We’ve all heard the cliché about “lies, damned lies and statistics”. We live in a sceptical age, and we’re used to speakers of all kinds manipulating numbers to burnish their argument. You can make statistics say anything, right?

Well, yes and no. Numbers are complex: the tendency towards simplifying them (nine out of ten people loved our project!) has led to a general sense that they’re meaningless. Used appropriately, however, they can be really powerful – people still pay attention to what you might call significant statistics.

What does this mean? First and foremost, choose your numbers wisely. Don’t pick ones based on minimal research, and don’t quote statistics out of context. Offer some reassurances about the numbers you use, so that your audience can trust them.

Do your numbers come from a big survey of a lot of people? Could they be interpreted in a different way? Do they come with caveats? Be open about how important you think the statistic is – but also about its limitations. Build trust.

Next, illustrate your point. A number alone can be a cold thing, difficult to connect with or get your head around. There are two ways to help underline it and ensure it engages your audience: visuals and narratives.

The first involves graphs and charts – a graphic – but don’t overdo this! Particularly on virtual calls, too many graphics are distracting and overwhelming: a single chart or diagram, pared down and simple, to illustrate one statistic, makes the most sense. Compare these two charts: they provide the same information, but one is far easier to grasp than the other. Don’t make your audience work.

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The second method is to illustrate your statistic with a story. Every audience loves a good yarn – humans are story-telling creatures. That means that building a parable around your numbers can help embody them in something specific and relatable: rather than charts, think charm!

Which method you use to bolster your use of statistics will depend largely on the number itself: where it comes from, what it means, how you found it. But if you bear in mind how important it is to keep things simple, build some trust and illustrate your point, then numbers can be really useful as a way of making an argument succinctly.

When it comes to speaking, then, we should treat statistics carefully – but not necessarily sceptically!

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