As the old saying goes, there’s lies, damned lies, and statistics. As the new saying (kind of) goes, there’s news and fake news. Truth is, of course, numbers are neutral, and statistics can and should be used to support the call to action you want to make to an audience. In business you have to get to the numbers and assumptions to get anything big approved, so how do you build a narrative with numbers?
1. Know your numbers.
Either you have numbers that validate your position, in which case you know how they can support your presentation; or you have numbers that prove the opposite of what you expected, in which case ethics tells you to re-examine your conclusions; or you get the numbers and then develop your narrative based on what they reveal. What’s most important is that the story you want to tell your audience align with the statistics.
2. Know your story.
You are taking your audience on a journey, from where they are when you encounter them (their “Point A”) to the conclusion you want them to draw and the action you want them to take (“Point B”). Just as a map will tell you how many miles from Denver to Kansas City, but you need a guidebook to find good food, a clean hotel, and the world’s largest ball of string, a successful journey will appeal to both sides of the brain. Whether written or spoken, you need to have a narrative with a clear through-line, and that means some drama, an obstacle to overcome, a villain and a hero, and an ultimate destination. Numbers alone won’t get the job done.
3. Present your numbers well.
If you’re using statistics, different information requires different treatment to get your point across. You wouldn’t present multiple-choice responses in a pie chart unless the choices were mutually exclusive. When we’re creating presentation graphics or designing an infographic for a client, we carefully consider the audience they are trying to reach and how easy it will be for a reader or viewer to understand what is being presented at a glance. You don’t want people puzzling over a graphic that pulls their attention from following your full narrative. Check out Gene Zelazny’s “Say It with Charts” – it’s a great starting point for selecting the best way to deliver statistical information.
4. Humanize your numbers.
Ultimately, it’s not about the numbers themselves, it’s about the story they tell. Each one must fit into your meta-narrative, and your job is to make the audience see what’s behind the numbers. Productivity on the factory floor is up 14%? Who drove that? What initiative made it happen? How many more widgets did you ship, did you help a retailer avoid a stock-out at a critical time? Your listeners are likely flooded with numbers so they’re easy to forget – a good story helps lock the point down and may even make the number more memorable.
5. Keep graphics visually interesting.
What if the traditional bar or pie chart won’t do the trick? Some of my favorite ways to show data include...
Using shaded people icons –
That’s 30 percent!
Using part of a picture...
Rhino population only 60% of previous levels?
Get creative. Car wheels or wheels of cheese for a pie chart (don’t use a pie – too cliché).
How will you make your numbers memorable? Make them understandable and easy to recall (comprehension and retention) and you’ll increase your odds of getting the emotion and action you want from your audience.
How much? I don’t know, maybe this much?