Living by numbers

In a business or technology talk, the audience is too often confronted with slideuments that misuse PowerPoint to present large tables with huge amounts of numerical or statistical data.

Numbers are indeed a powerful tool –sometimes even an essential one– to support your story and prove your statements. But, are you really sure that the folks in the room will understand and remember all the data you present? Numbers don’t resonate with people until they are placed into the right context and displayed in an appropriate format.

Here are a few tips for embedding small data and big data into your presentations:

  • Present only the essential. Select a few compelling facts or crispy figures that support your message. Don’t lose your time –and the audience’s– by reading the numbers out loud. Distribute the bulk data and the nitty-gritty details as a handout (there is a misunderstanding that the hard or soft copies you give away after your presentation always need to contain exactly the same information as the slides you projected on the screen.)

  • Use images and charts instead of digits. The human brain interprets every digit as a picture, so complex tables and calculations literally overload your brain. A good visual representation or an infographic is lighter to digest and will better stick with the public.
    There are zillions of alternatives to bar charts and pies to depict numerical data. If you need inspiration, have a look at this periodic table of visualization methods published by And when you want to add animated charts to your PowerPoints, you might learn to handle data like Hans Rosling.

  • Illustrate your figures with metaphors. (Visual) metaphors help you to capture the audience’s attention and to convey complex concepts. They also let your listeners better grasp the order of magnitude and the importance of the (sometimes transcendental) numbers you may be showing them.

A final word of caution: get your numbers right! People won’t appreciate that you provide them with false facts. Also make sure you know the details behind the numbers and that you can explain or motivate the data you present.

More guidelines and best practices for writing stories about numbers and bringing statistics to life for non-statisticians can be found in the Making Data Meaningful series, published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).