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Secrets of Great Presentations: Storytelling, Part I

(posted: May 19th, 2015)

7 Reasons to Use Storytelling

Great presentation and communication skills are the secret to holding people’s attention, making a persuasive point, being remembered and appearing competent and confident.

You may be giving a talk to an auditorium filled with people, or you could just as easily be asking your boss to give you a raise, hoping that a roomful of investors will back your new company or product, or convincing your friends to watch a specific movie. In all cases, your success comes down to how effectively you share your ideas in public. With some knowledge and some hard work, you can develop the skills to inspire people, get them interested, get them on your side and fire them up to take action.

In Secrets of Great Presentations we'll build your speaking skills step by step. In this third post of the series we look at why storytelling matters. We'll talk more about stories in the next couple of posts, as well.

A client, a pharmaceutical company, had brought me in to help several groups of executives with their presentation skills. The company was launching a new product, one that by all accounts was going to be a game-changer, and the executives would be presenting in various situations before and during the product launch.

With the launch deadline looming, everyone was busy, moving at high speeds trying to complete everything on time. I was matching pace with them, grabbing time where I could to work with the executives on their messaging, or their body language or the structure of their presentations. At some point it dawned on me that I knew very little about this new product of theirs, so in a rare quiet moment I asked one of the executives. "Dave, (not his real name) tell me about the new drug."

Puzzled, he started to list off the basics. I already knew that the drug was intended for people suffering from a chronic, progressive, incurable disease. "No, tell me what makes it so extraordinary, and how it came to be."

Dave's face lit up and as he talked the passion crept into his voice and he started to gesture. "Ten years ago, we took a chance, on a research scientist who had an idea."

Aha! We had uncovered a story, a big story for this company, and a critical component to effective presentations.

Why Stories Matter For Effective Presentations

"It's more work to add stories to my presentations..."
"I'm not a natural storyteller..."
"Detouring from the facts makes me nervous..."
"My information is all data and statistics, where are the stories in that?"

Is it really worth the time and effort required to find stories and learn to tell them well? There are all kinds of reasons we come up with to resist adding stories to presentations, but they really do make all the difference. Stories make your point more memorable than regular speech, like a catchy rhythm or a scrap of a song lyric, and, done well, can elevate your presentation from acceptable to good or even great.

Below I'll take you through seven compelling reasons to use stories and storytelling in your presentations.

7 Reasons to Use Storytelling

1.) More Memorable.

If you only offer information in your presentation, no matter how interesting that information is to your audience, you run into our brain's limited ability to remember more than a handful of things. When you tell your audience a story, you tap into the deeper, emotional areas of the brain. That emotion works to enhance memory. Think about the stories you loved as a child, or that commercial everyone was talking about at work recently. Now think about the last meetings you attended. Which do you remember better?

2.) More Interesting.

Numbers and data are important, and they may be at the heart of your presentation, but they overwhelm the audience quickly, no matter how interested they were in the subject. Adding a story or two can make those numbers come to life and make them actually compelling. For example, at a fund-raiser, tell the human interest stories that show why the money is important, rather than just focusing on the dollars.

3.) Engages the Audience.

I'm sure you've done it. I know I have. When you're listening to a data-driven or technical presentation, it's really easy to drift off into daydreams or thoughts of what you need to be doing as soon as this presentation is over. But when a story starts, we are drawn in. It snags our interest, makes us want to know what comes next.

4.) Illustrate & Illuminate.

A story shows us the effect of the data or the way a product will impact people's lives. It allows us to "see" the situation and imagine what we would do, or how we might feel, rather than just trying to absorb the facts. This is common in the best commercials.

5.) Connect & Personalize.

If you can tell a story about a mistake you made or a problem you had, you immediately create a connection with the audience. You may be the expert, or the boss, but you are also human. When you tell a story that reminds your audience of shared experiences (we all make mistakes or struggle with problems) you make your subject more personal, yourself more relatable, and create an invaluable bond with your audience.

6.) Add Humor.

You may not want to tell an actual joke, but you can still add humor and personal interest to your presentation. Anecdotes about you and your own experiences work best. You can be silly or playful in stories and it's okay. You can take a story of your own and adjust it slightly to emphasize the ridiculous or humorous element. Humor, especially when it is at your own expense, lightens the mood and helps relax and engage the audience.

7.) Makes it Real.

When you tell people how to do something, or even why, you often give steps, or show processes. If you tell a story about how it worked for you, or the results that came from doing it this way, you define it as real, not theory, bring it to life, and actually convince them to try it.

What happened with my client, Dave, and his story?

We decided that he should use it as the start of his presentation. The basics of the story were familiar to most of his audience, but like any great story, when he told it with passion, and with drama, everyone was rapt with attention. They were hooked from the beginning, connecting with Dave and with their fellow audience members through this shared history.

On a roll, Dave went on to use examples of patients from the trials to paint a vivid picture of the effect of the new drug. By the end he had rekindled the passion and dedication that, for many, had gotten trampled in the mad rush to the product launch.

The audience left his presentation truly excited about their new product, about making a difference for patients, and about the changes in store for the company.

And all it took was shifting Dave's perspective to storytelling.

In my next post, we'll talk about where to find stories for your presentations. Hint: Stories are all around you, if you're looking for them!

Challenge Yourself
  • How have you learned to become a storyteller?
  • What is your experience with stories in presentations?
  • What are some other reasons that storytelling is effective for presentations?

Read the Secrets of Great Presentations Series

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