Using Statistics to Tell a Compelling Story

We’ve discussed at length recently various ways to make data and statistics interesting in presentations. We’ve established that data should always be as visual as possible. Boring, lengthy, dense charts, graphs and infographics are the quickest way to lose the audience’s interest. We know that facts have meaning when we ascribe meaning to them, and we know that statistics can be skewed to fit a variety of meanings depending on the context they are placed in. We can’t stress enough the importance of using statistics in a way that tells a compelling story.

TED darling Hans Rosling whose 2006 talk on statistics has almost 3.9 million views, said, “I know that having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.” Precisely, Mr. Rosling. Watch his talk from 3:50 to 4:55 to see how exemplary illustration of how to be animated and charismatic about statistics. He narrates over a graph depicting the change in fertility rate versus life expectancy over time like an auctioneer spouting off bids at a chaotic auction. He’s entertaining and exciting. He makes the data interesting and fun.


Use this kind of enthusiasm when presenting boring statistics. Make it fun and lighthearted and interesting. While it may be inappropriate to bounce around the room getting crazy excited about the data on your slide in a room full of CEOs, at the very least, be animated about what you’re presenting. The old adage goes: only boring people are bored. Likewise with presentations: only boring people present boring data. Be excited! Be energized!


Jonathan Safran Foer does an excellent job presenting statistics in a compelling way in his book Eating Animals. As we discussed last week, Foer makes sure to place his statistics in the context of a story, which strengthens their meaning and compels the reader to care. He also does a superb job using interesting visuals to strengthen his statistics, unlike the majority of writers who are dealing with recondite data.


With some of the most compelling statistics in the book, he shows, rather than tells. For example: “…estimates put the number of downed cows [an animal that collapses from poor health and is unable to stand back up] at around 200,000 a year – about two cows for every word in this book.” By adding that last bit of information he encourages the audience to visualize just how many cows that is per year. He could have said simply, the number of downed cows per year is around 200,000, but he compels his audience to care, to think about exactly what that number means. Putting that number in a context that we can clearly visualize strengthens the meaning of the statistic.


Likewise, rather than simply state the typical size of a cage for egg-laying hens (67 square inches of space) Mr. Foer dedicates two pages to an actual 67 square inch rectangle, allowing the reader to visualize exactly the size of the cage. The statistic 67 square inches doesn’t mean anything to a reader. Most can barely visualize the length of a foot. But showing the actual rectangle on the page hammers home the statistic. It makes the reader want to hold the page up to others and say, “Hey! Look at this!” This is the kind of visualize representation of statistics we need in presentations: something that clearly demonstrates the importance, the meaning, the implications of a statistic.


Think outside of the box the next time you need to present statistics. Channel Mr. Foer and think of a creative way you can visually represent that staggering statistic. Maybe if you’re attempting to show the number 5,000 visually, you could fill a slide with a relevant five-letter word 1,000 times. Show rather than tell statistics as much as possible. The result is more impactful and compelling. It will leave your audience with a clear idea of what the statistic really means.

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