Numbers present a special challenge for speakers. Especially after surviving the American education system, speakers may approach a speech as a paper out loud. That has a lot of problems, and one of the biggest can be the temptation to throw a bunch of statistics at people out loud that they would have trouble processing even if they could read them.
Remember that written material is best for communicating detail. Out loud is best for setting a frame, giving context, and inspiring. That doesn’t mean you never use detail out loud–just get used to the fact that audience members won’t remember it. They will, however, remember the impression you make with the detail. If you have inspired them and given them a framework, they will know how to find the detail when they want it, and will want to do so.
However, if you find yourself droning on with a bunch of numbers, statistics, and figures out loud, you drown them in detail, while failing to either inspire or build a frame.
Here are 10 tips to help you handle numbers out loud effectively.
- Round numbers off. If you say, “The U.S. federal deficit right now is one trillion, 17 billion, 816 million, 753 thousand, 142 dollars,” people will not be able to follow it at all. Better to say, “The U.S. federal deficit is over one trillion dollars,” or even “one point 17 trillion dollars.”
- Use visuals to help numbers make sense. PageTutor.com posted an article that incorporates stunning visuals to help you see the difference between a billion and a trillion dollars. The key to getting a feel for the size of the stacks of money is including a person in the picture. Go take a look at it; we’ll wait.
- Use verbal comparisons to help numbers make sense. If you talk about the distance Nik Wallenda walked on a wire over the Grand Canyon, you can say it was 1,400 feet, or you can say it was the length of four football fields. The latter communicates more clearly.
- Don’t lump them all together. Beginning speakers sometimes segregate the statistics all in one “point.” Numbers are supporting material, and should be worked in with other supporting material throughout the speech. Audiences benefit from a mix of hard support (that proves points and convinces audiences) and soft support (that illustrates points and moves audience).
- Use your voice and your cadence to help the audience understand what you’re saying. Reading numbers in a flat tone quickly turns you into an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Vary your tone, pause before or after the number for it to sink in, and slow down for bigger numbers.
- Repeat important numbers. You might even go so far as to say, “Let me repeat that so you can be sure you caught that.and for a bonus….
- Don’t hesitate to use numbers. They help audiences understand that you have done your homework when you use statistics and figures that can be verified, and that are specific enough to give a concrete sense of your point. If you say, “The U.S. military has a budget of several billion dollars,” you communicate nothing. Are we talking about 8 billion? 32 billion? 900 billion? It not only makes you look fuzzy, but lazy. When you say, “In 2010, the U.S. military has a budget of over 680 billion dollars,” you give an accurate picture and send the message that you did your homework.
Have you found some ideas about handling numbers out loud?