How to Give A Presentation Involving Numbers

Are you wondering how to give a presentation that involves numbers? Check out these tips that can help you take the "numb" out of numbers.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
March 23, 2017

Not everyone may know how to give a presentation involving numbers. It may be challenging for many to present complex numerical data.

For one thing, overwhelming listeners with too many numbers may reduce the clarity of your message. When presenting to potential clients or senior executives, a lack of clarity may prevent you from achieving the goal of the presentation that you worked so hard to prepare.

You can guard against this by adopting a few key principles to help you present numerical data more effectively. It can pay to know a few guiding principles on how to give a presentation involving numbers.

1. Give context for the numbers.

It's safe to say that you're rarely asked to present just the raw data. So when you give a presentation involving numbers, I advise against just reciting the raw figures. Give audiences the context for your numbers. What's your analysis of the numbers? Is there a trend that you can showcase? How do the numbers compare to the industry average? There are a number of relevant insights that you can share. Here's an example.

Poor: Net profits amounted to 4 million dollars in the second quarter of 2016. Profits were 15 percent higher than in the first quarter.

Better: Net profits amounted to 4 million dollars in the second quarter of 2016. This is highest number for two years. Profits were 15 percent higher than in the first quarter. The increase in net profits resulted from two main factors: lower gasoline costs and higher profits from our new subsidiaries in the western region. While we're pleased with the results, we are still below our competitor's market share.

2. Replace some numbers with words.

We tend to remember words better than numbers.

Rather than always stating numbers in percentages, consider using words sometimes. For example, instead of saying "59 percent of Americans," consider saying "three out of five Americans would try a new brand for better service."

3. Round up the numbers in your presentation.

Wondering how to give a presentation with all the numbers you have at your disposal? You can leave the unrounded number for the handout: Rounding the numbers you present can help make them easier to remember.

Help your audience visualize the numbers by turning the unfamiliar into familiar, the abstract into concrete. 

Take a large number like 349,670, as an example. People are more likely to better remember the number if you say "approximately 350,000." Some people, especially executives and those in technical fields, like to do math on the fly. Consider making it easy for them to compare your numbers by rounding them out.

4. Display your data graphically when giving a presentation.

Charts or graphs may make it easier for your listeners to grasp your message in a flash. But you may want to avoid some common pitfalls in chart design. Here are some general pointers for the three most commonly-used charts.

Pie Charts

When you think about how to give a presentation involving numbers, you may immediately think of using pie charts. But I recommend avoiding pie charts if you have too many slices in the pie. This can make it difficult for the eye to quickly distinguish the relative sizes of the slices, and it can make the data more difficult to quickly interpret during a presentation. A rule of thumb is to limit the pie to six slices or fewer.

The percentages in the pie chart need to add to 100 percent. If the figures you're using are not proportions of some whole, you may not want to use a pie chart.

Consider ordering your slices from the largest to the smallest starting from 12:00, unless you have a very specific reason to justify deviating from this order. Also, try not to make people squint to understand your data visualization.

Bar Charts

If you have long data labels, you may want to use a horizontal bar chart instead of a vertical one. This might make your graph easier to grasp at a glance as it allows for reading from left to right as we normally do.

Consider starting the vertical axis in bar charts at zero—your audience perceives the value of the data by the length of the bar in the chart. If you start the bar at say 2,000, you may unwittingly create visual distortions in the comparisons of the lengths of the bars. An accurate judgment of length needs a zero baseline.

Line Charts

Unlike bar graphs, in a line chart, it's not generally mandatory to start the vertical axis at zero. You might choose a starting value other than zero to help you focus the lens on the specific data you're discussing. Consider using solid lines in different colors rather than a distracting variation of dotted or dashed lines.

5. Be judicious in the use of tables and spreadsheets.

When learning how to give a presentation, know this: You can use a table in your presentation provided it contains a relatively small set of numbers. Complex tables or spreadsheets, however, may not be the most effective way of presenting data because your audience may not have time to quickly absorb and interpret all the figures. These can be left for the handout. In the live presentation, consider presenting a summary of only the key figures that your audience needs to understand the data.

Also, showing a table instead of a graph could be an appropriate choice if the precise number is important and may not be highlighted with the same degree of precision by using a graph. For example, you may want to ensure your audience understands a crucial change from 4.55 to 4.57. This subtlety, if important to your topic, may be lost in a graph.

6. Help your audience visualize the numbers.

Help your audience visualize the numbers by turning the unfamiliar into familiar, the abstract into concrete. For example, the total worldwide membership of LinkedIn is approximately 467 million. To help conceptualize this large number, we could say that this is 30 percent more than the entire population of the U.S. By resizing, we might give a sense of the magnitude of a large number.

You can help visualize numbers by using different types of scales such as distance, time, familiar places and things, to name a few.

7. Tell a story to help bring the numbers alive.

One more important point on how to give a presentation involving numbers has to do with storytelling. Remind yourself that data alone rarely inspires. Keep this in mind so you don't just deliver the numbers.

Let's say you're showing that 30 percent of sales were from new customers while 70 percent were from regular customers. Here's an opportunity to tell a brief story to support your numbers. For example, you might mention that the high number of regular customers is a strong indication of the degree of success of the service or quality you provide and insert an illustrative customer service story about one of your clients. Ideally, mention the very words the customer actually said when visiting your office or in their written feedback.

Numbers may boost your credibility when you present. They may help you persuade. Know what story you want to tell your constituents and use the numbers to support your story with clarity and integrity.

Read more articles on presenting.

Photo: iStock
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.