Make Your Numbers Count

A good way to remember and apply principles of effective presentations is to connect them to numbers. For example, you should always have one major idea that you leave with your audience. A good way to do this while preparing is to ask and then answer this question, “What one action do I want my audience to take as a result of this presentation?” You may have other ideas you want the audience to remember, but thinking  of one action you want them to take will help you focus on what is really important.

Include two appeals in a persuasive presentation:  logical and emotional. One without the other will limit your impact on your audience. To appeal to their emotions, tell a story. Make them feel what you are talking about. To appeal to their intellect, include a relevant statistic or testimony of an expert on the topic you are advocating.

In organizing any part of your presentation, think of doing so in threes. The human mind responds well to the number three. This number is a part of our culture. Three little pigs, Goldilocks and the three bears. Three blind mice. “Ready, aim, fire.”  We have morning, noon, and night. There is strike three in baseball, not strike four.

Having three main points is a good idea, and if you have several slides or statistics, think about organizing them in groups of three. Usually three pieces of evidence are enough to make your case.

I find practicing my presentation three times is comfortable for me. More than three and I tend to lose interest and/or memorize parts of the presentation, taking away from the spontaneity I am seeking.

Pay attention to your sixth sense as you speak. Intuitively you may think of an example, or a reference to some current event that fits your content. Some of my best ideas come to me as I speak. Don’t fear to include this thought because you did not practice that material. Go with your sixth sense, your intuition, and you may add one of your best ideas in the presentation. I find that doing so is usually worth the risk.

If you are creating a list on a slide, the “6 by 6 rule” is a good model to follow–no more than six lines on a slide and six words on a line. That helps you choose a font that everyone can see and the slide looks clean and not “busy.”

When answering questions from your audience, keep your answers as concise as possible. You may be able to answer with a “yes” or “no,” but even if it  is an open-ended question, practice limiting  your answer to 30 seconds. If an answer is longer, the audience members who have no interest in that answer will quickly stop listening. Perhaps volunteer to talk to that person in more detail after the presentation, but remember the number 30 in the Q and A–that’s seconds, not minutes!

Patrick Rothfuss said, “I am no poet. I do not love words for the sake of words. I love words for what they can accomplish. Similarly, I am no arithmetician. Numbers that speak only of numbers are of little interest to me.”  However, if your number relates to a speaking principle that will make you a more effective speaker, then numbers do matter.

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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