Careful with Statistics!

George Burns said “If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” That is tongue in cheek but makes an important point:  Statistics can be confusing and misleading.

Statistics can be powerful in a presentation, but used in the wrong way, they can wreak havoc in communicating with an audience. For example, too many statistics in a speech are not only boring, but they can confuse an audience. If an audience is confused, understanding is impeded. Rarely can an audience be moved to action if they don’t understand. Statistics also can mislead and misinform if not used carefully.

One way statistics can be used effectively is to get the attention of the audience at the beginning of the presentation. Grab and hold attention by picking a significant number to point up the problem you are addressing in your message.

Hearing lots of statistics at once is a common challenge in listening to a weather forecast. All we want to know is how hot or cold the day is going to be. Usually, however, we get the high temperature yesterday, the low last night, temperature predictions for the rest of the week, and even numbers indicating wind velocity.

When possible, use only one statistic, and build up to it by showing how it relates  to your point and the legitimacy of the source. Never use more than three numbers at a time.

Listeners are more likely to accept the impact of a statistic if it is connected to a story or example.  A statistic is logical and a story is emotional; the two used together allow the speaker to combine the head and the heart in moving the audience.

For example, you might provide data that reflects the direction of interest rates, then follow up with a success story of a customer who made a financial move at just the right time.

Don’t use statistics simply to impress an audience. Generally, the purposes to which statistics should be used are to:

  • Point to a problem you want to solve.
  • Provide how your solution will work.
  • Stress how well a plan of action or process is working.

Use recent statistics. If an audience member knows a more recent statistic than yours, your credibility suffers and your message will have little impact. Keep track of the most recent data by going online before your presentation or checking with an expert in your organization that you know keeps up with the status quo.

Never say “Research shows…,“In an article I read…,” or “Most companies….” Give the specific source and the date. If you can’t locate the source, don’t use the statistic.

Using statistics effectively includes delivery. Use the pause/punch method. As you approach the part of your speech that includes the statistic, pause before speaking it, then punch out the figure. The delivery of the number should be done with fervor, since you are using it to dramatize a problem, to offer a solution, or to show how effectively the new program is working, and this should show in your delivery.

Don’t be afraid to use numbers by keeping these points in mind. You can keep an audience alert and motivated—even with statistics.

I close with this thought-provoking item about statistics:  A statistician confidently tried to cross a river that was the average of one meter deep. He drowned.






Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

1 Comment

  1. I really like your tip about pairing the statistic with a story, to use the logical and emotional power of each. I’ve not used that approach before, but I’m keen to try it!

    You might be interested in (2 of them from TED) that show examples of starting a talk with a startling statistic. It’s a great technique that can certainly grab people’s attention!

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