A couple of weeks back, one of my Toastmasters (TM) club handed me a mandate to conduct a Moments of Truth session. Like all organizations, Toastmasters clubs conduct this to take stock of where they currently are in terms of overall health of the club, and collaboratively arrive at key focus areas for the year ahead.
And the exercise began with all earnestness. An online survey was circulated, ratings from members were sought and finally, when it was time to collate everything, I did it the only way I could, opened an Excel sheet. Yes, an Excel sheet. I tabulated the ratings, ran some basic formulas, and by elimination process (the ones that got the lowest cumulative rating), listed out the key focus areas. And then diligently copied the rating tables to the presentation slides, and there they would have stayed for eternity. Single without any company whatsoever, had it not been for an adamant senior. Thankfully, though, they got company, of images and words. And what it resulted in was “A marriage made in heaven”. A sample for a particular category of evaluation -Member Orientation is given. The first slide shows the cumulative percentage of members who provided high ratings for various processes in that category, the second contains an image depicting what those processes are and the stories the cumulative ratings speak. Perfect teamwork, I must say.
But do we really need numbers in presentations? Or in this age of breaking stereotypes – should we just let the words/images be? We do need numbers; when they form the basis of any analysis. For a simple reason – they bring credibility and certainty to the entire equation. Without any scope for misinterpretation/miscommunication whatsoever. When we say, for example, 23 of 24 active members responded to the survey, it is more precise than saying the majority of our active members responded to the survey. How do we define the word “majority”? Especially in this age of new technological tools, when we are blessed with convenience, speed, and access to everything, why not use it?
That apart, there is also a need. According to research by professors in New York University and Tel Aviv University, it is tough for the majority of people to visualize the future in real terms. Try that experiment yourself. What if I asked you to talk about your goals 5 years down the lane? What is the first thought that comes to your mind? Was it “I want to be happy”, “I want to live a comfortable life” or was it – “I see myself drinking coffee in a lush green farmhouse overlooking a vast expanse of mountains“? Research says the majority of us think in abstract terms. Detailed descriptions are tough.
Unfortunately, abstract messages are lost on receivers. So we use numbers to bring a semblance of reality. Numbers make things simple and real. Comprehension is easy when there are clear inputs and tangible outputs of a process. It is easy to comprehend a target of walking 10 kms every day. It is easy to measure our progress when we know we must reach out to 90% of the customer base by year end.
But the fact remains that numbers alone will not suffice. There is enough and more research available worldwide that say stories are more memorable. There is an oft quoted example of how a story about a starving 7-year-old attracted twice the donation amount as the statement “food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children in Zambia”; although we did use a number to denote effectiveness of stories😊.
There is a reason for that. While numbers appeal to the analytical brain, words and image-based stories appeal to our emotions. And therein lies the catch – we all know that anything that is emotionally appealing has more impact, has higher memory retention value. So, when making presentation slides, if numbers indeed form the bedrock of your analysis, give them a place of pride. However, to make them more effective:
- Replace the tables with bar charts and heat maps.
- Make them visual by adding images and explanatory words.
- Give the context. That will give you scope for storytelling.
Facts like Dubai being one of the top 10 cities by a leading agency adds credibility to our message of Dubai being one of those most happening places. But the insight that Dubai belongs to one of the youngest countries, makes that achievement of being in the top 10 even more memorable.
Numbers will lead you to truth, but it is the stories behind them that will take the truth far and wide. Find and present those stories too. Your presentations will then be a perfect Marriage of Both.