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Build a Narrative

Humans communicate through stories. Whether they are told sitting around a fire, at a water cooler, in pictures, or in words, stories make up an integral part of our lives. While you may not automatically think of your presentation as storytelling, when you stand up in front of an audience for a period of time to share knowledge and expertise, that audience will instinctively listen for stories. Stories help us relate our different experiences and lives to each other. Told well, stories can trigger a deeper connection with an audience that ensures they will remember you and the points you want to make.

The Narrative Arc

Any type of presentation is better if it has some sort of narrative. This doesn’t always mean that you have to tell a story in the traditional sense, although relating personal stories that align to your presentation’s main point can be a compelling way to gain your audience’s interest. But even if you don’t tell a personal story, you need to think carefully about the narrative arc and the beginning, middle, and end of your presentation. Let’s take a look at the narrative arc (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4-1

FIGURE 4.1 The narrative arc

Your presentation needs to have a framework that creates clear markers for where the presentation begins (exposition), how and where the details that are generally in the middle are described (complication), where the turning point or lessons learned occurs, (climax), and where the presentation ends (resolution). This framework will provide it with natural structure, enabling the audience to follow you where you are going and to understand how you got there.

Consider how you will provide the background and description necessary to set the stage for your presentation. Think about the following questions:

  • What level of detail is needed?
  • How will you engage your audience’s interest in the presentation topic?
  • Is there is a complicating factor, a troubling issue, or some other tricky situation that needs resolution?
  • What is the climax that can serve as the presentation’s turning point, where your recommendations and their validity become clear?

Determining the benefit of your recommendations and how they can help successfully resolve a challenge will provide the audience with a satisfactory sense of completion that allows for a straightforward ending to your presentation.

Pull out the sentence you wrote earlier that defines what your presentation is about. This will help you create a clear narrative arc that stays on point and is connected to your topic. It will provide a strong common thread throughout your whole presentation that will ensure that all of your details, side points, or related stories back up that most important goal that you have committed to communicating to your audience.

Provide a Beginning

Whether you plan it or not, the beginning of your presentation is where you create a first impression and set the audience’s expectations for the rest of your time on stage. It needs to provide the background and set the stage for your topic. You should introduce any key players or details about the situation that are important to your topic and the later points you want to make.

Consider how you want to introduce yourself and any background or expertise you have with the topic you will be speaking about. Make sure this doesn’t come off like an ad for you or your company! Usually one slide and a couple of short sentences about yourself or your expertise with the main point of the presentation is plenty. Your beginning shouldn’t take more than about 10% of your presentation time.

Likewise, the rest of the beginning should be crisp and brief. If you start rambling without a point right away in your presentation, you may lose your audience before you even get to the meat of what you want to discuss. As you think about your beginning, make sure that you get the audience into the right frame of mind for what you want them to absorb and take away. You want to pique their interest in your presentation topic and in what you will be sharing, but avoid going into too much detail yet. Think about how much exposition and description you need in order to make your later points or recommendations clear.

Also consider what you want to ask of the audience. Do you have specific actionable recommendations coming later that you want them to pay attention to? Does a point you make or story you tell in the beginning get repeated for emphasis or progression later on? Depending on your style and the type of presentation, you may want to be explicit in the beginning about what the audience will learn in your time together, or you may want to build more slowly to the climax and resolution.

You may have heard the classic presentation structure tip variously attributed to both Aristotle and Dale Carnegie: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” As you get started, this formula can be useful for keeping your presentation on track with your important points and can give you a path to follow. As you progress, it doesn’t always have to be taken literally. Depending on your personal style that you determined earlier, you may want to use an anecdote, allegory, or even something out of the week’s news to introduce your points, repeating them later with other stories or examples for emphasis.

And finally, the beginning of your presentation is where you make your first impression with the audience. Because it can often be where you are the most nervous, it can be useful to establish a stronger and more detailed structure for the beginning that you can easily rehearse. This will allow you to get rolling into your presentation quickly, getting your “presentation legs” under you right away. Most often, the bulk of your nerves will disappear once you get your presentation underway and get past the basic exposition points you make in the beginning.

Craft the Middle

The middle of your presentation is where you provide the bulk of your recommendations, suggestions, thinking topics, or whatever the key points of your presentation are. A great beginning can capture your audience’s attention and a fantastic ending can make them cheer for you when you are done, but the middle is where your substance needs to be; and a presentation without substance will only be remembered for its surface. You want people to remember your content and remember that you helped them absorb that content.

