Be Careful with Statistics

Statistics can be used effectively to help prove a point or to show the significance of a problem. Used poorly, they can affect your credibility and cause the audience to reject your ideas.

Here are some tips on how to use statistics well.

Use statistics sparingly. Don’t bunch several numbers together. This is often a problem when listening to the weather forecast. We want to know how hot or cold the day is going to be and learn as well the high and low from yesterday, the percentage chance of rain or snow, and wind velocity. If possible, use just one statistic and even then build up to that number by qualifying its meaning or the context in which the number was determined. If one number will not be enough, never use more than three statistics at a time.

Use statistics in connection with stories. People are more likely to accept the impact of the statistic if it is connected to a story or example. A statistic is logical and a story is emotional. Using the two together allows the speaker to combine the head and the heart in moving the audience to action.

Use statistics for a specific purpose. Don’t use them just to impress an audience. Here are some of the purposes for which statistics can be used:
To point to a problem you want solved;
To prove how your solution will work; or
To stress how well a plan of action or process is working.

Use only recent statistics. If the audience knows a more recent statistic on the topic than the one you used in the presentation, your credibility suffers and your message will have little impact even though you are an expert on the topic. With online sources a click away, the speaker has no excuse for not keeping up with current numbers.

Always include the source for the statistics. Never say, “Research shows…” or “Experts conclude…” or “a Washington source said that…” If you can’t find the source, don’t use the statistic.

Round off statistics when possible. It is much easier for an audience to remember “About 500 houses had a black out” rather than “489 houses had a black out.”  Of course if every number counts, then include the exact figure.

Finally, using statistics effectively includes delivery. Use the pause/punch method. As you near the part of your speech which includes the statistic, pause before speaking it, and then punch out the number. The delivery of the statistic should be done with fervor because you are using it to dramatize a problem, to offer a solution, or to show how well a new system is working.

Numbers do not have to be boring and tedious to listen to. In your next presentation, make them count.

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

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