Giving Numbers Bite

By February 11, 2011Presentation Skills

Statistics are usually badly expressed. Throwing out a big number – “the government has spent an extra S40 billion” – sounds impressive but is too abstract to make an impact. Can you – or anyone – visualise $40,000,000,000? How much space would those notes fill?

My twitter feed this morning had a case in point. “Poll: nearly half of public oppose abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance” said the tweet from the Save EMA campaign – and I laughed. Less than half – that’s supposed to be a good thing?

Finding a great stat can make all the difference. Last week, I was helping a guest speaker prepare for a night at the Oxford Union. He is an expert on families and relationships, and has carried out some of the biggest studies in this area, so really knows his stuff.

The two big figures we pulled out were these – see what you think:

Picture a sixteen-year-old child, whose parents are still together. Think of all the families like that up and down the country. Then consider this fact, from census data. In 97% of families who stay together until the child is sixteen, the parents are married. In just 3%, the parents are unmarried.

For every 1000 marriages, each year, 11 fail.  Just 1 ends up in the family courts. So while we need to learn about improving marriage from the experience of family lawyers, we also need to keep in mind the 999.

They are amazing statistics, testament to the enduring strength of marriage. But presenting them with impact is the key. A big number contrasted with a small one – figures broken down to the level of the individual – this is how to make stats count.

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