How to present numbers so they make sense to the listener

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

I’m regularly asked in workshops how to bring numbers to life particularly for your less numerically inclined audiences, so here’s a quick acronym for you. To remember it, think ‘Very Compelling Maths’ (though I understand that Very Incorrect Grammar)!

VISUAL – can you create a visual analogy for the number? A gold analyst at a stockbroking firm I worked for many years ago would compare the area of gold in a newly discovered mine to football fields or swimming pools of gold. The number of cyber-security attacks to your organisation per year can be easily likened to the number of stones vaulted at your castle walls in battle.  Likening a computer to a brain can be visually helpful for us non-tech folk. Consider any walk of life – from cooking, sport, family, work, history, religion, culture or nature – as ‘fertile ground’ (my nature analogy – boom, tish) for numeric analogies.

There’s a lovely, simple explanatory video on 4 STEPS TO MAKING A LARGE NUMBER MAKE SENSE HERE

COMPARE – remember in the old detective shows, when they found a footprint in the mud outside the invaded house, they would put a dollar bill alongside the imprint to take a photo so they could compare the shoe size to something measurable? A number on its own means very little to anyone. When however: you compare the savings made to the alternate investment you could make with those saving; the efficiencies you could create, to time that could be spent on other (named) priorities; the increased profit by focusing on higher margin products to current estimated profits; this quarter’s revenue vs last, the number takes shape and start to make sense and stick.

MEAN -  I’ve had the great privilege over the years to work with a number of market research firms who are tasked, as many of you would know, with presenting data-dense information to often senior management who aren’t as versed in quantitative (or qualitative) research as the experts who are presenting it. True for all of us at one level. We each have our own technical expertise and language that accompanies it. The trick to dealing with each slide of data, no matter how you visually represent it on the slide (the subject of a different blog), is to translate that data into “what does this mean for you (the listener)?”. “Here are some customer satisfaction/employee engagement numbers and what that means for us is….”. “Here’s how our product is perceived by consumers vs our competitors’ and the opportunity for us is….”. “Here are a range of safety issues that have been identified in the last half and what we need to do about that is….”.

I understand that going the extra step of adding visual analogies, comparisons and meaning to your numbers requires an extra effort but how much more effort does it require to repeat and clarify when the numbers haven’t been understood in the first instance?

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