Present Statistics In Context

“I didn’t have 3000 pairs of shoes. I had only 1600 pairs.” Imelda Marcos

Everything’s relative. A million dollars sounds like a lot of money to someone who
makes an average salary, but it’s a drop in the bucket to a Warren Buffett or a Bill
Gates. Running a hundred metres in a few seconds seems like a miracle to ordinary
mortals, but a track and field athlete will work hard to shave even more off that

Yet presenters often quote statistics without benchmarks, so the audience doesn’t
know how to evaluate them. Is $10,000 a lot of money? Well it is for a bicycle. It’s
not much for a house, unless that house is in a small village in a third world
country, where it might be exorbitant. If you quote numbers this way, you will lose
the audience while they try to decide whether $125,000 is good, bad or indifferent
in this context. Your statistics lose their power.

In a presentation skills workshop for a group of lawyers, one participant was
practicing his delivery of an address to the jury in an upcoming trial. He was asking
for damages in the amount of $750,000, and hoped the jury would consider it
reasonable. It’s quite a large sum, and most ordinary folks think of that kind of cash
as a lottery win. He needed to put it in context for them.

He might, for example, ask the jury to suppose they were thirty-five years old and
earning a salary of $40,000 a year. By the time they reached the age of sixty-five,
allowing for reasonable increases, they could expect to have earned a certain
amount. (He would do the arithmetic and insert the actual sum.) That amount would
be what is called their “expected lifetime income”. However, if they were involved in
an accident and suddenly unable to work any more, that amount now represents
their “forfeited lifetime income”. That is what happened to this claimant, and the
amount he would have lost was $750,000. So in fact, counsel was asking no more
than the amount the man would have earned, had he not met with this unfortunate

Don’t you think the jury is more likely to agree when given this background

Here are three ways to put figures in context for your audience.

1. Compare them to something to which they can personally relate, as in the
courtroom example.

2. Compare them to a similar situation. If a new manufacturing process takes fifteen
minutes, mention that the old one took two hours, so we save 1-3/4 hours.

even more effect, tell them how much time this will save in an average shift or on a
certain number of product units. Go further and translate that time into money and
the statistic will now be a strong argument for change.

3. Create vivid word pictures to illustrate size: That’s the equivalent of five football
fields. That’s enough to fill ten Olympic-size swimming pools. If laid end-to-end
they would stretch from New York to L.A. and back again.

Statistics can be great persuaders, but only when the audience has the means to
evaluate them.