The easiest way to craft an appropriate middle for your presentation is to think about the following questions:

  • How many main points do you want to make? If you have done a good job at answering the presentation goals questions we discussed at the beginning of the chapter, you should have a fairly well-defined topic that can then be broken out into some natural recommendations or points. For a 45-minute presentation, three to eight points is often most successful, but you might be able to get away with just one or two if your topic is more inspirational. Alternatively, you might be able to do more than eight if your talk is more tactical and instructional.
  • Do your main points have sub- or supporting points? Or, put another way, are you going to stay big picture and high level and mostly be talking about your main points? Or is this more of a “hands-on” presentation where you want to provide a deeper level of detail? The more main points you have, the fewer sub- or supporting points you will have time for, so think carefully about which points are most important and fit best in the presentation.
  • How complex is your topic? If your topic is very complex or technical, consider tackling just a couple of main points so that you can go into appropriate depth with the sub-/supporting points and any explanations or definitions you need to provide. It is more valuable for your audience to fully follow along and grasp each of the three points you are discussing than to get lost or overwhelmed and only remember three points from the ten that you talked about.
  • How much time do you have? You only have a limited amount of time to give your presentation, and while there are occasionally presentations that can be somewhat successful by racing through “50 Tips for Good eCommerce Websites,” for example, you will likely get more retention and attention from your audience if you limit your number of points and their depth according to the time slot.

The middle should be the lengthiest section of your presentation and is where you get into the most detail and examples. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule on how much time you should spend in the middle, but a good guideline is that the middle should make up at least 75 percent of your presentation. For example, if you have a 45-minute presentation slot with time for questions included, you will want the middle to be around 25 minutes, allowing 5 minutes for questions, 5 minutes for your beginning, and 10 minutes for your ending.

As you think about the middle of your presentation, pay attention to where you are trying to go; start to envision the end of your presentation so that you can make sure that the middle gets you to your desired ending. In fact, when you start creating your presentation, you may find yourself wanting to head to the ending while you are still working on the middle—this is fine! Just remember to return to the middle for as long as you need to in order to make it the true star of your presentation.

Get to the Climax

Just like in traditional storytelling, the climax is the high point of your presentation—the place you focus your energy and content toward getting to in order to provide that sense of payoff and reward for your audience. It should be the highest peak of tension within your presentation, where everything you have been building toward culminates into your big idea. It is the peak of your performance, and a strong climax can ensure that your audience remembers you and your presentation.

You may be wondering how you incorporate a climax into what may initially seem to be a dry technical topic. While some presentation topics may more naturally lend themselves to a big epiphany or exciting call to change the world, every well-crafted “big idea’” will have some elements that can be leveraged for your climax. As you work through all of the main points and subpoints that you want to include in the middle of your presentation, answer the following questions:

  1. Am I proposing anything new to my audience?
  2. Are any of my recommendations surprising or controversial?
  3. Was there a turning point in my or others thinking?
  4. Was there a problem that needed to be solved?
  5. Does my topic include a resolution to a problem?

If you really think about your big idea and how you got there, the answers to one or more of the previous questions should be yes. Next, remember the presentation goals you defined earlier. Pull out what you wrote down for what your audience should be compelled to do after your presentation. Merging your yes answers with what you want your audience to do will provide a strong message that serves as the point of your presentation. Voilà—your climax.

Define the End

Finally, don’t forget to have an ending! One of the most common mistakes that newer presenters make is not having a clear ending that provides a satisfying wrapper to the presentation. Just like the beginning needs to set the audience up for what you are going to talk about and help get their minds in the right place to consume the information, the ending needs to wrap up any loose ends and give the audience something tangible to remember.

As you begin to structure your ending, it’s another good time to pull out your answers to your presentation goals questions and remind yourself of what you are presenting, why you are presenting, and why your audience should care. If you have a strong middle to your presentation that sticks to and follows through on all of these promises, the ending will be the place to reinforce all of that work. The ending is often a good spot to explicitly tell the audience the one thing you want them to remember, even directly stating it on a slide, especially if you have a less linearly structured presentation where you may not have stated it throughout.

We’ll talk in more detail later about how to handle questions if they are encouraged at the completion of presentations for the event you are speaking at, but another benefit of a good ending is that it will set you up for an active Q&A that is separate from your talk. You don’t want your talk to fade into Q&A without an actual end to the presentation—this makes you look unprepared and is one of the easiest mistakes to fix.

And finally, when you think about your ending, you want your audience to know that you are done with your points, and that it’s time for them to clap. One of the most awkward things in a presentation is when it piddles off into nothing because the speaker either ran out of time or neglected to create a specific ending, and the audience doesn’t know if the presentation is completed or not.

It is generally appropriate to finish your closing with a strong statement, question, or call to action (script this if necessary), and then pause for two beats and thank the audience. Make your thank-you heartfelt and sincere—the audience has just watched you on stage for some period of time, and, with all of our diminishing attention spans, this is an accomplishment that we as presenters should be grateful for! Your thank-you signifies that your presentation is completed and cues the audience to clap.

In gymnastics, a brilliant performance from the beginning to the middle can all be for nothing if the gymnast doesn’t stick her landing. Similarly, you need a solid ending in order for the rest of your presentation to be remembered in the most positive light. Don’t be that man who goes over his time slot and runs into lunch, or that woman who didn’t know how to stop talking. Complete your presentation, thank the audience, and wait for some applause.

Stick your ending.

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