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Numerically Speaking

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Use numbers as an opportunity to wow your audience, not put them to sleep. Less is more.

Did you know that Company X made $1,560,780,000 last year? Did you know that the adult literacy rate in Brazil is 83 percent? Did you know that by the age of 18 American children have seen 200,000 commercials? Did you know that stock has risen 60 percent over the last three years, followed by a period of 15 percent decline? Do you care?

Numbers feel and sound intelligent, appeal to an audience's logic, and when used appropriately in a speech, can be a powerful way to illustrate an important point. But numbers also are difficult to listen to and even more difficult to interpret when we can't read or see them. This includes everything from dates and statistics to money and raw data. Even the savviest number crunchers need help when being introduced to numbers verbally.

Audience members expect speakers to fulfill their responsibility to be clear, relevant and meaningful; therefore, every speaker should make careful decisions about using numbers in a presentation. While numbers have the potential to make audience members tune out, they also have the power to wow them if they are presented sparingly, clearly, vividly, visually and ethically.

1. Use numbers sparingly. Just because the numbers are available does not mean you have to use all of them. Dates are one of the most common number traps. For instance, say you are invited to introduce a well-known author. You have been asked to deliver an introduction extolling her virtues and describing her accomplishments. In your research, you found an overwhelming amount of information, including a detailed résumé of her life. No matter how much the audience loves this author, they do not want to hear "...and in 1973 she won X contest, and in 1978 she wrote this article, and in 1979 she had a baby, and in 1980, she earned a master's degree...." Timelines are boring!

But, say you noticed that she had a very productive 1995 when she wrote her most well-known material. This is an important date and one that should not be left out. Pulling out the most important information and synthesizing it in a way that avoids the overuse of numbers is a hallmark of an advanced speaker.

For some reason, we as a people have decided that those who spout numbers actually know something. Therefore, speakers are tempted to integrate as many empty numbers as possible into a presentation. The irony of this is that while the speaker believes that he or she sounds quite intelligent, people hate listening to lots of numbers and automatically tune out. Think of the last time a colleague began running a list of statistics, figures, prices or numerical records. How fast did you lose interest? The less you use numbers, the better. A few well-placed numbers are more powerful than a battery of stats and figures.

2. Use numbers clearly. If a statistic, date or year is critical to your speech, make that number as clear as possible. When your speech is over, audience members will remember that number or set of numbers as an integral part of your message. If the number is hidden among a numerical mess, what makes it stand out as important?

Theme and repetition are two techniques that can ensure clarity. Making your number the star of your speech will guarantee that audience members comprehend the importance of it. For example, say you are commissioned to deliver a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of your company. In your introduction, instead of saying, "In 1905, our company was born…," you can say, "One hundred years ago, our company was born." Instead of saying, "We started with 96 people," you can say, "we started with fewer than 100 people." The number 100 is obviously significant; you should use it at every possible opportunity to emphasize it.

Like theme, repeating the number, especially in succession, helps audience members understand the weight of the issue.

Imagine you are in charge of persuading a specific audience to donate to the charitable organization you volunteer for. In your research, you have found that donor support from this population has helped save 526,602 lives worldwide. This is an important number for your potential donors to understand clearly. Since this is an obscure number, audience members will never be able to mentally compute it on the first try. They need your help to visualize the number. Think about how many people in an audience ask for a repeat when told to flip to a certain page or when told "this is on the test." It seems that once we realize the importance of a number, it's already too late. Obviously, this is where deliberate and rehearsed repetition can be used to enhance audience clarity. It is your responsibility
as a speaker to make your numbers as clear as possible.

3. Use numbers vividly. It has been said that statistics are to speakers as lamps are to drunkards – used for support, not illumination. The numbers you use in your speech should do both. They should support your claims with quantifiable evidence as well as allow audience members to feel as if they've learned something new.

One of the first lessons of developing meaningful content is to avoid abstractions. While numbers seem specific, they can be extremely abstract when standing alone. Making your numbers vivid is the best way to ensure that you and your audience members are on the same wavelength. In other words, are they perceiving what you intend for them to perceive? Using comparisons is the best way to make your numbers vivid. For instance, the price $456.25 seems like a large sum of money. Compared to 20 dollars, it is. Compared one million dollars, it isn't. Now think of the television commercials that compare prices in order to make numbers more relevant. How often have you heard this? "For the price of a cup of coffee...."

Here is another example: You are trying to persuade council members to fund a sexual-assault hotline for your area. To support your claims, you say, "Twenty-five percent of all women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime." So? Is that a lot? Is that less than we thought? What does it mean? If your statistic stands alone, it becomes irrelevant to audience members – support without illumination. Instead, use the statistic to vivify the significance of the issue while making it relevant to audience members. As an alternative, you may say, "Think of four important women in your life. Did you know that 25 percent of all women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime? That is one of the four women you just imagined: your niece, your best friend, your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter." 

