The Essential Guide to Presenting Numbers in an Engaging Way:
A systemic organisational deficiency we seem to accept without a second thought
Recently I was asked by a global client to help their European finance team present their subject in ways that are more engaging for their audience. As I started to develop the session, I realised on almost every course I have run, there has been one or two people from financial or technical functions who found the content harder to adapt to their situation. Because in general these issues were met with humour and laughter (people saying things like “I’ve got the boring subject!”) I overlooked the genuine commercial need that exists. It’s not just finance either, if you look at meeting agendas I would guess that more than 50% of meeting time is dominated by managers presenting their departmental numbers, KPIs or other metrics and so on.
I have come to the conclusion…
We are terrible at presenting numbers, KPIs and data!!
It is an organisational deficiency that we seem to accept without a second thought – “it’s okay, it’s a boring subject anyway” – “I wouldn’t expect finance to inspire me” – “I’ve got the boring bit to talk to you about” – “these are just the numbers, I’m not trying to inspire or engage”. Well no, that’s not okay. Organisations live and die by the numbers. Measures and KPIs are the front line tools for evaluating performance. The cost of people either not engaging, not caring or not being properly informed because ‘the content is boring’ is unthinkable; the subsequent business impact – even more so.
So I write here today to try and turn the tide on this epidemic, to make a stand for all of those people in your audience who have given their time to listen to you speak and most importantly to argue that if we can present numbers in an engaging way we can transform our organisations.
WE CAN DO BETTER!
Last year I wrote a book on how to engage and inspire audiences, it was well received and as a result I have been invited to speak, write and be interviewed on the subject of engaging audiences. As I reflect on this, I believe I have often cited the soft topics as examples of how to engage and inspire – the team talks or leadership presentations. I sincerely hope this is a step towards taking the proven principles of my book and using them to address some of the harder topics (more dry or technical subjects).
4 Techniques to Transform Numbers
- Find Interesting Angles – Useful when the information is routine, repeating or likely to be ‘skimmed’ over
- Use Comparisons – Useful when the numbers are big or abstract or hard to visualise
- Use Analogies – Useful when the presentation is complex, boring or technical
- Paint a picture – Useful when introducing a change of process, new system, new ways of working etc.
Technique 1: Find Interesting Angles
This is probably the safest and easiest first step for people who are cautious about getting too creative. Most ‘reporting’ type presentations feature a standardised series of graphs or data showing the current results, often these are the same from person to person or department to department (just with different numbers). The impact is that few people, except the speaker and the boss, will be that interested in what is being said. Moreover, if all you are doing is presenting data, why not simply ask people to review this information on the company intranet or circulate the slides? Beyond ‘we’ve always done it that way’ – the reason why these types of presentation exist is generally;
- Because people can’t be trusted to actually look at the information of their own accord
- The group hope for some form of open dialogue, accountability or debate around the figures
In fact, this second reason is a good one but this is why the standardised slide decks WILL…NOT….WORK for a presentation! You can certainly report in a standardised way and publish figures to colleagues in a standardised way but if you are investing the time/money to gather everyone in a room then surely your intention is to engage and stimulate them?
Here are some common examples:
So my first suggestion is to do some investigation into the numbers to find interesting ways to view the ‘normal’ data. Maybe search for overlooked insights, specific trends or hidden facts. These new perspectives will not only be far more interesting for your audience but could even redefine your strategy entirely. I recently facilitated a workshop on quality strategy with a global automotive manufacturer, during our discussion the group started to question their standard practice of prioritising the most serious quality (fault) issues first. They wanted to know what percentage of the total fault landscape these most serious issues accounted for. As they dug into the data they found examples of many single smaller issues which were occurring many hundreds of times but had minimal impact so never got prioritised. When they positioned quality through this perspective it, almost turned everyone’s thinking upside down – this is not about right or wrong, it is about the immediate engagement of the group into that quality conversation.
Here is another example.
Imagine your corporate data is similar to this PGA Tour Statistics for 2017-18, rows of columns and data. Our tendency is to simply skim read the top/bottom/largest/smallest and so on.
