The Tale of 1895: How Numbers Need Stories To Make Sense – Especially During A Pandemic
1895: a number that will remain baked into the substrate of my memory for the rest of my life. I’m not talking about the year 1895 when Oscar Wilde first staged “The Importance Of Being Earnest,” and Wilhelm Röentgen discovered the x-ray by accident. I will betray my age here, but if only I had the keys to a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor, like the one in Back To The Future.
The number 1895 plays a pivotal role in my COVID-19 story. I’ll explain this a little later; it illustrates how numbers need stories when we deliver a persuasive speech or presentation, now more than ever.
As the director of Think.Story.Speak, a company that offers public speaking training in Singapore and beyond, I have watched many professionals transform their presentations using well-chosen personal stories. You know what it’s like to politely submit yourself to speeches that are, in essence, dry lists of facts and figures broken up with corporate jargon. We might remember some of the numbers that are flashed across the screen or tumbled out of the speaker’s mouth; especially if they are dramatic and spoken with flair.
I’m currently in Melbourne, Australia, which is experiencing a second lockdown after a striking increase in its COVID-19 infection rate. Accost one of the city’s residents –politely and from a distance of 1.5 metres – chances are they will tell you the precise number of new local cases on a given day. They may also tell you whether the world’s second most liveable city was any closer to “flattening the curve.” And of course, they could explain to you what flattening the curve meant without a postgraduate degree in data analytics.
These curves, efficiently assembled in strips of colour on a graph, give us a quick impression of overall trends. Still, they don’t provide us with a direct understanding of the human cost of this pandemic. A sheer focus on numbers risks abstracting the inherent danger of the disease.
As we can see now, just because a country like Australia experiences falls in daily infections over a sustained period doesn’t mean the risk of spread isn’t high. And just because most fatalities involve people with pre-existing conditions over the age of 70, doesn’t mean healthy people in their 30s and 40s aren’t having their lives cut short by this virus.
If your primary experience with COVID-19 is a barrage of numbers on a graph, it’s no surprise you might no longer see the point of social distancing or wearing a mask. The number 1895 becomes relevant here.
In mid-June 2020, I had to travel from my base in Singapore to my home town of Melbourne after my father had a massive heart attack. I took a virtually empty flight with Singapore Airlines to Melbourne Airport. After receiving my detention order there, I joined the ten other passengers from the Airbus A380 – a plane with 853 seats – on a shuttle bus journey towards Southbank and the Crown Promenade Hotel.
Once there, representatives from the Victorian State Government quickly processed my detention. Next, a security guard ushered me to Suite 1895, where I spent the next 14 days, except for two 15-minute periods where I went outside to breathe fresh air.
The Crown Promenade is a comfortable, four star business hotel. My room was a soft shade of beige with blond wood fittings and a view of Kings Way, one of Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfares. If I peeked through the gaps in the apartment towers across the road, I could see Port Phillip Bay, topped with sailing boats riding the icy winds lashing my windows.
There were moments when the time I had to spend in this agreeable prison weighed heavily on my mind. I sometimes felt an encroaching sense of panic rise from my stomach; the stress of having business opportunities evaporate over the last few months and the isolation started to take a toll on my mental health. Make no mistake; my experience with COVID-19 has been quite privileged in comparison to many people. I still have my health, the support of a loving family and many great friends. I was treated compassionately by the nurses and security guards I met while in quarantine, and the Victorian State Government picked up my bill.
At very least, taking some time to read my story gives you a better idea of the surreal interludes many people experience on the margins of this pandemic. As you get closer to COVID-19, the tales surrounding the virus become more intense, like the personal tragedies of families losing their parents, or the severe strokes suffered by infected people in their 30s and 40s. Despite these causes of despair, there are positive developments worth celebrating, as young activists in countries like Kenya and Syria creatively solve problems through new community initiatives. Through these examples, we can feel the importance of stories, how they can bring personal investment and accountability back to a global emergency.
With many professionals continuing to speak via video conferencing platforms, this is a chance to improve our communication skills and actively use personal stories with emotional power. Adding stories we care about gives the facts and figures we share real significance. These stories can also help us narrow the geographic distance between clients or team members, giving them a more immediate feeling of togetherness.
This is why I advocate pairing stories with numbers when delivering a persuasive speech or presentation online and in a hopeful future, in the flesh. Figures on their own are often cold and abstract; without telling you my story about 1895, it would just be another number.
Paul Falzon is the director of Think.Story.Speak Pte Ltd. Apart from training and consulting, he works as a public speaking coach in Singapore and South-East Asia.