Another way to dramatize your numbers is through delivery techniques such as well-placed pauses, increasing or decreasing volume, change in tone, change in rate, or deliberate gestures or movements.

4. Use numbers visually. It is well known that the more modes of sensory contact we have with information, the more likely we are to understand and remember. In concert with your verbal communication, visual aids can help audience members perceive meaning. Often, visual aids are more helpful than words to convey meaning, especially when many numbers are a part of your message. In fact, good visual representations of your numbers have an impact with which words alone cannot compete. A well-designed chart or graph may stick in the minds of audience members.

For instance, you are in charge of presenting a speech based on the financial growth of your company for the fiscal year. Obviously, numbers will play a significant role in communicating your message. Instead of rattling off a list of rates and figures, a well-planned, clear chart or graph may increase audience understanding of the organizational trend, especially when blended skillfully with your verbal message. In addition to the standard pie chart or bar graph, consider other effective visual demonstrations such as visual timelines, sequence charts, maps or trend diagrams. Remember that your visual aid is designed to do just that: "to aid."

Without clear and meaningful word choices, your visual aid can be equally as confusing and distracting as a list of statistics, figures and rates. Asking yourself honest questions and rehearsing in front of a friend or family member can help you determine the parts of your presentation that are fuzzy and could benefit from support in the form of a visual aid. Though visual aids can be an important part of how your audience perceives and remembers your numerical message, visual aids can be poorly designed, poorly presented and misrepresentative of the numbers you intend to convey. With the advancements in technology, your visual aids should look professional, have one focal point with as few extraneous and distracting features as possible, and express numbers in an ethical manner.

5. Use numbers ethically. According to Lord Kelvin, a 19th century physicist, "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it. But, when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is...meager and unsatisfactory." This canon may be useful for physicists, but what does it mean for contemporary speakers who live in an age where statistics are used ubiquitously and often unethically?

Simply because someone uses numbers does not mean he or she understands what those numbers represent. Using statistics ethically means using statistics in a way that is most representative of the truth. Ethics are not black and white, but some ways to ensure you are using numbers in a principled manner include using appropriate measures and paraphrasing accurately.

For instance, say you were responsible for giving a presentation to a group of your employees who were threatening a strike. You can tell them that their salaries for their industry are competitive and salary increases are unwarranted. The statistic you use is an average of industry salaries, which are grossly inflated due to the huge salaries awarded to top executives. Is this an ethical choice? Is this an appropriate measure to use? Instead of using industry averages, you can use median or mode salaries. The median is the number in the middle once all salaries are ranked from highest to lowest. The mode is the number that occurs most frequently. These numbers may be more representative, less persuasive perhaps, but more symbolic of the truth.

Another way to remain an ethical speaker is to paraphrase accurately. Think of movie reviews. A critic might say the movie was, "From beginning to end, a fantastic bore. What was meant to be exhilarating dialogue was disappointing. If you must see it, bring a pillow." You read in an advertisement that the movie was "From beginning to end, fantastic! Exhilarating! A must see!" Speakers can do this with statistics as well. It is easy to transform messages, especially statistics, to fit your goals, but it also compromises your integrity as a speaker.

Not only should you be aware of how you are using statistics to support your claims, but you should also be aware of how representative the statistic is in the first place. Ways to determine if the statistics you find in your research are representative of the truth include evaluating the source and comparing the statistics to others.

Checking the reliability of a statistical source can be obvious or ambiguous. For instance, it is obvious that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would be a better source for statistics concerning the link between cell phone use and cancer than would a cell phone company who has vested interest in whether or not you buy their product. Not-so-obvious decisions present themselves when there are two factions with very differing viewpoints on the truth.

The numbers may be determined by what argument, what candidate, or what ideas are supported. In the case of competing sides with apparent bias, comparing statistics to other reliable sources is a must. What is everyone else saying? Is this number supported by nonpartisan groups? Can this statistic be found in any major writing about the topic? Can I justify my use of this statistic? Asking these questions is essential to planning an honest and meaningful presentation.

Lord Kelvin may have been on the right track when he expressed his perspective on being able to quantify ideas, but as an audience member it is difficult to listen to numbers. Well-placed, clear, vivid, visual and ethically used numbers can be powerful and persuasive. They can support your claims, bolster a weak argument, dramatize a point and create a sense of credibility. When overused, unclear, uninteresting and unethical, numbers can turn off audience members. What your audience perceives about your message is what your audience perceives about you. So use numbers as an opportunity to wow your audience, not put them to sleep.

By Michele_Caldwell

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