Numbers don’t bore people; “numbers people” bore people

There are two kinds of storytellers in this world: numbers people and emotion people. Regular readers of this blog know I am a strong proponent of the second camp.

Well, “camp” implies some sort of militarized division—an uncrossable line. In fact, speakers must be comfortable crossing that line.

Since the audiences we reach are also made up of numbers people and emotion people, we emotion-based writers need to incorporate some facts (numerical or otherwise) to convince the fact-seekers in the audience. And the fact-based folks need to incorporate emotion. Because emotion carries a story forward. Without it, you’re left with only a laundry list. And who wants to listen to that?

I was reminded of this yesterday during the longest half-hour I’ve spent in years. The rector of my church—a wise and wonderful writer—was on vacation. They’d hired one of those numbers people to sub for her.

Numbers people can turn even an emotional subject to dust

numbers don't bore people; people bore peopleThe Old Testament reading gave us the Ten Commandments. A fine story. He focused on “you shall not murder”—the current translation—and pivoted to talk about the shooting in Las Vegas and gun violence in general. Fine.

But did he talk about the morality of raining down death and destruction on innocent concert-goers? Reader, he did not—not really. Oh, he talked about death and destruction all right. He recited a bunch of numbers. I think you’d hear fewer at an Accountants convention. At ten years’ worth of Accountants conventions.

I didn’t capture all of the numbers he threw at us—I didn’t start taking notes until I realized I wanted to blog about this. But here’s a partial list:

  • # of American deaths in all wars
  • # of American deaths in the Vietnam War
  • # of American deaths in the Civil War

And then the annual statistics:

  • # of gun-related deaths in the U.S.
  • # of gun-related suicides in the U.S.
  • # of gun deaths in Canada
  • # of gun deaths in England
  • # of gun deaths in Australia
  • # of gun deaths in Japan

No stories, just the raw numbers. It was Sermon by Google.

He made occasional attempts at audience involvement by asking “do you know how many gun deaths in [fill in the blank]?” Someone would gamely throw out a number and he’d declare them to be wrong. Then he’d spit out the correct answer and move on.

The thing is, he had at least one story he could have told. He mentioned briefly that a distant relative of his had a nephew injured in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. How much more powerful would it have been to focus on that young man’s awful journey and tell us some specifics about how the gun violence had impacted his family?The priest gave us the Cliff Notes version of that story, but completely devoid of emotion.

The challenge for religious leaders

Now, priests are in a difficult position when they talk about issues of policy and politics. Until the mega-churches succeed in changing the tax code, religious institutions are still barred from discussing politics. He got around that by asking periodically “What would you do?” or saying “You’ll have to make up your own mind.”

After he was through with the numbers, he did tell some stories. He talked about the former trader of enslaved people who realized the evil he was perpetrating and ended up becoming an Episcopal priest and writing the ubiquitous hymn “Amazing Grace.” And about how the benefactor behind the Nobel Prizes invented dynamite. And about how the Wright Brothers regretted that governments repurposed their invention as a killing machine.

But he didn’t incorporate the stories into any kind of narrative. He treated them the same way he treated the gun death numbers—turning great material for stories into what I can only describe as “word lists.”

Don’t just talk; move people

Even with the constraints on making a political stand, that priest could still have constructed a moving sermon. First, he could have pared the statistics down to two or three meaningful ones. And instead of just announcing the numbers, he should have set them in context:

“The shooter in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people. That’s ten times the number of gun-related murders in Japan in all of last year.”

Then tell a story—if he didn’t have a distant relative injured in a mass shooting, he could have talked about any death (surely he’s experienced one or two in his time as a priest). If you didn’t have any personal experience with violent death or injury, compare it to something you do have experience with:

“My mother died of cancer. It took six months for the disease to kill her, and we used that time to have frank conversations that helped ease the loss. The people killed in Las Vegas were ripped from their families—no preparation, no warning. No final goodbyes.”

And instead of just asking “What would you do?”

“Ask yourself as a Christian, someone committed to living the values we express here in this place every week. Is this the world you want to live in? A world where people get gunned down in the street and we pray for them and go back to our insular lives?”

The sermon the priest gave felt more like an outline of a sermon—fact-filled but pointless. If you’re going to ask people to invest their precious time in listening to you, you have a responsibility to say something. Even if you can’t express an opinion openly, you can leverage emotion and tell a memorable story.

And please—please, don’t ever assume that numbers can substitute for emotion.


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Also published on Medium.

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