Let’s look at these two quite different people from this list:
- Phil Mickelson – #2 – $3,159,197
- Austin Cook – #20 – $1,610,277
Phil Michelson basically earned twice as much money as Austin Cook… and these aren’t small sums!! But if we dig deeper into the numbers there is a really interesting figure in the statistics
- Phil Mickelson – Average 69.3
- Austin Cook – Average 69.9
The difference between these two golfers is, on average, 0.6 of a stroke! So if I was presenting this data to a group of people, I might start a discussion about what is the difference causing Phil to earn so much more money (for reference Phil played 4 fewer events than Austin). Basically, there seems to be very little separating these two in their game BUT a huge difference in their financial outcome.
I’m not a golf expert so please take this example in the spirit of what I’m trying to show especially if I’ve made a mistake here… my point is that you can surely find similar interesting perspectives to create engagement, debate and vibrant discussion.
Technique 2: Use Comparisons
This is also quite a safe idea to experiment with and relatively easy to use. The issue here is that numbers and percentages are often hugely abstracted from the real world. Many people simply do not relate to raw numbers, they don’t have enough real-world meaning and as a result, they are hard to conceptualise. The larger and more complex the organisation, the truer this becomes, even the average manager will struggle to truly grasp figures that equate to millions of parts or cost etc. The impact of this abstraction is that the figures take on a sense of irreality and do not have the desired emotional impact on the audience.
Numbers often don’t have enough real-world meaning and, as a result, they are hard to conceptualise
If you want to ensure your numbers land heavily with your audience, it can be helpful to translate the numbers into other equivalents that might have more resonance to your audience. The comparison you choose to make will depend on what things you believe your audience would be emotionally affected by. Let me give you an example, a large packaging client of mine was having issues with waste at one of their sites. The ‘waste’ levels were a critical KPI and were at 11% which was simply too high, the target was under 9% for that financial year. They tried to explain to the front line teams that 11% equated to £1,100,000 pounds of wasted raw materials which they had to shred. In fact, the weight of this material was 1311 tonnes! Every day they threw away 5.2 tonnes of material! This was wasteful, logistically inconvenient, and expensive.
No matter how much they communicated these figures they never really gained traction until one manager equated the figures… he worked out that…
EVERY YEAR they shred the equivalent of 6 Ferrari 458 Italias
Then he compared the weight of the wastage they dispose of to…
2 large aircraft…. plus 3 jumbo jets! (he used a very clever dramatic reveal of the 3 jumbos after the 2 planes, in fact 2 planes alone seemed shocking enough)
This dramatic comparison really engaged the front line teams who could suddenly visualise both the financial figures and physical weight of the waste they were creating.
In the UK, there is a long-running joke that many things are compared to the size of Wales. “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every British journalist when faced with a disaster such as a forest fire, flood, earthquake, tidal wave or hurricane that has created widespread devastation of a sufficiently noteworthy extent, will inform us that an ‘area the size of Wales’ has been subjected to said devastation. If the facts warrant it, the journalist may refer to multiples of this standard unit of measure such as an ‘area twice the size of Wales’ or even occasionally to fractions thereof, such as an ‘area half the size of Wales’. In Australia they use the “size of Sydney Harbour”, in Denmark “the size of Fyn” (one of the islands); in the US they choose a state.” https://www.dailypost.co.uk/whats-on/size-of-wales-why-what-13328892
Technique 3: Use Analogies
This technique is especially useful where you need to not simply present results but rather explain a process that could be perceived as technical, complex or boring to the audience. In other words where they need to understand the actual system or process being used.
Analogies are often confused with metaphors. They are similar but metaphors will not be useful for our purposes here. A metaphor is a short comparison such as “this new system will be the Rolls Royce of technology”. Our aim in using analogies is to carry the weight of the boring, complexity of your subject – a metaphor cannot do that.
Analogies compare the similarities between two dissimilar subjects, most helpful is when you compare the unknown (your complex, boring technical subject) to the known (something familiar and every day). You need to be able to explain more than 50% of your technical subject through the language of your analogy – crucially it is this that transforms your topic from something heavy and boring to something engaging and lighter. At some point, the analogy will not be able to go any further and you can transition across to your technical subject – often I recommend saying “in the same way….” before then making the links from the analogy to the technical topic.
When done right your 60-minute presentation on ‘Hedge Accounting’ transforms to an engaging, and possibly even entertaining, conversation about the ups and downs of supporting your favourite sports team!
I have a word of caution here, it takes patience and creativity to find the right analogy for a technical subject. Once you found one it also takes time and patience to craft the story you want to tell using the analogy. There are analogies that I hear all the time, it doesn’t make them bad it just makes them slightly less fun to listen to and therefore slightly less effective. Here are some common ones I’m sure you have heard before.
