Most presentations involve the need to present numerical data. Sometimes those statistics are the result of research that needs to be communicated clearly and succinctly. Other times, those statistics provide the rationale for a change in action or policy, so it’s crucially important that the numbers make sense. But presenting data can be tough.
You’ve probably experienced a presentation in which the speaker goes on and on about numbers and data, and before long, his voice turns into the waa-waa-waa of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. You hear the sounds, but they no longer mean anything to you.
Here’s the problem. The human brain doesn’t process numbers the same way it processes words. Numbers are simply representations of something else. Standing alone, they are generally devoid of meaning. So if a speaker launches into a presentation heavy with numerical data, the listener has to do extra work to attach those numbers to what they actually represent and to form meaningful connections.
One of the main rules of presenting is to reduce the burden on the audience, and nowhere is that more important than when you are presenting statistics. The presenter must do everything in his power to make the digestion of numerical data easy. Here are a few ways to do this:
Present numerical data visually. When an audience member sees a visual representation of the numbers while also listening to the presenter explain it, she will get a more complete picture of the data being presented and will be able to process it more easily. David McCandless explains this concept in his TED Talk, The Beauty of Data Visualization, reminding us that when the language of the eye and the language of the mind are used simultaneously, they enhance each other.
Move beyond statement to explanation. Numbers are good at answering the question what? They are proof, numerical fact. But answering what may not be enough for an audience member who wants to know why those numbers matter within the larger framework of the presentation. A good presenter moves beyond simply stating the facts to explaining them, realizing that audience members don’t just want to know what the numbers are, they want to know what they mean and why they matter.
Show what the symbols represent. Numbers can feel distant because they are abstract symbols, so listeners will naturally process them at a shallow level or hold them at an arm’s length. Presenters who want the numbers to really sink in should move beyond abstract data by attaching the numbers to what they represent. If the statistics represent people, help the audience see faces instead of figures, tell customer stories, or show how a product changed a life. When the audience understands what the numbers represent, they can fully digest information that would otherwise be quickly forgotten.
Make them easy. If you can simplify the numerical data you need to present, do so. If you served 149,675 clients in the past year, consider telling your audience that you served just under 150,000 clients. If rounding to a closer, and more easily understood number will work for the purpose of your presentation, it’s a good way to help reduce the burden on your audience while also boosting their ability to retain that information beyond the presentation.
The next time your presentation involves numbers, keep in mind that the audience processes numbers and words differently. As the presenter, it’s your job to translate abstract numerical data into something the audience can both see and understand.
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