Imagine you are in the middle of a long meeting where you’ve been presented with what seems like mountains of new information. Your colleague is called upon to give a report, and he reads long, jargon-filled bullet points verbatim off of a PowerPoint slide. You can barely stay awake, let alone stay focussed on the presentation. This story probably sounds all too familiar to you, but professional presentations don’t have to be this way!
The most powerful presentations are the ones that tell a story. While facts and data are essential parts of a professional presentation, they are not particularly persuasive or engaging. Our minds become overloaded if we are required to process too much complex information, but we can easily understand and remember stories. Research shows that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments of a story, which allows us to focus better. While facts and bullet points activate the language centres of the brain, stories engage the parts of the brain that we would use if we were experiencing the events described. A well-crafted story is also much more likely to evoke emotion and inspire action than facts alone. When planning your next presentation, try telling a story to keep your audience engaged.
The first step to crafting a story is to determine your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish with this presentation? Whether you want to persuade your audience, educate them, or teach them a new skill, your purpose will become the core of your story. Then you’ll want to establish your characters and setting. Keep your descriptions of your characters to a minimum and focus on their actions. Incorporate as many sensory details as possible to engage different parts of the brain. Most importantly, make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end - all stories must have these three elements.
The beginning of your story should describe life as it is and introduce a problem the audience can relate to. This will help you build rapport and open the minds of your audience. Your problem should intensify in the middle of the story, creating tension and increasing interest. The end should connect to your purpose and allow it to save the day. If your ending is inspiring, the audience will see your purpose as a call to action rather than a burdensome to-do list, since a happy ending will trigger the release of dopamine, making your audience feel hopeful and optimistic.
There’s no need for your story to be complex and full of unnecessary detail - simple stories with easy-to-understand language tend to be the most effective, since your audience will be able to focus on the events more easily. And, to get the maximum emotional response from your audience, the tension of your story should lie between what is (the status quo) and what could be (your purpose or call to action). Your story will reveal the path to a new mindset or a better way of doing things.
Even if you’re presenting statistics and figures, you can still find a way to tell a story and engage your audience. For example, Nick Pittom explains global wealth inequality by turning facts and figures into a conversational narrative:
In his famous TED talk, Hans Rosling presents data on myths about the developing world through telling a story about teaching an undergraduate course on the subject. He then brings the data itself to life through an exciting and entertaining narration:
In fact, TED talks are a great place to look if you need inspiration. For a more in-depth explanation of how to craft a story for your presentation, check out this video from Nancy Duarte:
Let’s go back to the boardroom from the beginning of this blog post. Instead of your coworker being called upon, you’re given the floor. It’s up to you to inform and inspire your colleagues. Tell them a story, and you’ll have them on your side in no time. As Nancy Duarte says, stories are a powerful container of information. Engage your colleagues and get them talking about your presentations around the water cooler. Aim for your presentations to be described as, "interesting," "fascinating," and "amazing." We all have many stories to tell. Use yours during presentations and your entire company will benefit.