How to present numbers more effectively


My family and I just returned from a fantastic vacation on a cruise ship. On our last day we attended a Q&A session with the captain and a few of his officers. People were very interested in the details of the ship. The captain quoted a few numbers:

  • Weight: 85,000 tons
  • Installed Power: 48,000 HP
  • Length: 264 meters
  • Beam: 32 meters
Mein Schiff
Our 85,000 ton cruise ship

While the figures are certainly impressive I realized that they do no mean much. My boys asked the obvious question: “How much is that?” The numbers are just too difficult to understand. Indeed: What does 85,000 tons really mean? (Have you ever lifted something that heavy?) Plain digits rarely resonate with people – they do not communicate a story and they are often hard to understand. And this can be problematic in business when we present figures. We typically present them to tell a story and to instill action but the sheer nakedness of the digits hides the true meaning.  That’s what happened during the presentation of the cruise captain.


A better approach is to present the numbers and put them into context with something we are all familiar with. It helps people understand. This is especially helpful for larger numbers like the examples above. Let’s take a look:

  • 85,000 tons is about as heavy as the combined weight of 56,667 BMW 5 series sedans.
  • 48,000 horsepowers is the equivalent of 240 BMW 525d limousines pulling in unison
  • 264 meters is as long as 2.6 regular soccer fields
  • 32 meters is about half as wide as a soccer field

Here we go: 2.6 soccer fields long, with a huge stack of cars on top and a few hundred Beamers pulling the thing. Now that puts this into perspective and it is actually quite impressive. My kids understand that and they had a serious look of surprise on their faces.


One person who has perfected the technique of explaining and making numbers shine is Steve Jobs. He has delivered some classic explanations in recent history:

  •  “1000 songs in your pocket.” ….Jobs is explaining what a 5GB iPod is able to do
  • “Our market share is greater than BMW or Mercedes in the car industry.” ….Jobs was critized about the low market share number of 5% in the computer industry back in 2003


When you present numbers, try to put context around them. Compare them and relate them to something relevant. Pick something that your audience is familiar with. This technique is extremely effective and can really amplify your message. And it is not all that difficult. Best of all: you can use it in many different situations. Whether it is in a business meeting, your next presentation or to simply explain a few things to your kids.

“Remember, data is a representation of real life. It’s not just a bucket of numbers. There are stories in that bucket. There is meaning, truth and beauty.” Nathan Yau

P.S.: Speaking about context. Here is a fine example. We happened to spot the marvelous “A” yacht of Russian billionaire Andrei Melnitschenko. Look at the first photo and then scroll down to look at the second one. The first photo makes it difficult to assess it’s true size. It is hard to believe that this ship is a bit longer than a soccer field. The second photo provides the context of the fishing boat.

The "A" Yacht
How large is this gorgeous yacht? Hard to tell from the picture.
A Yacht
The small boat adds the context