Making Your Point Through Numbers

It takes skill to use numbers without losing your customers' attention. Here's how IBM, Apple, and others put them in context

To motivate listeners, your ideas must be memorable. Statistics and numbers can act as supporting points for your key message, but numbers and statistics aren't necessarily meaningful on their own. The key is to place numbers in a context your listeners can understand, making your presentations far more persuasive. Which speakers and companies are good at this, and how do they do it? Let's look at some examples.

Apple Demystifies 3G

At Apple's (AAPL) Worldwide Developers Conference in June, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the new iPhone 3G. The 3G platform is said to be 2.8 times faster than AT&T's (T) EDGE network. But what does that mean? Leave it to Jobs to put numbers into context. During the demonstration, Jobs showed a Web site loading on both networks. The site on 3G appeared in 21 seconds, but it took 59 seconds to load on EDGE. Using 3G was "amazingly zippy," in Jobs's words. This simple demonstration made the numbers relevant to the lives of his customers.

IBM Adds Pizzazz to Petaflops

On June 9, IBM unveiled a supercomputer—Roadrunner—capable of performing 1,000 trillion calculations per second: a petaflop. That number is too big for most of us to get our minds around. Without context, it doesn't mean much other than to suggest it's a powerful computer. Recognizing the communication challenge, IBM's press material put the number in terms everyone could understand. How fast is a petaflop? According to IBM, "It's roughly the equivalent to the combined computing power of 100,000 of today's fastest laptops. You would need a stack of laptops 1.5 miles high to equal Roadrunner's performance." This comparison is so easily identifiable that nearly every article on Roadrunner's power used the IBM description.

Boosting the Numbers Behind PowerBoost

When Comcast introduced its new high-speed Internet service enhancement—PowerBoost—the company knew that bringing "download speeds from 8 Mbps to 12 Mbps" would be of little significance to most of its subscribers. So the company's marketing experts asked themselves, "What does this mean to our customers?" The answer was straightforward: Faster downloads for large files such as software, games, music, photos, and video. Downloading a one-hour television show at the faster speed would reduce wait time in half, from 4 minutes and 29 seconds to 2 minutes and 15 seconds. And according to Comcast, three standard MP3 songs, which would take 53 seconds to load on a conventional DSL connection, would now load in as little as 6 seconds. The examples are specific and relevant to the lives of Comcast subscribers.

Motivating Customers to Switch Light Bulbs

In California, energy company PG&E launched a campaign to persuade customers to replace their energy-draining light bulbs with new compact-fluorescent lights (CFLs). The bulbs use 75% less power than conventional incandescent bulbs. PG&E wanted to make sure consumers understood the implications of the change. Said PG&E spokesman Brian Swanson: "If 12 traditional light bulbs are replaced throughout a home with CFLs, over the lifetime of the bulbs it would save approximately $900 in energy costs." He went on to explain that in such a case, you would reduce greenhouse gases by 2,900 pounds, "as much as taking one car off the road for four months."

What numbers are important to your business, but most likely gobbledygook to your audience? Think about how you can put those numbers into context and help people see your company in a new light.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for some of the world's most admired brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book, Fire Them Up! (John Wiley & Sons).

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