Your stats are paralyzing your audience

Huge numbers can daunt your listeners, preventing them from hoisting aboard concepts—and from opening their wallets. Try these techniques for more accessible info.

When you’re using statistics in a presentation, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. Unfortunately, just because those numbers are meaningful to you, it doesn’t mean they’re at all fathomable to your audience.

This is why it’s important to break down big numbers into manageable and concrete concepts and visuals. Here are two ways to do so:

1. Portion large numbers into bite-size chunks.

I’m working on a project in which 20 nonprofit leaders are getting training and coaching to develop three-minute “fast pitches.” The top 10 finalists will go on to an event at which they’ll be judged, and the winners will get cash prizes. (Read about Fast Pitch here.)

Many nonprofits have big numbers: They serve large numbers of people, they provide large quantities of food to their clients, or they need large sums of money to do their work.

The speakers who are most successful at conveying their numbers are those who make the numbers manageable. For example, asking each person in an audience of 300 to donate $200 a year for the next three years is much more effective than saying, “We need $180,000,” and leaving it at that.

As someone who wants to help a local organization, I find that number just too big. I’m paralyzed by it, and I’m pretty sure my meager $25 check isn’t going to make a difference. So I don’t write one.

2. Paint a picture or use an analogy, so the large number equates to something familiar.

This sign about how much our local zoo’s herd of giraffes eats every year paints a vivid picture of how much grain equals 18,000 pounds.

This amount of grain is hard to comprehend, but envisioning it as being the weight of a school bus gives me a much clearer perspective. There is no specific request associated with this statistic, but perhaps knowing that my donation would help the zoo acquire a huge mountain of giraffe feed might inspire me to give money.

Here’s an example that makes the size of a rocket comprehensible when compared to two familiar images: a football field and the Statue of Liberty.

Many statistics in presentations are just tossed in with no thought to how they will affect the audience or whether they will help persuade the audience to do what you want them to do.

First, give more thought to how and why you are using your statistics. Once you have a good reason to use them, create manageable and concrete numbers for your audience. Fit those figures into your overall message so your audience is inspired, not paralyzed, by them.

Have ideas for making your big numbers manageable? Please post them in the comments.

A version of this article originally appeared on Speak Schmeak.

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