounts to about $155 per person per year, the full impact of that becomes clearer.

Help your listeners "see" what the numbers mean.
Look for imaginative ways to present data. Create graphics and/or word pictures out of numbers to make them clear and memorable. Mentioning 134 million gallons of oil found in a reserve has little impact. Adding that it's enough oil to heat all of Chicago for six months is more effective. To illustrate size for some audiences, you might say, for example, "That's the equivalent of 10 football fields." Or, "That's long enough to reach from New York to Los Angeles."

Well-designed visuals are helpful. Use graphs and charts to show rather than only tell. This helps your listeners understand and retain the numbers you're using. Develop visuals that tell the most compelling story. For example, a graph can be far more compelling than a table. If you want to provide more detail in a table, save it for the handout. (See our article on handouts in this issue.)

Use numbers persuasively.
Make sure you use data persuasively throughout your presentation. It's fine to have a data-driven presentation, as long as you use the data to drive in a clear direction. Make sure you're steering your audience toward an outcome, rather than just delivering data without meaning.


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