In my last post, I crabbed about the imagination-limiting boundaries of presentation software and envisioned a world without PowerPoint. But, because I work in a professional environment, I do understand that in most jobs, there exists a need to share your ideas with an audience from time to time. Whether you need to motivate, inform, persuade or pitch an idea, you will at some point have to stand up in front of a group and make your intentions known. Believe me, I get it.
And so do the people around you. The one crucial element of every presentation that usually gets the least amount of attention is the audience. They are people! And do you know what people love? People love stories. We loved them as children, we love them as adults, we love them because we are human beings, and storytelling is how we make sense of the confusing, contradictory, complicated, crazy world we live in.
Intuitively, we are all storytellers, but we have been taught that at work, a language of logic and statistics is more professional; that stories come across as too emotional and flippant; we stick to facts and figures. But when you stop to consider that the backbone of any business activity is making connections with and persuading other people, you can make the case for storytelling in our professional toolkit. With logic you have the ability to appeal only on an intellectual level—yet people are rarely inspired to act by reason alone. The truth is real emotions work better. Captivate your audience’s imaginations, employ empathy, and inspire sympathy. Instead of citing endless statistics and pointing to dizzying market projection graphs, how about simply telling the heroic story of your latest product launch? The arduous journey from so-so to fantastic? The time when you embraced a new way of working vanquished your enemies and achieved the golden prize? That’s a talk I would love to hear.
I’m not saying you have to manufacture tall tales; on the contrary you must tell the truth, because nothing is more powerful than the truth when it comes to capturing attention.
Start crafting your story by considering a few structural points. First, consider whose story it is. What is their point of view? Look at the world through those eyes and tell us what you see. Move to a different point of view (your supportive but skeptical business partner, your demanding and hard-to-please boss, the eager new hire on the team, the ordinary Joe who might lose his job) and the story might become more clear, more exciting, and the risks bigger. Without an obvious point of view, it’s difficult to become emotionally invested in a story, because you need to follow too many people around. Find a good vantage point and stick to it.
Good stories are always about conflict; don’t tone down your challenges in an attempt to seem cool. On the contrary, raise the stakes. Isn’t that why you are telling the story to begin with? To your audience it might seem to be a tale of how you revitalized your workforce and regained market share, but to you it was a life-or-death situation: change your ways or go out of business. Tell us about the people and the conflict.
Stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Think like a moviemaker and find the dramatic structure—you’re looking for an arc-like shape. Your starting point is the world as it is until an “inciting incident” (the conflict) occurs and provides a compelling reason for change. The action then slides downwards until the main character hits rock bottom (“we exhausted all options and had given up hope,”), until a moment of insight occurs (“then I realized if I just made a small change, I would be able to do what I set out to do,”), then an upward climb toward triumph until the goal is reached/villain is vanquished, and the hero finally returns in victory. The best stories have a moral at the end (the “so what”), and it’s that moment alone that will leave your audience perched on the edge of its seat, longing for a resolution.
In fact, if you start with that takeaway message in mind, the rest of the story will naturally fall into place. Stuck? Turn the arc upside down, flip it back to front, play with tension and timescales, heighten the emotions—does your story become more interesting?
The storytellers of old may have gathered around the fire to build their communities and illuminate the darkness of a mysterious time, but now there are many more people gathering around the flames, and social media stands in for the fire.
A great story will survive through its ability to provoke and inspire, and the enduring ones are related time and again because of the emotional response they achieve. While you might not be able to remember the facts, a good story will lodge itself forever in the heart. Tell one, and your audience will remember it happily ever after.