Our natural human instinct for sharing and hearing stories can be a highly effective tool for presenting information of all sorts.
Think back to the last time you heard an engaging presentation. If you’re anything like me, you may have leaned forward or found yourself on the edge of your seat as the presenter shared their content. Perhaps the actual subject matter was something you wouldn’t have otherwise found interesting. Still, the skillful presentation had you cheering for the “hero or heroine” in marketing to slay the “dragons” lurking in a complex customer survey.
Whether they realize it or not, some of the best presenters use basic storytelling mechanics to craft their presentations. Rather than a wall of information, these presentations have a defined beginning and resolution, a set of characters, including “good guys” and “villains,” a sense of place and a logical flow that engages the listener.
Stories create supporters
Using storytelling techniques doesn’t just make for engaged audiences. Done well, stories allow your audience to see themselves in the content you’re presenting and align themselves with the characters in the story in a way that mere facts cannot.
You’ve probably been exposed to this trick since childhood, as rather than sharing facts and figures on child abductions and mitigation strategies, an adult in your young life probably told you a fairy tale, like “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel.” These stories imparted important content around practical techniques for dealing with unfamiliar people and the dangers of straying away from a particular path in a far more relatable way.
Getting started with storytelling
Perhaps the best part of using storytelling techniques to convey information more effectively is that it’s natural and easy. Since we could first talk, we’ve been hearing and telling stories, so there’s no need for complicated frameworks or multi-step instructions.
Most good storytellers begin with the end in mind. How should your listener feel, and what should they take away from your story? Even if you are merely presenting information, consider how your listener should feel about the data and whether they should be ready to take some action, feel comfortable or be concerned about the state of the world.
Next, consider the characters in your story. This can be a bit more challenging since, hopefully, no terrible dragons or hungry wolves are lurking in the halls of your company. Generally, your team or company can be the “hero” of your story, and some external event or competitor can be the “villain.”
Most people will feel some natural affinity for their company or “home team,” but don’t be shy about reminding your audience about your hero’s attributes that should make them personally invested in your story. If you’ve worked for a smaller business, you’ve probably heard presentations that cast your company as the proverbial David, girding for battle with a Goliath that might be a larger competitor or industry. If you work for a large company, perhaps you can cast your hero as a lovable but slow-moving giant that must adapt to a changing world.
Villains can range from external market circumstances to competitors or even inanimate objects like a pending regulation or mandate.
As you craft your presentation, consider how you’ll invest your audience in the hero and their metaphorical battle against the villain. Why is this clash important and something in which the audience should personally invest? What are the consequences of failure or ignoring the looming threat?
To close your presentation, share a “happily ever after” that depicts the world’s future should your hero succeed in the best outcome. If that doesn’t feel strong enough, you can contrast that future with a bleak view of the world where the hero has failed.
You might find it helpful to think about how you’d present a complex technical or business problem to a small child. What metaphors would you use, and how would you get them invested in the outcome even if they don’t have the expertise to understand all the technical details?
While it might feel awkward initially, allow your innate ability to tell stories to drive the structure and flow, and then fill in the bare minimum of technical detail to complete the story.
Not only will a storytelling structure engage your audience in the moment, but it will allow them to personally invest in the “happily ever after” that you’re presenting. Using our natural relationship to telling and hearing tales is a simple tool that can immediately make you a more effective presenter.