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How storytelling can help you build a more powerful presentation

In our previous blog, we focussed on the importance of building a structure into your presentations. But so is building an emotional connection with your audience. So how do we bring these two things together?

One way is to use storytelling.

In this blog I’ll look at why you should consider using storytelling in your presentation. I’ll also unpack three storytelling structures and consider how we can use them to structure a presentation. Lastly, we’ll look at what to do if you want to use the power of storytelling but don’t want to build your entire presentation around it.

Why use storytelling in your presentation?

For me, there are three reasons why storytelling is important when you’re thinking about the structure and emotional impact of your presentation.

Firstly, because it reflects who we are as human beings.

Storytelling is part of our everyday lives. It’s in the films we watch and the books we read. We also spend a lot of time telling stories to each other – one study found that up to 70% of our conversations with each other are spent telling personal stories.

Secondly, research suggests humans tell stories because it helps us pass on knowledge. When you think about it, that’s the purpose of every presentation – to pass on knowledge.

One study showed that after a presentation, 63% of attendees were able to remember stories, while only 5% could remember statistics. (I think it’s funny we use statistics to prove statistics don’t work! It’s a reminder that we need to engage hearts and heads when we present.)

Finally, we know that storytelling helps us get results.

Studies show that focusing on the impact of a tragedy on a single individual helps charities raise more donations than statistical references to the thousands or millions of people who are affected by it. This is because we can empathise with an individual’s story and we become emotionally invested.

So we know that storytelling is powerful. But what is a story?

A story is a structure

A story is made up of a few key ingredients, such as characters, an emotional hook, but the thing underpinning them all is a solid structure. There are generally considered to be eight key types of story structure:

  1. The hero’s journey
  2. The mountain
  3. Nested loops
  4. Sparklines
  5. Converging ideas
  6. False start
  7. In media res
  8. Petal structure

You can build a presentation around any of these story structures. However, in reality, I think there are three that work particularly well. They are the hero’s journey, in media res and sparklines.

Let’s explore each of them, how they work and the types of presentation they are most suited to.

Using the hero’s journey in your presentation

The hero’s journey is the plot of thousands of books, plays and films. (Star Wars is the example you’ll most often see.)

If you Google the hero’s journey, you’ll find it has up to 12 steps. Broadly speaking, though, these divide into three parts:

  • the hero leaves the familiar world behind, either intentionally or unintentionally
  • the hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world
  • the hero returns to the familiar world transformed by their journey and equipped with new-found wisdom

The most obvious use for a hero’s journey in a presentation is when you’re telling your own story. For example, it would be great if you’re delivering a keynote speech about a notable event in your career.

It’s also ideal for raising awareness about a topic you care deeply about. Here’s the description of a TED talk for example:

“After bacterial meningitis took her legs, Amy Purdy struggled with depression, and only beat it when she learned to accept her new reality, but not any limitations. After being unable to find prosthetics that would allow her to snowboard, she built her own. Today, she is a world champion female adaptive snowboarder. In 2005, she co-founded Adaptive Action Sports, a non-profit dedicated to introducing people with physical challenges to action sports.”

Watch Amy’s TED Talk

The hero doesn’t have to be you, though. If your presentation was about a customer problem you worked on, the hero might be your customer. In this scenario, Act 1 would look at the problems they were facing. Act 2 would be about their search for the ideal solution (which was your product or service) and the work you did together. Act 3 would be about their world now and how it’s been changed for the better by your work.

Using in media res in your presentation

Like the hero’s journey, an in media res structure has three acts:

  • set up
  • confrontation
  • resolution

The crucial thing that separates it from the hero’s journey, though, is where you start it. Because ‘in media res’ translates as ‘in the middle of things’. You start your story at the most climactic moment.

You see the in media res structure in films and TV programmes a lot.

The opening scene starts with something unusual or intriguing – a familiar character behaving in an unfamiliar way or in an unlikely situation. Then, we get the text on screen that says something like: ‘Two days earlier’. We then go back to where the story actually begins and go through all the stages that led to the opening scene. In process, we get to see how the familiar character ended up in the unfamiliar situation.

This structure grabs your audience’s attention right from the start and engages them to listen on.

You’ll often see in media res described as ‘cutting to the chase’. Rather than starting your customer success story at the beginning with a description of your customer, you could try starting it at the moment they realised they needed help.

Or in a sales presentation, you could open by painting the picture of the problems that your product or service solves. Alternatively, you could start with a piece of feedback thanking you for the difference your company made.

Using sparklines in your presentation

Sparklines are when you contrast an existing world to an ideal world. The most famous example is perhaps Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Here’s an extract:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Sparklines is a good storytelling structure to use when you need to get people on board with something. You might need to show people the benefits of using a new piece of technology or a new way of working. You might need them to buy in to a new business strategy.

You take each of the problems you currently face. You then contrast it with a world where the technology is in place or the strategy has been implemented to show how much better it is.

By switching, you help to pull out all the problems with your world as it is at the moment. You also highlight all the benefits of the your new world. This helps to build a powerful argument people can buy into – and gets them excited about making the changes needed to get there.

Harness the power of storytelling in your next presentation

We love using storytelling to build powerful presentations for our clients. I hope this blog has shown you why.

But if you don’t want to build your entire presentation around a storytelling framework, you can still use the power of stories. For example, you could try opening your presentation with a personal anecdote. This will help create an emotional connection with your audience and they are likely to be much more engaged in what you have to say. Three steps to writing and structuring a winning presentation has a little more on this.

Let us know your experiences of using storytelling in presentations – and remember, when you tell us, you’ll be doing what humans have been doing for generations – telling a story!

Steve Alford

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