Using statistics in a speech or presentation can enhance your credibility and give your message impact. Or it can confuse, bore or mislead your audience. How can you be sure the statistics you’re planning to use will have the effect you want?
Be accurate and truthful
If what you’re presenting to your audience is not your own data but statistics you’ve found on the internet, don’t assume they’re right. At a meeting of the Professional Speaking Association recently, neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw gave us a list of assertions she’d heard speakers refer to as if they were established facts – such as that human beings use only 7% of our brains. (I can’t imagine where the person found that statistic. When I googled it, everything said 10%… though even that is a myth.)
Apart from anything else, if you’re regurgitating myths that have been around a long time, your audience will have heard them before and may tune out as soon as they spot the old chestnut on the horizon.
Just because you’ve heard something many times and it chimes with what you believe, this doesn’t mean it’s true. The danger is, as economist Tim Harford points out: “If the claim slots into our preconceptions about the world, we accept it and perhaps repeat it. If it challenges us, we reject it instinctively.”
Searching for ‘facts’ to support one’s view is a natural impulse, but using statistics that have been skewed, misconstrued or – Heaven forbid! – made up will do nothing for your credibility. Even if you win the argument at the time, sooner or later the truth will come out.
If you’re going to use statistics in a speech or presentation, then, make sure they are accurate. State your source, so people can judge for themselves how authoritative it is. Then make sure you’re showing the whole picture. If what you’re saying has been put forward by one or more experts but is disputed by one or more others, you owe it to your audience to tell them so. By all means, give them your opinion – just don’t characterise it as uncontested fact.
Far from undermining your case, scrupulous honesty and precision will paint you as well informed, confident and credible.
Make your statistics stand out
However startling your statistics may be, they’re not going to make an impact if the audience doesn’t grasp them. The way oral communication works, if a listener misses a word or two of what you’re saying, he/she can usually reconstruct what they must have been and continue to follow the story. When you come to say something that people are not going to be able to reconstruct – such as a statistic or a name – it’s essential you make it absolutely clear. Enunciate it unambiguously. Repeat it. Put some ‘white space’ around it (ie, pause before you say it and again after you’ve said it).
Put your statistics in context and bring them to life
Even when your statistics are coming across loud and clear, they still won’t have an impact unless the audience understands what they mean.
At a check-up the other day, the doctor took my blood pressure. She told me the result without inflection and I didn’t know whether to be reassured or alarmed. Without context and a frame of reference, numbers are just numbers.
Sometimes it’s useful, before you reveal your statistic, to ask your audience to consider what they think the figure might be. I suggest you ask them to do this silently – I’m not a fan of getting people to shout out answers, partly because if they’re wildly wrong, participants can feel silly about having displayed their ignorance, and partly because if someone gives the right answer straightaway, it steals your thunder. But getting them to think about it in advance sets them up to take in what you’re about to tell them.
Another approach is to make a comparison, to translate the figures into a context the audience can readily relate to.
Or you could show a chart or a graph, a visual representation of your statistics.
As you’re preparing your speech or presentation, bear in mind that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see and 30% of what they hear. (No, they don’t! That’s a joke. The link is to an interesting article that backs up the first part of this post.)