I recently saw a speech by someone clearly accustomed to the public spotlight and comfortable on the stage.
She had an important message to deliver about a profound social injustice. She spoke with authority and confidence.
And she spent nearly all 20 minutes of her speech reciting statistics.
They were good, compelling statistics—stark, often startling, sometimes infuriating—but two hours after her speech, I’d have been hard pressed to tell you any of them.
Now, after the speech there was an interview-style Q&A when she was a lot more engaging, but by that point, she’d already lost a big chunk of the audience.
When it comes to statistics in speeches, less really is more. One or two telling statistics to buttress an argument or illustrate a point can be powerful. Once your trickle of stats swells to a flood, though, your audience can get overwhelmed and detach emotionally, and you risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker.
That’s not to say you can’t pull off a number-heavy speech. Re-watch “An Inconvenient Truth” sometime to see how Al Gore did this to powerful effect. It’s brilliant, but remember, that speech was meticulously crafted. Even at that, the numbers alone don’t carry the day; they get a memorable assist from a scissor lift.
It’s likely that you won’t have one of those things handy, so you’ll have to find other ways to make stats work for your speech instead of dragging it down. As crucial a skill as that is today, it’s only going to get more important in our increasingly data-driven world.
So, how can you make sure your stats come off more as compelling drama than mind-numbing litany?
1. State them clearly, simply and starkly. Lose the jargon: Don’t say a reduction in mortality from pulmonary carcinoma of 500 instances, but rather 500 fewer people dying from lung cancer.
2. Use active verbs to underline causal relationships. This regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer.
3. Put the qualifiers up front, so they don’t detract from the power of the figure. Over the next decade, in this city alone, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. Or if the qualification makes the statistic stronger, give it a little room of its own: Over the next decade, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. That’s 500 people in this city alone.
4. Drive home the impact of the most important statistics. Over the next decade, in this city alone, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. That’s 500 fewer grieving families.
5. Choose carefully. Find the most compelling statistic, the one with the strongest emotional connection, the one that fits your case precisely.
6. Be relentless about embedding your statistics in a narrative. That way they’ll come across less as factoids and more as plot developments. Every number has to move your argument forward-or it will pull you down. Eliminate anything that takes you off on a tangent.
7. A series of statistics in rapid succession can work. The numbers have to be simple and clear, though, so the meaning doesn’t get lost in the weeds of complex sentence structure. We make up 6 percent of overall senior departmental positions. Eight percent in science. Two percent—2 percent!—in both business and architecture.
Be ruthlessly honest. Compare apples to apples. Avoid the temptation to play with the vertical axis of a graph (or some other manipulation) to exaggerate a change or a difference.
This PDF is a handy summary of some common ways people mislead with statistics—accidentally or otherwise. (If honesty itself isn’t motivation enough, bear in mind that the moment an audience member realizes you’re pulling a fast one, you’ve lost him or her for good.)
Good luck. Please share in the comments section your own techniques for telling better stories (and crafting better speeches) with numbers.
A version of this article originally appeared on Rob Cottingham’s blog.