Influence your audience with data

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“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

The term was popularised in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881). In today’s information overload world, the need to use data in business is a necessary tool for an effective communicator. Big data is here.


Today’s article looks at three guidelines when using data to influence your audience:
1. Don’t lie or mis-lead

I once heard a CEO from a major coaching association stand up and give a confident presentation full of his insights, trends and forecasts from his research of talking with … 16 people.

Now maybe these were the 16 most important people in the field. Or maybe they were the 16 most insightful people. But let’s face it, it’s a little dangerous to make big bold predictions from a sample size of 16. While industry leaders, gurus and media titans are great food for thought, they can often skew the outcomes. Always explain your sample size and the implications this has on the data itself.

Another common mistake occurs when visually displaying data. When you’re using a bar chart for example, always use a baseline of zero. The two charts below will show you the impact of starting a baseline from anything else.


The first chart shows what looks like a massive increase in one year:

You’ll notice that the scale actually starts from 79,000 so that the increase from 1998 to 1999 looks significant.

Plotting the same data with a baseline of zero gives a different picture:

In this chart the increase looks much less “massive”.


2. Comparisons and contrasts

Single data points carry very little meaning and are instantly forgotten unless you are a subject matter expect within that particular niche.

I once heard an engineer stating that his products had helped to take out one billion grams of fat from the US diet. That sounds like a lot but can you imagine how much that is?

Instead, comparing it to population of New York City gives a better indication of the magnitude of how much fat was really removed.

When Apple were marketing the iPhone 5, they contrasted it’s dimensions with the iPhone 4 so that the new phone was “18% thinner and 20% lighter”. This brings out the incremental improvements in a better light than may at first be obvious when comparing the two phones.

Comparisons and contrasts are especially useful because they take a complex subject and should the most important similarities or differences.

Remember that the amount of detail you show will depend on your audience. So the example below show how Apple compares and contrasts in China, where a higher comfort with technical specifications and a higher focus on price exists.

3. Tell your story behind the numbers

Whatever your data set, you can always find a way to personalise or humanise the way you introduce it. This is known as telling the story behind the numbers.

Overwhelming an audience with a slide back full of numbers is not an effective way for them to internalise or remember your message. Instead, your data should be used as a way to strengthen the message you wish to convey throughout your presentation.

Whatever story or anecdote you choose to share it should follow these checkpoints:

A. Memorable or meaningful to the audience

The audience can relate to the story, understand it quickly and likely to remember it.

B. Impactful

Help your audience remember the point by making your story clear, concise and finish with a precise point.

C. Personal

Ideally, as an expert on your subject, you’ll be able to share a story that comes from your experience. This adds credibility to you as the expert.

Types of business stories:

  • Give an example from your own experience
  • Share an example that you’ve observed your colleagues doing
  • Share a customer story
  • Give some insight from your company’s culture or values
  • Recount the lessons from your CEO or founder
  • Explain how this number was reached
  • Show what the number means to the audience

Adjust to your audience

In a Harvard Business Review article titled “How to Tell a Story with Data,” Dell Executive Strategist Jim Stikeleather explains how you can divide up your audience based on their technical knowledge.

These levels are novice, generalist, management, expert and executive:

The novice is new to a subject so likes it clear but not too simple.

The generalist is aware of a topic and looks for an overview and the main themes.

The management seeks detailed understanding.

The expert wants to deep dive into discovery and limit vague storytelling.

The executive needs to know the significance and conclusions.


Using data to influence is a necessary part of an effective communicator’s arsenal. Use these guidelines to ensure that your data doesn’t bore the audience but engages and leads them to the points you wish them to remember. First, never mis-lead. Then use contrasts and comparisons to give context to your data. Finally, add anecdotes, stories and examples to personalise the main points you wish them to remember.


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