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Story and Storytelling

Before there was the written word, humans used stories to transfer culture from one generation to the next. Stories are who we are, and we are our stories. Stories may contain analogies or metaphors, powerful tools for bringing people in and helping them to understand our thoughts clearly and concretely. Good presentations include stories. The best presenters today illustrate their points with stories, often personal ones. The easiest way to explain complicated ideas is through examples or by sharing a story that underscores the point. Stories are easier to recall for your audience. If you want your audience to remember your content, then find a way to make it more relevant and memorable to them by strengthening your core message with good, short, interesting stories or examples.

Good stories have interesting, clear beginnings; provocative, engaging content in the middle; and a clear conclusion. I am not talking about fiction here. I am talking about reality, regardless of the topic. Remember that documentary films, for example, “tell the story” of whatever it is they are reporting on. Documentaries do not simply tell facts, rather they engage us and tell us the story of war, of scientific discovery, of a dramatic sea rescue, of climate change, and so on. We are wired so that we will forget what our brains perceive as unimportant to our survival. Our conscious mind tells us to read the physical chemistry book over and over because we need to pass the class, but our brain keeps telling us that this is dull, uninteresting, and unimportant to our survival. The brain, however, cares about story.

Stories and Authenticity

I have seen pretty good (though not great) presentations that had very average delivery and average graphics, but were relatively effective because the speaker told relevant stories in a clear, concise manner to support his points and in a voice that was human, not formal. Rambling streams of consciousness will not get it done; audiences need to hear (and see) your points illustrated in a real language.

Earlier this year, in fact, I saw a fantastic presentation by the CEO of one of the most famous foreign companies in Japan. The CEO’s PowerPoint slides were of mediocre design, and he made the mistake of having not one but two assistants off to the side to advance his slides to match his talk. The assistants seemed to have much difficulty with the slideware and often the wrong slide appeared behind the presenter, but this powerful man simply shrugged his shoulders and said “...ah doesn’t matter. My point is....” He moved forward always and captivated the audience with his stories of the firm’s past failures and recent successes, stories which contained more captivating and memorable practical business lessons than most business students will get in an entire semester or more.

It is true that the presentation would have been even better if the slides had been better designed and used properly, but in this particular case the CEO gave a powerful and memorable presentation in spite of those shortcomings. Trust me, this is very rare in the world of CEO presentations. There are four essential reasons for his success that night: (1) He knew his material inside and out, and he knew what he wanted to say. (2) He stood front and center and spoke in a real, down-to-earth language that was conversational yet passionate. (3) He did not let technical glitches get in his way. When they occurred, he moved forward without missing a beat, never losing his engagement with the audience. (4) And he used real, sometimes humorous, anecdotes to illustrate his points, and all his stories were supremely poignant and relevant, supporting his core message.

What made this CEO’s presentation so compelling and memorable was that it was, above all, authentic. His stories were from his heart and from his gut, not from a memorized script. We do not tell a story from memory alone; we do not need to memorize a story that has meaning to us. If it is real, then it is in us. Based on our research, knowledge, and experience, we can tell it from our gut. Internalize your story, but do not memorize it line by line. You can’t fake it. You believe in your story, or you do not. And if you do not, no amount of hyped-up, superficial enthusiasm or conviction will ever make your time with an audience meaningful. If you do not believe it, do not know it to be true, how can you connect and convince others with your words in story form? Your words will be just hollow words.

It’s Not Just About Information

People who possess loads of information in a particular field have historically been in hot demand and able to charge high fees for access to their stuffed, fact-filled brains. This was so because the facts used to be difficult to access. Not any more. In an era where information about seemingly anything is only a mouse click away, just possessing information alone is hardly the differentiator it used to be. What is more important today than ever before is the ability to synthesize the facts and give them context and perspective. Picasso once said that “computers are useless for they can only give answers.” Computers and Google can indeed give us the routine information and facts that we need. What we want from people who stand before us and give a talk is to give us that which data and information alone cannot: meaning.

Remember that we are living in a time where fundamental human talents are in great demand. Anyone—indeed any machine—can read a list of features or give a stream of facts to an audience. That’s not what we need or want. What we yearn for is to listen to an intelligent and evocative—perhaps at times even provocative—human being who teaches us, or inspires us, or who stimulates us with knowledge plus meaning, context, and emotion in a way that is memorable.

And this is where story comes in. Information plus emotion and visualization wrapped in unforgettable anecdotes are the stuff that stories are made of. If presentations were only about following a linear step-by-step formula for distributing information and facts, then no one would be complaining about “death by PowerPoint” today, since the majority of presentations still follow just such a formula. And if designing your slides for your presentation were simply a matter of following a list of rules, do’s and don’ts, then why on earth should we keep wasting our time creating slides? Why not simply outsource our facts, outlines, and bullet points to someone who could do it cheaper?

But presentations are not just about following a formula for transferring facts in your head to the heads of those sitting before you by reciting a list of points on a slide. (If it were, why not send an email and cancel the presentation?) What people want is something fundamentally more human. They want to hear “the story” of your facts.

Finding Your Voice

The voice of the storyteller is also important. We pay attention to well-spoken narratives that sound human, that are spoken in a conversational, “human voice.” Why do we pay more attention to conversational speech from a storyteller or presenter? It may be because our brain—not our conscious mind—does not know the difference between listening to (or reading) a conversational narrative and actually being in a conversation with a person. When you are in a conversation with someone you are naturally more engaged because you have an obligation to participate. You are involved. Formal speech and formal writing devoid of any emotion whatsoever is extremely difficult to stay with for more than a few minutes. Your conscious mind has to remind you to “stay awake, this is important!” But someone who speaks in a natural, human, conversational style is far easier to stay engaged with.

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