Why It’s Okay To Drown Your Audience In Statistics

Most communications experts advise that you should never drown your audience in data. They maintain that audiences are unable to remember raw numbers unless you wrap them in context and meaning first.

They’re right—mostly. But there’s one important exception to the rule I’ve never addressed on this blog.

Before sharing that exception to the rule, it’s worth reviewing the usual best practices advice for conveying statistical information. As a brilliant example, Brian Williams opened the NBC Nightly News with this attention-grabbing statement last month: “The last time the leaders of Iran and the United States spoke to each other directly, half the current population of this country had not yet been born.”

Instead of relying on raw population growth numbers, he synthesized his point into a much more memorable sound bite.

Person under crumpled pile of papers with hand holding a help sign / isolated on white

In The Media Training Bible, I offered another example: “If your car company is introducing an updated model, you’d be proud to announce that the improved version gets four miles more per gallon. But you’d get even more traction if you said, ‘That’s enough to get from Maine to Miami once per year—without spending an extra penny on gas.’”

Both of those examples avoid the problem of drowning your audience with the types of numbers that are likely to be forgotten before your interview or presentation even ends.

The Exception To The Rule

Sometimes, drowning your audience with a rapid-fire series of statistics is exactly the right thing to do. Your goal in those moments isn’t to help the audience remember each specific number—you know they won’t—but to create a larger and maybe even dramatic impression.

Imagine a speaker delivering the following information while building to a powerful crescendo—until the very end, when the speaker finishes the last phrase in a virtual whisper:

“Almost one in every 100 adults between the ages of 15 and 49 worldwide has HIV. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 1 in every 20 adults is living with the disease. The numbers of people living with HIV in Southern Africa alone are stunning. Namibia, 190,000 people. Swaziland, 190,000. Botswana, 300,000. Lesotho, 320,000. South Africa, 5.6 million.”

Few members of an audience will remember those specific numbers. But if the speaker’s main goal is to leave the audience with an unmistakable impression of the severity of the HIV crisis, the rapid succession of numbers will succeed in conveying it.

Use this approach no more than once per presentation (unless you bookend your speech in the open and close with it.). If you’d like to use additional statistics during your talk, use the “best practice” version described at the beginning of this article.

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*Source: World Health Organization