You may have heard that a good presentation must be like a story. Now, while the term storytelling is enjoying a stunning career, this recommendation is particularly common. Storytelling lends itself perfectly to motivating, inspiring, persuading and selling activities. It’s a brilliant tool giving fascinating results. By bringing in anecdotes and stories you can create a bond and a trust relationship with your audience, and form a sound foundation for later cooperation.
Storytelling is a form of speech based on stories, anecdotes and cases. Real life stories. Actual cases. The more emotions a story is likely to arouse, the better. The more profoundly the recipients will be able to identify themselves with the story, the better. The more familiar and popular the hero of the story, the better.
Storytelling is the most effective way to engage the recipients and evoke emotions in them. How did this come about? About 40 thousand years ago, our ancestors got into the habit of sitting around the fire in a cave after hunting. The meat would be roasting over the fire, while a bunch of children would gather around the hunters. The children did not have fancy toys or engaging activities. Their favorite thing was probably sitting with the elders and listening to their stories. They were stories about how the hunters set traps to catch the wild beasts, how the fled from them and how they attacked, closing in on them and finally pouncing on them in agile and coordinated movements. They were thrilling stories, surprising stories, but they were also extremely useful from the point of view of the upbringing of the young people: they had an educational value. Each such story carried a lesson that could be used by young hunters in the future when they would stand face to face with a wild animal. You had to really listen in if you wanted to survive. The stories contained countless clues that had the power to save your life.
We have trained our brains to listen to stories by means of neurotransmitters such as dopamine – commonly known as the hormone of happiness, released, for example, when someone starts telling a story. This is why we love listening to stories – we involuntarily focus all our attention on listening and ignore everything else. We give our time and attention over to the storyteller. This is a powerful tool each presenter should keep in their toolbox.
Listening to a story activates as many as seven distinct areas of our brain while listening to a simple account of facts – only two[i]. Therefore, it can be concluded that evolution has made our species particularly sensitive to stories. Meetings around the fire that were always accompanied by storytelling cemented the community and preserved the ancestors’ knowledge, tradition and customs. This kind of communication has been shaped for thousands of years and it is so deeply rooted in our brains that we are unable to withstand the power of the story – even if we wanted to. A good story has the power to engage every listener.
We must remember that storytelling is a kind of entertainment. There were no books, television or video games in prehistoric times. Today, we have plenty of various kinds of entertainment and, mind you, most of them – films, novels, even video games – are built on the canvas of a classic tale. We love them. Entering the world of a tale is simply great fun. Why should we then not bring this pleasant element into our presentation?
A story is a fabulous way to create a super effective presentation. It lets us reach the emotions of the audience, plant a seed in their minds and enable them to remember our message for a long time. And on top of it all, provide them with some entertainment. The best presentations usually take the form of a story.
Telling a story in an engaging way is a difficult art. Some are naturally born storytellers, others have to learn how to do it. If you want to become a master at it, watch as many presentations and speeches as you can in the TED conference series. In my opinion, there’s no better way. You will find these at www.ted.com or on YouTube.
My observations have led me to the conclusion that storytelling offers three highly effective structures of presentation as a story: the problem-solution structure, the framework-story structure and the series-of-stories structure.
1. The problem-solution structure
It is one of the most effective methods. It works for most presentations. It only has a limited application for purely informative and reporting presentations. It is perfect for presentations where we want to convince the recipients about new ideas, new products, new solutions or new procedures.
The basic feature of this structure is that first we present a problem (though problem can be replaced with such words as challenge, situation or context), and then we go on to show a solution. Never the other way round.
I often get to see presentations at meetings of start-ups with potential investors. Ingenious inventors prepare presentations to show that they have just created a new revolutionary product or service. And many of them make the same mistake: they start the presentation by talking about their brilliant idea.
This is a major mistake. Before you reveal what will change the face of the world thanks to you, build suspense: create a story where you will show a vision of the world without your product or service. Draw the picture so as to show that the world is in want. There’s something missing that could make people happier, help them in some way or solve their daily problems; in short, demonstrate that the world is yearning for what you are just about to reveal. This is how you create an engaging story and make the audience open their arms to welcome the new hero: Your ingenious idea.
The theory of storytelling has identified a number of components of a good story. In a simplified version they are: hero, goal, enemy and support. Taking the classic tale of Cinderella, the hero is Cinderella, the enemy is the mean stepmother, the goal is breaking free from home and marrying a prince and the support is the fairy godmother, who conjures up new clothes and a carriage for Cinderella. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the hero and the Order of Jedi, Darth Vader and the Dark Side of the Force is the enemy, conquering the Empire and recovering the independence of the Republic is the goal and the Light Side of the Force is the support.