When you think of possible analogies try to have some fun with the idea, pick something unusual or if you want to use something every day then exaggerate the situation. Instead of buying a house, try saying imagine you want the lottery and were buying a MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR house. This simple change will make the analogy (your ‘story’) more interesting and more engaging to listen to. Simple twists on the normal can really transform an analogy.
Steve Jobs is credited with coming up with a now commonplace analogy of “the desktop”. Back in 1984 the computer was an intimidating object, complex, technical and unfamiliar. Jobs envisaged the “desktop” as a way to make the machine more familiar, more accessible. “Just as you could write words on a piece of paper and retrieve those words later by holding that paper and reading it, so could you store and retrieve words in a virtual ‘document’ on your computer. Just as you could organise those papers into folders for storage and easy retrieval, so could you organise those documents in virtual ‘folders’ on your computer. And just as you could move your real-life folders around the surface of your desk at home, so could you move these folders and documents along a ‘desktop.’ Your computer screen and its contents were fundamentally like something you already knew: your physical desk. It was meant to teach new users, squeamish about the virtual world, that you could use a Macintosh’s graphical interface the same way you used something you were familiar with: the top of your real, physical desk.” https://www.fastcompany.com/3037014/how-steve-jobss-mastery-of-analogies-sent-apple-sky-rocketing
Technique 4: Paint a Picture
The final option uses a technique called ‘word pictures’. It is most appropriate when you are trying to communicate a process change or a discuss a new system. All too often in these circumstances, the speaker’s technical expertise is their downfall because they give too much detail and unnecessary background information. They misjudge the most important purpose of their presentation – namely to engage and motivate people to support the change and adapt their behaviours. So whilst at some point in the presentation some details will be needed, this technique can be used alongside the detail to really inspire or motivate.
The technique sounds incredibly simple but in practice takes some skill to really bring to life. Firstly you outline the problem and give examples of common frustrations. This creates agreement that there is a problem and puts you, as the speaker, empathically on their side. The stronger they agree that there is a problem the more they will listen to you subsequent ‘picture’.
The ‘word picture’ starts with just one word…
After the word ‘imagine…’ you paint a vivid picture of the new world once the process/system is fully operational and working perfectly. The key to success is to make this story highly descriptive, motivational and appealing but be warned it must always stay within the realms of the real world; if you start to sound like fantasy or a dreamer you’ve lost! Be sure you are describing a real-world story, think in terms of sensory information, what would the audience see, hear, feel, be able to do and so on.
This technique is particularly effective because people’s emotions are fuelled by the vividness of the outcomes, their ability to visualise the results. The question of ‘HOW’ is a much more cognitive one and therefore comes secondary in people’s thinking. If you can win their hearts you have achieved the hardest part of the battle.
I recently worked with a member of a finance team responsible for SAP implementation within a complex framework of a European division of a packaging company. There was a lot of content to inform people about the roll-out and in fact a number of the messages needed to be about the anticipated challenges and disruptions. I suggested they use this technique along the following lines:
“Who here in the audience spends too much time creating reports for managers or sending KPIs to head office? *(assume all hands go up)* If you were asked to compare the current inventory levels against supplier payments for the last 18 months, right now that would take you hours and probably you’d have to chase people in different departments to get the accurate figures, right? So now imagine, with this new system if you were able to produce that report instantly simply by selecting that dates and corresponding SAP areas. Imagine that your weekly inventory management report, your procurement analytics, your lost working days information, your profit/loss report, your quality audit results and in fact every other major report you currently do…was no longer your responsibility. How much time would that save you? What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to sit at your desk compiling information every day/week month? So now picture that your manager can simply access all of this data in real time, in team meetings you can log into the system and show the most up to date data. Imagine never getting any calls from head office because there is nothing you can produce by hand that they can’t access directly!”
We can develop your teams to present in a more compelling and dynamic way. People need support, encouragement and coaching in order to make the necessary changes in these areas (existing habits are often deeply embedded in our cultures). Therefore, if this is an issue in your organisation, PLEASE do connect with us.
Author: Chris Atkinson
SPECIAL OFFER: 50% off the author’s book! It has been 12 months since Chris published his book, the response has been incredible over the last year. The book is a great starting point for learning about this topic and we would love for you to read it. Please follow this link and use the discount code: 50CEBOOK