25March 2024

Public Speaking Tips for Statistics

Too many statistics in one speech can be both overwhelming and boring.
So we should only be looking for those ‘killer’ statistics – those numbers that make the point better than a story alone can;
but then, of course, a well-chosen statistic will probably  be able to tell a story in itself:
- Exactly how many people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in small boats?
- How many men in the UK die of prostate cancer each year?
- How many people downloaded Taylor Swift’s latest song?
Overwhelm starts when we are told firstly how many young people there are in the UK,
what percentage download music and of them
how many have downloaded Tailor Swift and of those
how many did so in the last two weeks?
You might get away with that if you were able to accompany those numbers with a visual image that starts with all the young people in the UK and visually narrows down by stages to how many downloads in the last two weeks, otherwise the audience will be left spinning, not remembering whether the percentage they remember was the number who download music, download Taylor Swift or whether it was the how many did so in the last two weeks.
Unless the speaker decides which of those numbers is the most important and therefore chooses to emphasise that number and makes it stick by sign-posting it with inflection and vocal emphasis, the danger always remains that all those numbers will overwhelm the audience and afterwards they will have retained nothing!
So limit yourself to statistics that will make the greatest impact, where the numbers virtually state the key message in themselves.
Nancy Duarte sees a presentation as existing somewhere between a story on one extreme and pure data on the other extreme.
A pure story is very engaging but it might lack sufficient detail and analysis for a presentation,
whereas pure data is likely to be too dry and abstract and will need an element of storytelling to bring it to life.  Therefore the happy medium for a speaker is to be able to tell a story to make a point and back it up with arresting data.

10 tips for using statistics in Public Speaking

  1. To discipline yourself

In the same way, as you do not want a speech that is too wide-ranging, you do not want to be throwing out a raft of random statistics.  Decide on the key message, back that up with typically no more than three examples or sections or stories, and only then if you find you have a statistic that powerfully reinforces the point, only then should you use it.

  1. To increased credibility

I recently attended a talk on Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a civil engineer from the Victorian age, whose major achievement was the creation (in response to the Great Stink of 1858) of a sewerage system for central London.  To be told that he was responsible for constructing a network of 82 miles of enclosed underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of street sewers, to divert the raw sewage which flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London to the river, immediately affirmed that the speaker knew his subject and was a credible master of the finer details of his talk.
As already stated, do not overdo it, as just a few well-chosen dates and statistics will add context and credibility to the presentation.  A long list of facts and dates will sound like a school student’s boring history essay and the listener will probably become overwhelmed and not retain any of the dates.

  1. As a reliable source

A statistic will only have the desired effect if it comes from a credible source.  This is becoming harder as social media will throw out fanciful numbers to justify an extreme perspective.  A claim on the number of illegal immigrants in a country made by an extreme Nationalist organisation may be exaggerated to justify proposing a harsh course of action. 
And ever since the universal cry of ‘fake news’, it is increasingly difficult to find a source everyone is happy to accept.  Donald Trump used the term ‘fake news’ to mean news that he did not like and consequently, he casually dismissed the BBC as ‘Here’s another beauty’ in his new list of unreliable sources, when he was first elected US president. 
Often we may now find that if the audience decides they do not like your statistic they will ’choose’ to regard the source as unreliable.

  1. To highlight and clarify

There are many important dates in Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s life, but if you want to focus your talk around the building of the London sewer network, then maybe 1858 as the year of the ‘big stink’ that finally became so intolerable that action needed to be taken and the resulting 82 miles of enclosed underground sewers are probably enough to highlight firstly the ‘moment’ when action was finally taken and then the scale of the vast undertaking and extent of the system.

  1. To increase tension and focus

When Steve Jobs delivered his 1984 speech identifying IBM with the faceless Big Brother from George Orwell’s novel, he structured his speech around a series of dates that built up to the momentous date that we all were expecting:
It is 1958
It is 10 years later, late ‘60s,
It is now 10 years later the late ‘70s
It is now 1984!.

Most presentations that want to highlight a trend will be structured around a series of numbers that plot an increase or a decline depending on the purpose of the speech.
In this case, having a list of numbers is no longer a problem, as long as the many numbers provide a rhythm to the speech and work together to contribute to one picture of overall improvement or gradual decline.

  1. To compare

Public Speaking is an ideal visual format for expressing comparisons and contrasts.  There are many opportunities to use ‘one the one hand’ / ‘on the other hand’ statements, which can be visually supported by literally laying out the two sides of the argument on either side of you.  This becomes a great opportunity to emphasise some ‘beforehand’ and ‘now’ comparative statistics, allowing you to give the numbers extra emphasis through the voice and physical placing of one set of figures ‘one the one hand’ and the other set of figures ‘ on the other’.

  1. Fact-check your numbers

We need to consider the level of skepticism of the audience.  If the audience is not disposed to accept your argument, it will be extra alert for any justifiable reason to reject your claim.  A statistic from an unreliable source or one that is out of date or limited to a specific range of data will allow the audience to doubt its validity.  Therefore if you are aware that your listeners may be hostile to your message, it is essential not just to announce your numbers and their source, but to emphasise how the numbers were taken, where they were taken, and when they were taken and stress guarantees to impartiality.

  1. To connect your numbers to your stories and your stories to your numbers

Mervin King, a former Head of the Bank of England, understood that his presentations could easily become statistic-laden; after all his job was all about the numbers, but he always made sure that he was able to tie his numbers to a narrative – how the rise in interest rates would affect a typical family, what the rate of inflation means to an average household.

  1. Write them down

If the whole credibility of your presentation revolves around the significance of the numbers, you probably do not want to risk getting them wrong or mixed up.  In fact the act of looking down at your notes just as you announce your key numbers demonstrates to the audience that what you are announcing is so important that you are not willing to take any risks.  It also gives you a moment to pause before you pronounce your findings, allowing the significance of the numbers to register.  Clearly, you cannot do this with a whole raft of numbers in your speech, which is why it is worth isolating that key statistic with which you want to make the big impact.

  1. To structure the speech

We had a hint of this with Steve Jobs’ 1984 speech.   A series of dates will allow you to organise your material into a simple chronological structure; it will highlight the sections of the speech and will create a rhythm to the delivery.

Numbers will give force and credibility to a speech but should be used sparingly.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.