People sometimes say: “Numbers don’t lie,” and that may be true, but numbers don’t tell good stories or convince people, either. 

If numbers were convincing — all on their own — we’d elect people with the best grasp of the facts. If numbers told stories, Netflix would have more mathematicians and fewer procedural crime dramas. If numbers could move the soul and create meaning, there would be fewer mosques, temples or churches — and a lot more lecture halls. 

If numbers were convincing — all on their own — we’d elect people with the best grasp of the facts.

There are two reasons that numbers don’t move people or tell a story. 

The first is that numbers aren’t “sticky.”  There have been plenty of studies showing that people don’t recall facts as well as stories. In my experience, this is true. At the beginning of our Curious Public storytelling seminar, I recite a bunch of stats. By the end of the session, very few people can remember the numbers — but they remember the stories they heard.  

The second reason that numbers don’t move people or tell a story is that we simply can’t wrap our heads around really big or really small numbers. For example — with apologies to the Barenaked Ladies — you can probably imagine what you would do with a million dollars. That number is just a multiple of your yearly income or the value of a home near you — and you can probably do that math in your head right now. And while a billion dollars might just seem like a multiple of a million, it’s much, much bigger.  

Here’s one way to consider the difference: If you saved $100k a year, you’d have $ 1 million in 10 years.  If you saved $100k a year, you’d have $ 1 billion in … 10,000 years. Looked at another way: a million seconds is 12 days, but a billion seconds is 33 years.

Small numbers present a similar problem. My daughter has ARID1B, which is a rare genetic condition that affects .00001% of the world’s population. How small is that number? The percentage isn’t meaningful on its own, but if I say that every child in the whole world with her condition could fit in a high school auditorium, it takes on a new meaning.

The same goes for inflation. Rather than saying inflation is at X%, it’s better to demonstrate a percentage increase using constant dollars. It might shock you to learn that something that cost $100 in 2020 costs $115.21 today. (No wonder we are all falling behind). 

And yet — too often — when we make presentations at work, or give speeches, or write articles, we throw around numbers and percentages without context.  

So, here are three quick tips on using numbers more effectively:

1. Embed the numbers in a story

If stories are more memorable than numbers — and they are — embed numbers in a story. That doesn’t mean telling a complete Grimm’s Fairy Tale every time you put up a graph, but it does mean creating context, setting and a bit of a plot around the numbers you use.  It’s as simple as starting a presentation with a provocative proposition. For example, Canadians are lonelier than they have ever been and using the numbers to back it up.

2. Support dollar figures with a visual

Big dollar values are particularly hard to imagine — but if you say, for example, that a trillion dollars in paper bills would reach more than one-fourth the way from the earth to the moon — now you have my attention. The more concrete the image, the better.

Similarly, it’s sometimes hard to imagine numbers of people. If I say that Canada has 68,000 people on active duty in the armed forces, that might seem like a lot. But if I point out that the Rogers Centre holds 50,000 people, suddenly that number doesn’t seem so impressive.

3. Apply the Rule of Three

Humans naturally look for patterns in the world — which is one reason stories are so meaningful to us. But for some reason when you list three ideas, it has a special kind of magic. Three is just long enough to create a pattern we recognize and just short enough to be memorable. That’s why, in speeches, I often advise speakers to say: “there are three things I want to talk about today.” 


For more tips on using numbers in storytelling and presentations, consider booking our storytelling workshop. More information here.