Storytelling Works Like Magic in Presentations
(This article originally appeared in the Providence Business Journal, July 17, 2020.)
It was obvious that Anthony was frustrated. He leaned forward in his chair and said, “Peter, I know my job. I know the numbers. I know what we need to do to reach our goals. Why does it seem like no one understands what I’m saying?” As he looked up and said, “Please tell me that you can wave a magic wand and help me be better at this.”
I laughed and said, “I don’t have a magic wand, Anthony, but I do have some magic dust. When you sprinkle it into your presentations, people will better understand and remember your message.”
“Yeah, okay,” Anthony replied, doubting me. “How do I get this magic dust?”
“You don’t need to get any, Anthony. You already have it,” I assured him. “You just have to learn how to use it.”
The magic dust is storytelling, and sprinkling it into your presentations provides several benefits. But before we get to them, let’s look at why businesspeople often neglect this powerful tactic.
- Business presentations, they believe, are all about facts and figures, charts and graphs, and goals and initiatives. And although these are important, it is stories that make them memorable.
- Since their superiors do not incorporate stories into their presentations, then neither should they.
- They believe they do not know how to tell a story. Wrong! Everyone knows how to tell a story. We tell them all the time. Making stories more compelling does take some practice, but you can master storytelling in short order.
The power of storytelling
As humans, we are hard-wired to engage in the universal language of stories. From books to movies, to television shows, to chatting with a friend over a beer, we surround ourselves with stories.
Stories can be entertaining and informative, but their power is in connectivity. Studies show that when listeners are involved in a story, mirror neurons in their brains light up in the same areas that light up in the storyteller’s brain. As a result, we are likely to remember the point of the story because we feel like we lived it or watched it happen.
Steps to creating a compelling story
- Build a collection of stories. They can be from your own experiences as well as from books, movies, articles, etc.
- Determine the point you want to make, and select the story that best illustrates your point.
- Keep your stories simple. They should be easy to deliver and just as easy to understand.
- Have a beginning, middle, and end.
- Beginning: This is where you establish the character(s). It is also where you include an obstacle, struggle, or conflict. Without a challenge, a story does not provide a lesson nor purpose. Keep in mind that the beginning of your story should not be the actual beginning of the story. For instance, Star Wars: A New Hope does not begin with the initial rebellious uprising. The opening scene shows the Empire’s forces capturing Princess Leia as she tries to flee.
- Middle: Present the action steps the hero took to overcome their challenge. Include details and why the actions worked.
- End: How is your story going to end? Will it be obvious? Will it end with a twist? No matter how it ends, make it emotional. How did the main characters feel? Proud? Accomplished? Relieved? Emotion is what makes your story stick.
- Make characters come alive by using their names in the dialog. Read the following versions of this sentence and notice the difference. Average statement: “He told me he needs to crush his fourth-quarter numbers.” Better statement: “He said, ‘I need to crush my fourth-quarter numbers.’” Engaging statement: “Jim said, ‘Liz, I need to crush my fourth-quarter numbers.’”
- At the end of your story, restate the point or moral to your story in case someone did not get it.
Sprinkle magic dust into your presentations. When you see how engaged your listeners are, it will quickly become your favorite tool. And don’t be surprised when they catch on and do the same.