I recently saw a speech by someone clearly accustomed to the public spotlight and comfortable on the stage. She had an important message to deliver about a profound social injustice. She spoke with authority and confidence.

And she spent nearly all twenty minutes of her speech reciting statistics.

Good, compelling statistics: stark, often startling, sometimes infuriating. But two hours after her speech, I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you any of them.

Now, there was an interview-style Q&A after the speech where she was a lot more engaging. But by that point, she’d already lost a big chunk of the audience.

When it comes to statistics in speeches, less really is more. One or two telling statistics to buttress an argument or illustrate a point can be powerful. Once your trickle of stats swells to a flood, though, your audience can easily get overwhelmed and emotionally detached. And you risk swapping being a storyteller for being a stock ticker.

Al Gore's scissor liftThat’s not to say you can’t pull off a number-heavy speech. Re-watch An Inconvenient Truth sometime to see how Al Gore did this to powerful effect. It’s brilliant… but remember, that speech was meticulously crafted. And even at that, the numbers alone don’t carry the day; they get a memorable assist from a scissor lift.

Chances are you won’t have one of those handy, so you’ll need to find other ways to make stats work for your speech instead of dragging it down. And as crucial a skill as that is today, it’s only going to get more important in our increasingly data-driven world.

So how can you make sure your stats come off more as compelling drama than mind-numbing litany?

  • State them clearly, simply and starkly. Lose the jargon: not a reduction in mortality from pulminary carcinoma of 500 instances, but 500 fewer people dying from lung cancer.
  • Use active verbs to underline causal relationships: This regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer.
  • Put the qualifiers up front, so they don’t detract from the power of the figure. Over the next decade, in this city alone, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. Or if the qualification makes the statistic stronger, give it a little room of its own: Over the next decade, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. That’s 500 people in this city alone.
  • Drive home the impact of the most important statistics. Over the next decade, in this city alone, this regulation will keep 500 people from dying of lung cancer. That’s 500 fewer grieving families.
  • Choose very carefully. Find the most compelling statistic, the one with the strongest emotional connection, the one that fits your case precisely.
  • Be relentless about embedding your statistics in a narrative, so they end up less as factoids and more as plot developments. Every number has to move your argument forward — or it’ll be pulling you down. Anything that takes you off down a tangent has to go. 
  • A series of statistics in rapid succession can work — but they have to be simple and clear, so the meaning doesn’t get lost in the weeds of complex sentence structure. We make up six per cent of overall senior departmental positions. Eight per cent in science. Two per cent — two per cent! — in both business and architecture.

Be ruthlessly honest. Compare apples to apples. And watch for the temptation to, say, play with the vertical axis of a graph to exaggerate a change or a difference. This PDF is a handy summary of some common ways people mislead with statistics… accidentally or otherwise. (And if honesty itself isn’t motivation enough, bear in mind that the moment an audience member realizes you’re pulling a fast one, you’ve lost them for good.)

Good luck. And please share your own techniques for telling better stories (and crafting better speeches) with numbers.

Illustration from an image by Flickr user franckmichel