Translating abstract data into everyday language is a foundational skill for entrepreneurs and leaders working in a wide range of fields. It's so essential that communicating data is a key component of the graduate-level executive classes I teach at Harvard.

According to Google's chief economist, Hal Varian, "The ability to take data, to understand it, and communicate it will be a hugely important skill in the next decades."

Since the topic of data storytelling can fill a book, it's valuable to focus on one tactic at a time. The most important thing to know about communicating statistics, numbers, or data is that our brains aren't wired to process big numbers. But we are wired for storytelling, and stories involve people.

The single best way to communicate abstract data is to make it personal

Let's use the recent U.S. inflation report as an example of personalizing data. The official March numbers made headlines when the government reported that inflation increased 8.5 percent from the previous year. Percentages are abstract and hard to wrap our minds around. That's why skilled reporters and business writers humanize numbers by putting a face to the numbers.

For example, when television reporters asked ordinary people on the street how they felt about inflation hitting a 40-year high, nobody said they're frustrated with the percentage increase of 8.5 percent. Instead, they spoke in concrete terms about what it means to them.

A reporter for a local television station in the San Francisco Bay Area caught up with a resident loading groceries into his car. He said, "That's an extra dollar per gallon that I'm paying to get into the city to work. My eggs are a dollar more as well. So everything's going up at least a dollar, which, you know, adds up."

When The New York Times asked more than 2,000 people what inflation meant to them, they complained about the rising price of gas, milk, meat, and beef (in that order).

Some of their comments included:

  • "Gas. It's painful at the pump."
  • "I never thought I would ever see eggs at $5 a dozen."
  • "Bacon is as expensive as filet mignon used to be."

People don't think about numbers as much as they think about the one thing that matters most: themselves. The secret to grabbing attention with data is taking abstract statistics and personalizing it for your audience.

You can and should use numbers to support your idea, but quickly answer the question that your listeners are asking themselves about those numbers: What does it mean to me?

  • Your investors don't care that your startup is growing by 12 percent a year. They care about making a profit. If you explain how your growth rate will make them money, you'll win them over.
  • Your customers don't care that you're adding 12 new features a quarter to your software. But if you explain how those features will make their lives easier or more productive, you'll win them over.
  • Your boss doesn't care that the new database runs 6.8 percent faster than the old one. Demonstrate how its speed will save or make the company money, and you'll win over your boss. 

Statistics don't matter much to your audience, but they will sit up and pay attention if you explain in concrete and personal terms. Humanize data and you'll be considered an excellent communicator and an indispensable team member.