Present Statistics In Context
“I didn’t have 3000 pairs of shoes. I had only 1600 pairs.” — Imelda Marcos
Everything’s relative. A million dollars sounds like a lot of money to someone who makes an average salary, but it’s a drop in the bucket to a Warren Buffett or a Bill Gates. Running a hundred metres in a few seconds seems like a miracle to ordinary mortals, but a track and field athlete will work hard to shave even more off that time.
Yet presenters often quote statistics without benchmarks, so the audience doesn’t know how to evaluate them. Is $10,000 a lot of money? Well it is for a bicycle. It’s not much for a house, unless that house is in a small village in a third world country, where it might be exorbitant. If you quote numbers this way, you will lose the audience while they try to decide whether $125,000 is good, bad or indifferent in this context. Your statistics lose their power.
In a presentation skills workshop for a group of lawyers, one participant was practicing his delivery of an address to the jury in an upcoming trial. He was asking for damages in the amount of $750,000, and hoped the jury would consider it reasonable. It’s quite a large sum, and most ordinary folks think of that kind of cash as a lottery win. He needed to put it in context for them.
He might, for example, ask the jury to suppose they were thirty-five years old and earning a salary of $40,000 a year. By the time they reached the age of sixty-five, allowing for reasonable increases, they could expect to have earned a certain amount. (He would do the arithmetic and insert the actual sum.) That amount would be what is called their “expected lifetime income”. However, if they were involved in an accident and suddenly unable to work any more, that amount now represents their “forfeited lifetime income”. That is what happened to this claimant, and the amount he would have lost was $750,000. So in fact, counsel was asking no more than the amount the man would have earned, had he not met with this unfortunate accident.
Don’t you think the jury is more likely to agree when given this background explanation?
Here are three ways to put figures in context for your audience.
Compare them to something to which they can personally relate, as in the courtroom example.
Compare them to a similar situation. If a new manufacturing process takes fifteen minutes, mention that the old one took two hours, so we save 1-3/4 hours. For even more effect, tell them how much time this will save in an average shift or on a certain number of product units. Go further and translate that time into money and the statistic will now be a strong argument for change.
Create vivid word pictures to illustrate size: That’s the equivalent of five football fields. That’s enough to fill ten Olympic-size swimming pools. If laid end-to-end they would stretch from New York to L.A. and back again.
Statistics can be great persuaders, but only when the audience has the means to evaluate them.