Numbers can be captivating if you move beyond just spouting the data. According to Now You See It author Stephen Few, “As providers of quantitative business information, it is our responsibility to do more than sift through the data and pass it on; we must help our readers gain the insight contained therein. We must design the message in a way that leads readers on a journey of discovery, making sure that what’s important is clearly seen and understood. Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.”

Numbers rarely speak for themselves. How big is a billion? How does that figure compare to others? What causes the numbers to go up or down? You can leave it up to individual interpretation, or you can explain the bumps, anomalies, and trends by accompanying them with narrative.

There are a few ways to explain the narrative in the numbers:

Scale: Nowadays, we casually throw around profoundly large (and minutely small) numbers. Whether it’s a corporate presentation or sales training, explain the grandness of scale by contrasting it with items of familiar size.

stats in a presentation slide

WaterPartner.org’s 2008 animation: “This year, 1 white girl will be kidnapped in Aruba, 4 will die in shark attacks, 79 will die of Avian flu, 965 will die in airplane crashes, 14,600 will lose their lives in armed conflict, 5,000,000 will die from water-related disease. That’s a tsunami twice a month or five Hurricane Katrinas each day, or a World Trade Center disaster every four hours. Where are the headlines? Where is our outrage? Where is our humanity?”

Compare: Some numbers sound deceptively small or large until they’re put into context by comparing them to numbers of similar value in a different context.

Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini’s 2010 CES Presentation:

“Today we have the industry’s first-shipping 32- nanometer process technology. A 32-nanometer microprocessor is 5,000 times faster; its transistors are 100,000 times cheaper than the 4004 processor that we began with. With all respect to our friends in the auto industry, if their products had produced the same kind of innovation, cars today would go 470,000 miles per hour. They’d get 100,000 miles per gallon and they’d cost three cents. We believe that these advances in technology are bringing us into a new era of computing.”

Context: Numbers in charts go up and down or get bigger and smaller. Explaining the environmental and strategic factors that influence the changes gives the numbers meaning.

Duarte Founder Mark Duarte’s Vision Presentation:

When rolling out the 2010 vision, Mark showed a graphic depicting four bold strategic moves the organization had taken every five years since its founding twenty years ago. He explained how each strategic span of five years formed the corporate values. Then, he overlaid historic revenue trends over the same five-year increments showing how Duarte weathered each economic storm, emphasizing the role each strategic surge created in growth and opportunity. There was little resistance in understanding why the next five-year plan was worth supporting.

Telling the narrative implied in the numbers helps others see the meaning of the numbers. By training yourself to explain the numbers within a presentation in a way that makes sense to your audience, you minimize resistance and increase the chances your audience will take action.

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