Entries in Presentation (2)

How My Cardiologist Almost Gave Me a Heart Attack (or, the Right and Wrong Ways to Communicate Numbers)

After going through a series of routine heart exams the other day (EKG, Echocardiogram, cholesterol check, etc.), the cardiologist comes in and says:

“Based on all your lab results, and calculating all your risk factors, you have about a 5% chance of having a heart attack within the next ten years.”

Getting weak in the knees, heart pounding through my chest, and feeling like I am about to pass out from the shock of this death sentence, I pause long enough to say:

“Wait. Doesn’t that mean that there’s more than a 95% chance that I WON’T have a heart attack within the next ten years???”

To which he replies: “Yes…I guess that’s another way of looking at it.”


In fact, he goes on to say that my results are excellent and that my heart is in perfect shape. As it turns out, statistically, 5% is the odds of ANY 50-plus-year-old male having a heart attack within the next ten years! So, despite the temporary panic he caused, it turns out that I am completely normal…heart-wise, anyway.

So what can we take from this near-fatal incident in terms of communicating numbers?


Businesspeople communicate in numbers almost every single day. Regardless of what function you work in, numbers are, typically, how we gauge -- and explain to others -- how we’re doing. And it's how most managers manage.

As management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “It you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

But a crucially important point to keep in mind – whether delivering a presentation, or writing a report, and whether communicating to your boss, employees, or customers – is that it’s not the numbers themselves that matter; it’s the story the numbers tell…and the message you intend to deliver.

Numbers without context are absolutely meaningless and confusing...and, worst case, potentially damaging.

A few examples:

  • If I tell you that I have “a 250 average” is that good or bad? The answer – as is the answer to most questions (*my students all know this :) is: “It depends”! If that “250” number is my baseball or softball batting average, it’s not too great. If 250 is my bowling average, you can sign me up right now for the Pro Bowler’s Tour!
  • When the iPod first came out way back in 2001, if Steve Jobs had announced with great fanfare that it had a 5GB hard drive, how many non-techies would have been impressed with that and raced out to buy one? Not too many, probably. But by saying that this tiny little gadget will fit “1000 songs in your pocket,” well, communicating it to a global audience in that way changed the world.
  • Let’s say we’re discussing high school graduation rates and I show you a complicated, detailed graph that indicates that, nationwide, 30% of high school students end up not graduating. Is that impactful? Maybe...once you’ve deciphered it. But what if, instead of saying “30%” I show you a photo of ten bright-faced high school students…and then put X’s across the faces of three of them, while stating: “See this group of ten kids? Three of them will not graduate from high school. Now that we know this…what are we going to do about it?” Which of those two scenarios do you think will have a greater emotional impact? 

So, again, it's not the NUMBERS that matter, but the story, and the meaning, and the humanity, and the emotion behind those numbers. That’s what moves people and spurs them to action.

And when communicating numbers (whether spoken or written), keep in mind that it’s not just WHAT we say (the facts and figures), but HOW we say it (tone of voice, body language, facial expression, framing).

So, going forward, when communicating numbers, I urge you to consider your listeners or readers, by putting yourself in their shoes and using empathy and emotional intelligence to visualize and anticipate how your message may, ultimately, be received.

Otherwise, failure to do so can, literally, give someone a heart attack.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - The “King” of Visual Communication

Among the many amazing features of Dr. King’s numerous classic speeches including, of course, his iconic, “I Have a Dream” speech was his use of “visual communication”… his talent and ability to paint pictures with words.

While Dr. King drew on a variety of rhetorical techniques to “Educate, Engage, & ExciteTM his audiences – e.g., alliteration, repetition, rhythm, allusion, and more – his ability to capture hearts and minds through the creative use of relevant, impactful, and emotionally moving metaphors was second to none.

What do metaphors do? They make the abstract concrete; the intangible tangible; the unfamiliar familiar, and the complex simple. By joining together in an innovative and powerful way the seemingly unconnected, effective metaphors imbed powerful and memorable images in our minds, while at the same time forging a powerful and memorable connection between speaker and listener.

With that thought in mind, I’ll leave with you this powerful and moving list of metaphors and images that Dr. King left with us:

  • A great beacon of light and hope
  • The flames of withering injustice
  • A joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity
  • A lonely island of poverty
  • A vast ocean of material prosperity
  • We have come…to cash a check
  • America has defaulted on this promissory note
  • A bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”
  • The bank of justice…the vaults of opportunity
  • The luxury of cooling off
  • The tranquilizing drug of gradualism
  • The dark and desolate valley of segregation
  • The sunlit path of racial justice
  • The quicksands of racial injustice
  • The solid rock of brotherhood
  • The sweltering summer of…discontent
  • An invigorating autumn of freedom and equality
  • The whirlwinds of revolt
  • The bright day of justice
  • The palace of justice
  • Satisfy our thirst for freedom
  • Drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred
  • The high plane of dignity and discipline
  • Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream
  • The storms of persecutions
  • The winds of police brutality
  • The valley of despair
  • The table of brotherhood
  • The heat of injustice
  • The heat of oppression
  • An oasis of freedom and justice
  • The mountain of despair
  • A stone of hope
  • A beautiful symphony of brotherhood
  • Let freedom ring