Almost every film, fairy tale and novel is built around this scheme. And if you want your presentation to be as engaging as the classic tales, it has to follow the same pattern.
Seeing hundreds of presentations every year, I rarely see this scheme in practice. What do the presentations usually miss?
The enemy. They have their heroes, that is new solutions proposed by the presenters but they hardly ever have any enemies which could be conquered by the heroes. And so the audience may ask themselves: why do we need a hero if there’s nothing for him to do?
When Steve Jobs showed the iPhone to the world for the first time, he did not start his presentation by taking a smartphone with a half-eaten apple out of his pocket. He started by depicting the world we lived in: a world with smarthphones that where not adjusted to the way we used them, non-functional and impractical. For several minutes, he talked about all the flaws of smartphones available on the market and about what was wrong with them. The audience were nodding their heads in agreement – Jobs aptly pointed out the shortcomings. Those present in the room knew the imperfections of these products. They understood a change and an entirely new approach was needed. Only then were they ready to meet the real hero of the presentation: the iPhone.
Every engaging story shows a hero on a journey and the road is never laid with roses – it is a rocky road, full of hurdles and pitfalls. Due to the adversities, the viewers experience emotional distress. They are wondering if the hero will be able to reach the goal. Will he overcome the enemy? What will happen next? Where will the story go? Adversities, challenges and hurdles not only dramatize the story but they also elevate and ennoble the hero. Don’t we respect those who reached the top by overcoming numerous obstacles on the way more than those who got there without any special effort on their part?
If you are creating a presentation, where you want to announce a new product, a new service, a new solution or procedure – first show the problem and then the solution. Your presentation will be given an interesting story which will enable you to show clearly what the world (your company or your client) will gain by accepting your proposal.
If you are creating a presentation based on your personal story, don’t just recount the facts but accentuate the adversities you had to overcome on the way. The higher the hurdles, the greater the enthusiasm you are going to achieve when you announce you have finally managed to reach the goal.
2. The framework-story structure
The main feature of this structure is the we start our presentation with a story. Then we come back to the story again and again as we proceed with our narrative and the climax of the presentation is the conclusion of the story. This is how we build a casket narrative: the axis of the presentation is our guiding story. We come back to it every now and then to take out new threads and beads.
A perfect example of this sort of structure is the TED speech by Lexie Alford „Life Lessons from the Youngest Person to Travel to Every Country”. The axis of her speech is the history of her travels to all the corners of the world. This is how Lexie opened her story:
Let me tell you a bit more about my story and how fear has played a role in it. I come from a family of travellers. My mom started a travel agency when she was younger than I am now, and growing up they never left me behind when they went on their adventures. I graduated early and got a degree from community college by the time I turned 18. And at that time, I had traveled to around 70 countries.
Then she goes on to tell how she challenged herself to visit all the remaining countries she had never visited. And thus she is able to grasp the listeners’ attention for the next dozen minutes or so.
Interestingly, the axis of the narrative has a number of digressions. The main story is so broad and spacious that it can embrace all the minor stories and reflections of universal nature. Lexie talks about her adventures, quotes anecdotes, highlights cultural differences and shares reflections on leaving the comfort zone and reaching fulfillment in life. All these little threads are neatly woven into the main story: a long, emotional and adventurous journey serving as the basis of her presentation.
3. The series-of-stories structure
In some cases a presentation may be built around not one but a number of different stories. Brought in one after another they serve to illustrate general ideas formulated in our presentation. Besides providing a framework for the presentation, they may be welcome breaks for less engaging, none the less necessary elements.
This is how Sir Ken Robinson constructed his famous TED speech “Do schools kill creativity”. His has been one of the best presentations in the whole series of TED conferences – and interestingly – given without showing a single slide but filled with humour and wisdom instead. Robinson skillfully juggles anecdotes and stories which put together add up to a very strong message: the school system kills creativity because it is unable to see children’s individuality.
This speech – seen by several dozen million of people – has remained the most popular presentation in TED’s history for years now. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you see it – go to the TED platform or YouTube. It is a perfect example to demonstrate how short, apt stories can be used to create the fabric of a great presentation that has the potential to touch the emotions of millions of people.
We must remember that the presentation-as-a-story structure will not always work: they work well for stage presentation and some business presentations, for instance during a tender. However, not every recipient will expect to hear a story from us. The board director listening to a report about financial results for the previous year may be confounded if we give our presentation as if it was an adventure story. Some recipients expect communication that is simple and to the point. And then we have to choose from among the other structures proposed below.
If we don’t want to make a mistake, we must define our goal and our target audience really well. Remember that it’s the initial assumptions (who am I going to talk to? What is my goal?) determine the choice of tools, including the structure of your presentation.