Presenting Numbers: Learn to Avoid the ‘Deadly Sins’

As learning blends with other business functions, CLOs must be able to present financials and other metrics to senior leaders. Here are some tips to help avoid mistakes.

The need to show learning’s business value means presenting financials and other learning-related metrics has become an everyday part of the CLO job. Presenting numbers, like other business communication, is a craft that must be mastered. While some basic presentation skills apply, there are still some details to the process worth knowing.

Chief Learning Officer spoke with Randall Bolten, CEO of management consulting firm Lucidity and author of Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You. Bolten describes the common mistakes people make when presenting numbers as the “deadly sins.”

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

How is presenting numbers different from other forms of business communication?

Other than the fact that numbers are involved instead of words, there is no difference. All of the characteristics of an important communication skill — how clearly you do it; how effectively you do it; how much skill you demonstrate when you do it; how you demonstrate; your respect for your audience or lack thereof — all of these things are critical elements of any communication skill. And that’s just as true for presenting numbers as it is for how clearly and effectively you write or speak.

In the book, you use the term “quantation” as a style guide to presenting numbers. What does that mean?

I came up with it because the whole book is about a specific skill, presenting numbers, and I wanted to have a one-word description of this particular skill — just like there’s a one-word description for writing and for speaking.

Quantation is what is called a portmanteau word, which means it’s created from two other words (i.e. brunch, Spanglish). Quantation comes from quantitative communication. Quantation is the skill of presenting numbers to inform an audience. And if you’re going to write a book about it — and I used that term several hundred times in the book — it’s useful to have a single word to describe that skill.

What are some examples of the “deadly sins,” or common mistakes, business leaders make when presenting numbers?

I divided the “deadly sins” into two groups. One is the sins of presentation, and those are the sins, errors in how you put numbers on the page. The other is sins of behavior, which is how you act when you present numbers.

One is deadly sin No. 3, which is using visual effects for any reason other than clarifying, distinguishing or adding meaning to information. There are so many people who take full advantage of the layout and format and graphics capabilities of, say, Excel, because they think it makes the information look beautiful. And it doesn’t. They’re doing it just because they like pretty colors or they want to put a whole lot of borders in there or use different fonts. But the problem is that all of this different stuff just makes the information harder to understand.

Another example, deadly sin No. 9, is shrinking the font size in order to fit the report onto a single page. That’s not going to work. All that’s going to happen is you’re going to intimidate and possibly anger your audience, because they’re seeing this giant page of tiny numbers that you’ve shrunk because you had to fit them all on the page.

Instead, what you need to think about is if you can’t fit your information onto one page, the problem isn’t that you have all this great information, it’s does your report design need to be improved? Just like sending a 50-page memo to the board of directors, you may think that I need 50 pages to express all these important thoughts, but as far as the board of directors is concerned, they don’t care. If you can’t boil your information down to one page, they’re just not that interested in reading it.

What is the main takeaway to presenting numbers? Is it that less is more?

Well, this is where quantation is really hard work — just as being a good writer or good speaker is very difficult. In general, I would say yes, less is more. However, too much less is not good, because at that point if you present a number, your audience will want to talk about it, and that speaks in favor of less is more. In other words, you can’t really control which numbers in your presentation your audience is going to glom onto and ask you questions about. So don’t present irrelevant stuff to your audience, because that may be what they raise their hand or call you up to talk about.

On the other hand, there is a corollary, which is if you don’t present a number the audience was expecting, they’ll wonder why it’s not there — and that’s just not a conversation you want to have. My point is you need to present the right amount of information. Yes, you need to be terse. Yes, you need to know how to summarize. Yes, you need to know how to organize your information so that your audience can easily and intuitively grasp the important information.

But if you present too little information, you may have an analogous problem: you may encounter a situation where they assume you just don’t have a deep enough grasp of the subject matter to present coherently. You may just be presenting the high-level stuff that they already knew. And so, the message I’d give you about this is you have to think carefully. Yes, it’s true that less is usually better than more, but what’s really ideal is presenting the right amount of information for that particular audience. And that’s going to vary. It’s different for a board of directors than it is for the sales force, than it is for the stockholders, than it is for customers.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at