Late last year I was at the largest conference in the medical imaging industry. While walking through the exhibit halls I noticed that many of the vendor booths were covered in messages using percentages. Problem is that most of them couldn’t have made an impact. This is because of how we use (or don’t use) percentages in our everyday communication.

Of course, there are a lot of reports and scientific papers that use percentages. In many fields they are used by experts to explain concepts and results. Using a percentage in this context can be a useful communication tool. However, in business settings we often use percentages in areas where there is little context to have them make sense to the intended audience.

One example of this is time. In normal human communication, we don’t use percentages in describing time, except for 50%. Even then, we say half the time. No one says to their spouse that they took a different route home from work and got home 17% faster. But sometimes our marketing/sales messages will say something exactly like that.

Two problems here, no context for how long it took before we took the new route. Plus, we normally speak about time in hours and minutes, I saved 5 minutes, not I shaved 17% off my travel time. It’s impossible for your brain to process information with no context to anchor to. It also makes it difficult to process when it’s described in a non-typical, abstract way. And if it can’t be easily processed it won’t be remembered.

A few months ago, I did an experiment during one of my Win Your Presentation workshops. I showed a group of 10 sales people a slide that had 5 percentages on it. The percentages were about a study done with their product, a study they were familiar with. They all had seen the slide before many times. Many of them they had the slide in their sales presentation visuals.

We discussed the slide and the fact that people don’t normally use percentages in many areas of communication. At the end of our discussion, I asked one audience member to start the stopwatch on his smartphone. And then I went on to discuss another topic.

Later I came back to the 5 percentages slide with the percentages removed. I asked the workshop participants to fill out the slide, state the percentage that went with each description. You can probably guess what happened. Only one person got one percentage right in the entire group. Everyone else got zero correct. Even people very familiar with the material could not remember the percentages. By the way, it was only 10 minutes later. What chance would an audience that was new to the information have of remembering any of them?

The percentages you use in your presentations are probably much less effective than you had hoped for. A few things you can do when you what to use percentages:

  • Convert your percentages into less precise but more common and memorable language. Use words like most, the majority of, much less and much more.
  • Use an example or story that demonstrates your point (using your percentage). There is nothing more memorable than a well told story.
  • Use a simple graphic (emphasis on the word simple) that shows your information in a more instantly understandable, visual form.

It’s time to rethink the use of percentages in our messaging.

What do you think?

Joe Pops



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