Most business presentations require detailed argumentation supported by numeric data. Tables and charts seem indispensable. But is this enough to persuade your recipients to your point of view?
The Chart Gems
Tables and charts are indispensable elements of every business presentation. There’s no doubt about that. But which form is better? A table or a chart?
Obviously, charts and graphs. Tables are simply a set of numbers ordered in a sequence. But a chart is a visual representation of those numbers. We all prefer to see a visual representation rather than an abstract sequence.
However, there’s a tiny chance that charts – regardless of how good they are – impress our recipients. Everyone who saw the movie “Inconvenient Truth” remembers Al Gore’s graphs showing CO2 emissions over the last century.
For those who didn’t see the movie – Al Gore showed a line graph that was animated in such a way that it rose higher and higher until it finally went beyond the scale. It eventually began to rise… above the screen. For an even more dramatic effect, to discuss this graph, Al Gore climbed on a mechanical lift and talked about the dangers of climate change from a few meters above the stage. It truly impressed the audience.
The Masters of Communication Through Numbers
You need to put in some effort to create memorable charts and engagingly display numerical data. You need to find something interesting – a metaphor, a unique way of showing data. It’s hard, but it’s worth the effort.
In its presentations, Apple showed data in a masterful way. When Steve Jobs revealed the iPod to the world for the first time, he didn’t just state it had 5GB of memory. He explained further, saying: This means 1,000 songs in your pocket.
He knew that “5GB of memory” meant nothing to his audience. Was it a lot? Was it a little? It was hard to say because, at that time, not many people fully understood the gigabyte scale. But 1,000 songs in your pocket? That’s something everyone could understand. Everyone who used to own a walkman, cassettes, or CDs with 20 songs understood how big of a scale Apple was offering. 1,000 songs made a huge impact.
Most of Us Don’t Understand Numbers
It’s not about trying to show big numbers only. It’s about showing each number in a way that your audience can easily understand and get a sense of its scale – regardless of how big or small it is.
Why do we need to “translate” numbers into understandable language? Well, because, to be honest, most of us don’t understand them.
This was proven by Hans Rosling (the author of the book “Factfulness”) in a series of questions that he asked a variety of people – from students to Nobel Prize winners. It turned out that, regardless of our education or knowledge, most of us don’t have a statistical sense.
We’re unable to correctly estimate whether there are 20% or 80% of vaccinated people in the world. That’s a vast range of guesses. Our lack of statistical intuition was proven in various studies by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
How To Translate Numbers?
Simply said, numbers rarely make an impact on their own. They’re rather abstract. But when numbers are translated into specific images, that’s when we’re able to truly understand their meaning and scale. In the book “Making Numbers Count” by Chip Heath and Karla Starr, the authors show a series of examples of how we can communicate better using numbers.
Here’s one of the most interesting examples they give in the book: What’s the difference between a million and a billion? A mathematician would surely say they differ by three zeros.
One million in a one and six zeros. A billion is a one and nine zeros.
However, someone who wants their audience to truly understand the difference would say something like this:
Imagine you won the lottery of 1 million dollars, and your friend won 1 billion dollars. However, the lottery rules stipulate that you must spend 50,000 dollars from your winnings every day as soon as you win. How long will it take for you to run out of 1 million dollars, and how long will it take your friend to run out of 1 billion dollars?
The answer: You’ll run out of money after 20 days. Your friend will run out of money after… 55 years. Now, can you truly feel the difference between a million and a billion?
Here’s another great way to explain the difference: 1 million seconds is 12 days. 1 billion seconds is… 32 years.
The above examples explain huge, abstract numbers – a million and a billion – using something more tangible: time. We all know how much time is 20 days and 55 years.
And that’s what translating numbers in your presentations is all about – comparing abstract numbers to concrete, tangible things.
- Do you mention in your presentation that your warehouse area is 20,000 square meters?
> Explain that that’s the same as three football fields.
- Do you mention in your presentation that your company has accumulated $14 million in reserve capital?
> Explain that this is the amount that would cover all the costs of the company’s operation for the next three years.
- Do you mention in your presentations that you need 30,000 bricks to build your factory?
> Explain that if you put all the bricks on top of one another to form a tower, that tower would be 3 km long.
Numbers are powerful. They support our arguments considerably. But only if we translate them into clear, simple, and understandable language can they evoke an array of emotions: surprise, fear, and admiration. And emotions motivate people to make decisions.
If you want to learn the secrets of effectively presenting tables and charts in business presentations, check out my online course Professional PowerPoint Presentations. In the Presentation of Numeric Data module, I share the best practices for presenting this kind of data.