Tuesday Tip: Dramatically improve your next presentation by telling a better story

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I am sure you’ve sat through many boring presentations in your time. And hopefully a few really good ones too. With TED videos, Goalcast and viral YouTube videos showing us everyday what’s possible, there are now no excuses for bad and boring presentations, and every audience or conference room knows it.

So, what distinguishes the good from the bad? There probably isn’t a better person in the world to answer this question than Chris Anderson, the brains behind TED.

His 7 minute talk on what makes a great TED talk is superb.

In his four guidelines, Chris said the following: “Give context, share examples and make your one idea vivid”; “give your listeners a reason to care”; “use intriguing, provocative questions”; “use the power of language to weave together concepts that already exist in your audience’s minds”; “metaphors can play a crucial role”. Each of these suggestions point to the use of stories as a critical element of a great presentation.

Of course facts and information are important, but stories achieve three important things:

  • Stories cut through the natural skepticism that your audience might have by creating an emotional space that we can share together. If I disagree with your facts, I can easily reject them. It’s much more difficult to dismiss a story, if I disagree with the elements of it or doubt its premise. Stories access a different part of our brain, and open up neural pathways that you can use later to share information and facts.
  • Stories change the energy of your delivery. If you tell a personal story, or a story you know well, you don’t need to use a script or recite rehearsed lines. This comes across in a more relaxed, natural and authentic delivery style.
  • Our brains are hardwired to process and store information in the form of stories. Stories are irresistible to the human mind because they activate our imaginations and we actually have little choice but to follow the mental movies created in our heads. Stories allow us to find common ground with our audience, to start where they are, and “weave together concepts that already exist in your audience’s minds”, as Chris Anderson suggested. And they help us to remember and recall the information more easily.

To do this, consider the following advice for finding good stories to add to your next presentation:

  1. For each major point you’re trying to make in your presentation, look for a defining metaphor or story. For example, if you’re doing a budget presentation and need to give your audience a whole list of numbers, try to find an overarching metaphor to help you. I saw an accountant do this with bricks in building. She put up a picture of a house, and asked the room of full of engineers how many bricks they thought would be needed to build it (she had done her homework, and was able to round this up to a neat 100,000). With each element of her budget presentation, she then talked of how many “bricks” this would be and how much of the house would be built by it. I remember clearly that the IT department was allocated enough “bricks” to be able to build half of the toilet – they were not impressed.

    Have a look at one of the greatest presenters of data in this form, Hans Rosling, talking about world population.  Notice at 4:40, where he turns to his predictions, he starts with a simple statement: “I was in Shanghai recently”. Not much of a story, but feel how the tone changes, notice his voice shift, and note how you are pulled into his story of the emerging world.

  2. Stories that are personal to you are better than canned stories or stories you heard somewhere else. Please, don’t ever tell the Starfish story, for example. Besides the fact that many people will have heard it (many times), telling someone else’s story doesn’t help you to develop authenticity and connection with the audience. Of course, you might not have a personal story for every issue you want to illustrate, but do your best to look for something that’s personal, unique or new to your audience.
  3. Ensure your story has a structure. A story should include specific time periods, details, names and relatable characters. Don’t skimp on these details – give the characters in your stories names, be specific about locations and dates. Paint a picture in your audience’s minds. Your story – even if it’s a short one – needs to have a beginning (set-up), a middle (contrast or conflict), and an end (resolution and key takeaways). The contrast or conflict in the story creates drama, which is then resolved. There are actually seven key prototypes for stories, which you can read about below if you want to take this even further.
  4. Create suspense. A good story always has a conflict and a resolution, and involves something unknown or unclear as it unfolds. The element of suspense – or an issue that needs to be resolved – is what makes a good presentation into a roller coaster ride that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats, asking themselves, “What will happen next?” There are several way you can increase the level of suspense of your story. One way is to tell a story chronologically and build up to a climactic conclusion. Another way is to drop the audience right in the middle of action and then go backwards in time to reveal how all of this occurred. Another is to tell the story from two different points of view.
  5. Show, don’t just tell. If you can find a way to illustrate your words with visuals or props, this will add to the effect. Look, for example, at the Toastmaster’s World Champion speech of 2014, where Dananjaya Hettiarachchi uses a number of techniques to illustrate his content.
     
  6. Replace your ‘ands’ and ‘thens’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores.’ I learnt this lesson from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the writers of South Park, the TV show. “Whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’ it makes for better writing,” they say. So, for example: Don’t say this: I opened the email and then realized it was not intended for me. Then, I freaked out and called a friend to get advice. Say this instead: I opened the email but then realized it was not intended for me. Therefore I freaked out and called a friend to get advice. Much better at building suspense and intrigue and engagement.
  7. Try and tell your story without reading from a script. This will help build connection and authenticity.

This is not enough to turn you into a brilliant presenter – but it’s a good start.

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