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.
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:
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.
This essentially is a story where the main character has various hardships in their life, usually hits rock bottom but then achieves great success.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
This makes it clear to the audience that everyone will benefit from your plan.
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.
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.
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.
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 is used by the top public speakers, here are their tips:
You first need to find out who you're presenting to:
Think about taking the audience on a journey and work out where to start and finish.
To find a place to start ask:
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.
Ensure that you understand what you're trying to tell the audience and how your story is linked to your call for action.
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.
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
Visual aids increase engagement and memory retention. Use relevant images, videos, props etc as supplements to your story.
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.
Focus your story on the outcome that the audience is looking for and not on your product.
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:
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.
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.
Ensure that you plan the stories thoroughly beforehand and make sure they are not too long.
The way you tell a story is important, if you do it effectively the audience won't forget it. Consider:
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."
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.”
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.