I was having a tough year. Divorce, sick dad, and now I’m launching a speaking career! What was I thinking?! Do I even know how to tell a story?!
I stood in the quiet darkness backstage, waiting for my cue. On the other side of the curtain, the audience’s steady hum died down as the bow-tied host walked up the microphone. He smiled. “Hello, everyone. You’re in for a real treat today,” he said.
As he spoke, I shifted nervously, mentally running through my preparation checklist: portable mic working (check); presentation deck loaded and ready to go (check); thank the host (check); opening story to tell audience…
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the audience clapping. The host glanced expectantly at me from onstage. Uh-oh, what did I miss?
I breathed deeply, steadied my shaking hands, and stepped out into the light.
Like a catchy song, a great story draws you in and keeps you going until the end. Presentations are a unique kind of storytelling with a strategic purpose: to inform as well as entertain. Learning how to tell a story will make your presentation more dynamic and help make abstract concepts easier to understand.
You don’t have to be Malcolm Gladwell or J.K. Rowling to tell a dynamic story. As author Isak Dinneson once noted, “to be a person is to have a story to tell.”
Here are five ways to incorporate storytelling in your presentations:
1. Don’t use PowerPoint to make your point. People remember 80% of what they see and 20% of what they hear, BUT that doesn’t mean you should rely on a bulleted PowerPoint presentation to make your point. Presentation expert Nancy Duarte once noted, “The whole purpose (of a presentation) is to enable people to learn. Your mission is not to transmit information but to transform learners.” A few slides with compelling graphics or facts can emphasize your key points.
2. Show, Don’t tell. It’s no accident that TED speakers deliver some of the world’s most compelling presentations. Their stories pull audiences in by appealing to their hearts as well as their heads because they show audiences, rather than tell, their message. When you’re telling your story, describe the setting (like in the opening story above). How did you feel? How were people around you acting? Read more about effective techniques used by impactful TED speakers in this blog post by Nayomi Chibana.
3. Incorporate a theme. Some of the most common themes found in popular literature—for example, triumph over adversity, good vs. evil, betrayal, coming of age, humanity vs. nature—are also effective methods to use in presentations. How can one of these themes help you tell your story? You can build your story chronologically up to the climactic conclusion and increase the suspense. Or put your audience right in the middle of the action, then go backwards in time to reveal how it happened. This blog post by Sparkol has great suggestions on structuring a compelling story.
4. Have a conflict, climax, and positive resolution. Like a well-written novel, an effective presentation has a conflict, climax, and positive resolution. It also needs a distinct beginning, middle and end. Develop a narrative and resist the urge to dump all your information at once. Your beginning should (briefly) introduce your characters, setting, and conflict. The conflict can grow into something bigger in the middle of your story so that it can be resolved in the ending. Describe the emotions your conflict creates—anxiety, fear, embarrassment, confusion. In the story at the beginning of this post, instead of saying he’s nervous, the narrator of the story describes how he feels. And discuss how you overcame this conflict.
Finally, the ending should be brief and describe the aftermath of your resolution. Connect back to the point of your presentation: how did (or didn’t) you save the day?
5. Deliver a jaw-dropping moment. Presentation coach Carmine Gallo recommends adding a jaw-dropping moment – a point in a presentation that generates a strong emotional response and grabs the audience’s attention. Whether it’s joy, fear or surprise, it’ll be remembered long after the presentation is finished.
Get more great storytelling techniques and learn how to tell a story from TED here. If that’s not enough, there are more tips on how to speak so your audience will listen here.