How to tell a story when delivering a presentation


July 26, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Keeping your audience engaged whilst trying to clearly deliver your key messages can be difficult. A helpful way of doing this is by telling stories where you take your audience on a journey and appeal to their emotions. In this article we discuss storytelling techniques you can incorporate into presentations.

The benefits of storytelling

Storytelling is used in every culture, passed down through generations, to help with understanding because humans like narrative structures. It's now becoming more popular for business presentations - this is the case for Cisco Systems who switched from fact-heavy presentations to presentations incorporating stories and consequently became more successful in promoting their products.

Research suggests that humans are hardwired to listen to stories, for example, after conducting a fMRI study, neuroscientist Uri Hasson concluded that storytelling causes the neurons of an audience to sync with the storyteller's brain. This suggests that your brain in responding like the storyteller's so you are experiencing the same emotions.

Storytelling has multiple benefits:

  • Memorable
  • Grabs attention
  • Evokes emotion, especially empathy
  • Uses the audience's imagination
  • Relatable e.g. humanises a person, company etc
  • Maintains attention because stories are so engaging
  • Builds anticipation by having heroes, challenges, adventures and journeys
  • Changes beliefs
  • Very persuasive

Different ways of storytelling

Monomyth (the hero's the journey)

In a monomyth, a hero goes on a difficult journey or takes on a challenge - they move from the familiar into the unknown. After facing obstacles and ultimately succeeding the hero returns home, transformed and with newfound wisdom.

Using a monomyth is a useful way of showing the audience how you obtained the knowledge/wisdom that you will be sharing in your presentation. When you deliver your presentation you can hold the audience as the hero - they can come on the journey, you encourage them to walk through it and get passed the obstacles. Your ideas delivered in the presentation can guide them to the rewards/wisdom they seek.

An example of a monomyth: professional snowboarder Amy Purdy delivered a speech where she talks about losing her legs to meningitis, re-learning snowboarding and finally receiving a medal in the Paralympics.

Benefits:

  • Engages the audience by accessing their imagination and taking them a journey
  • Universal appeal - has a recognisable and simple structure
  • Demonstrates the benefits of taking risks
  • Quickly evokes empathy
  • Shows how you learned a lesson and how you got your wisdom
  • Your audience sees the value of your product, service etc

Rags to riches

This essentially is a story where the main character has various hardships in their life, usually hits rock bottom but then achieves great success.

Benefits:

  • Relatable as we have all faced difficult times
  • Provides hope

In medias res (into the middle of things)

In this type of story you launch right into the action - providing a snippet/teaser of what's happening and then you start explaining the events that led to that event. You'll be familiar with TV shows frequently using this technique. This is engaging because you're starting your story at the most exciting part which will make the audience curious - they'll want to know how you got there.

Don't give away too much of the action when you start the story; you'll want to explain it in more detail when you reach it chronologically. Consider hinting at something unexpected or strange occurring - just provide the audience with enough information to get them interested.

Benefits:

  • Attention grabbing
  • Creates suspense
  • Focuses attention on the fundamental moment of the story

False start

When delivering a false start, you begin by telling a supposedly predictable story and then unexpectedly reveal something before starting the story again with an altered perspective. This can be used to surprise the audience and it will get them engaged as it disrupted their predictions.

It's useful for talking about times where you experienced a failure and then you consequently had to start again and what you learnt from this, including whether you had a special way of solving the problem.

Benefits:

  • Changes the audience's perspective
  • Relates to the audience by sharing a failure
  • Displays problem-solving

Storytelling diagram with words coming out of book

The mountain

This is similar to the monomyth - the mountain initially starts by setting the scene, it goes on to include a series of small challenges and a build-up of action, finally ending with a climatic finish. Typically something else will be introduced to the story to overcome the final challenge.

Benefits:

  • Highlights how you overcame a series of challenges
  • Builds suspense gradually - used in a lot of films
  • Provides a satisfying conclusion

Sparklines

Sparklines are when you contrast this world to an ideal world. You highlight the problems this world has and suggest what it could be like. It's very persuasive because it gets the audience to want to make changes. A well-known example is Martin Luther's "I have a dream" speech.

Benefits:

  • Emotional appeal
  • Evokes hope
  • Often leads to action

Your whole presentation could follow the structure of a sparklines story:

1. Presentation beginning - describe current life as this helps create a connection between yourself and the audience because they will agree with what you're saying. Go on to introduce what the future can be, for example:

  • What is: Our competitors have eaten up 30% of our revenue this year
  • What could be: But what if we could fight back with a completely new product line in the same market? We’ve got the in-house expertise and resources to do just this.

2. Presentation middle - now you have shown what the issues is continue to reflect on the contrast between the present and what the future could be like, for example:

  • What is: We missed our revenue target by 30%.
  • What could be: We’ve got to perform better next year otherwise we’ll have to start letting people go.
  • What is: We’ve conducted early product trials with some of our customers.
  • What could be: Over 90% said they would purchase the product when developed.

As you keep switching from what is and what could be the audience will find the possible future more appealing.

3. Presentation ending - You want a call to action that is motivating, you want to show the audience the benefits of taking on your ideas. For example:

  • Call to action: It will take additional work from several of our departments to get the new product line built in time for the launch date and to make up the revenue number for next year.
  • The result of adopting your ideas: I know everyone’s working incredibly long hours, we really appreciate it. This is our opportunity to work together and give the company a massive boost. We’ll fight back against the competitors and you’ll all earn bonuses after a successful launch.

This makes it clear to the audience that everyone will benefit from your plan.

Nested loops

In nested loops, three of more stories are layered within each other. An example would be a character in your first story tells another story and a character in that story tells another story etc. The core of your message is in the centre and the stories around it explain this message or elaborate on it.

Each nested story should end in the order it was introduced, for example, the story you begin with is the last story you finish with, the second story you start is the second to last story you finish etc.

Benefits:

  • Shows how your wisdom was obtained through a series of interactions/showing how wisdom was passed to you
  • Explains how you came to a conclusion

Converging ideas

Converging ideas shows the audience how different people's thinking came together to produce one idea. This is a good way of showing how a movement started or how an idea was created from various people working towards the same thing.

Converging ideas are similar to nested loops but with converging ideas you can show how stories with equal importance came to one significant conclusion.

Benefits:

  • Demonstrates collaborations between people
  • Can show how relationships formed
  • Demonstrates how a development occurred

Petal structure

The petal structure consists of telling multiple stories from multiple speakers that relate to the main message. This is useful if you have unconnected stories that relate back to the central concept. You can overlap the stories as one story, after it has been completed, introduces the next story.

Benefits:

  • In showing the audience how these stories are related they understand the significance of your message
  • Provides the voice of multiple speakers
  • Provides lots of evidence or emotional appeal around a central idea
  • Shows how multiple situations lead back to one concept
  • Allows a group of speakers to discuss a main message

Example of captive storytelling

Donald Blake from the Scottish Storytelling Centre tells a tale about being hungry for stories. Great example of how to tell a story during a presentation.

Watch the full video here: ICH for Everyone: The importance of storytelling

Storytelling tips

Storytelling is used by the top public speakers, here are their tips:

Understand your audience

You first need to find out who you're presenting to:

  • Know their pain points, values and opinions
  • Topics of interest
  • Try to find similarities, including any shared experiences, you have with the audience because they can relate and empathise with you. Consequently they will care about what you say.

Frame your story

Think about taking the audience on a journey and work out where to start and finish.

To find a place to start ask:

  • What do audience already know about the topic?
  • How much do the audience care about the topic?

If a speech is received poorly it's usually because it was not framed well - the speaker misunderstood the level of audience interest or they didn't tell a story.

Know your message

Ensure that you understand what you're trying to tell the audience and how your story is linked to your call for action.

  • Think about how you want the audience to feel about your message.
  • For example, you might need to share facts and figures but try to deliver this is an engaging way so they will be remembered.

Relevance

Ensure that you choose a story relevant to the idea you want to support or the point you want to make. The story must be tailored to your audience so it relates to them and meets their needs.

Be authentic

  • Tell real-life stories to garner trust.
  • If your story is not genuine this will work against you and the audience will judge you as dishonest.

Use a conversational tone

When telling your story speak in a conversational tone as this will sound more natural and friendly. To help with this pretend that you're telling the story to friends or family and avoid technical terminology.

Remember that the audience is the hero

  • The audience often needs to view themselves as the hero.
  • Let people see and feel what the journey of achieving the goal will be like.

Be visual

Visual aids increase engagement and memory retention. Use relevant images, videos, props etc as supplements to your story.

Visual storytelling with diagrams

Evoke emotions

By evoking certain emotions in the audience, they will feel more connected to the story which will help with their engagement and persuading them. Emotions also increase memory retention.

Sell your story not your product

Focus your story on the outcome that the audience is looking for and not on your product.

Drama

There needs to be conflict, contrast or action in the story; in traditional tales there would be a villain. In a business presentation there might be a problem that the characters must overcome. This ensures audience engagement because they want to know what happens next. To increase suspense:

  • Tell a story chronologically so you can build to a climactic conclusion
  • Consider telling a predictable story and then shock the audience by going a different direction to what was predicted (false start).
  • Consider using in media res.

Structure

Stories need a beginning, middle and end to create drama and anticipation. Sometimes you don't have to complete the story as this can be a useful way of making a point in the presentation.

Anecdotes

Tell personal stories because the audience will enjoy seeing your human side. Consider telling a story about a mistake you made, for example, perhaps you froze up during an important presentation when you were 25, or maybe life wasn't going well for you in the past - if relevant to your presentation's aim.

People will empathise and relate to you as we have all experienced hardship. The more the audience relates to you, the more likely they will remain engaged. These stories can also be told in a humorous way if it makes you feel more comfortable.

Length

Ensure that you plan the stories thoroughly beforehand and make sure they are not too long.

How you tell your story

The way you tell a story is important, if you do it effectively the audience won't forget it. Consider:

  • Using every word and image to help create a clear picture in their mind
  • Using visuals to supplement the story
  • Providing sensory details - using all five senses
  • Using precise verbs and nouns and vivid adjectives.
  • Providing short but effective descriptions

Imaginable characters

Create characters that the audience can imagine easily. Characters are significant because it's their struggles that make the audience react. You must provide enough detail on the main character and identify their unique characteristic, such, as, perseverance.

A common technique for presenting characters in business presentations is to start with "This is..." followed by the character's name and their job role and their important characteristics/backstory. For example, "This is Sally, a hard-working but over-worked marketing manager etc."

Shock the audience

Build up to a dramatic event that they won't forget - this can be a provoking image, shocking statistics etc. For example, in a 2009 speech Bill Gates, after providing statistics on the issues of malaria, opened a jar of mosquitoes in the presentation room and said “There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.”

Satisfying resolution

End with a resolution - this can be a piece of advice or wisdom that will help the audience.

Telling stories is a compelling way of presenting because humans relate to them. Stories engage the audience, evoke empathy, increase trust and motivate action. By working on your storytelling skills you will be more effective at persuading the audience the value of your ideas. Make sure you spend the time refining these skills so you can set your company apart from the rest.