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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 understand our thoughts clearly and concretely. The best presenters 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. If you want your audience to remember your content, then find a way to make it more relevant and memorable by strengthening your core message with good, short, 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 with the story of war, scientific discovery, a dramatic sea rescue, climate change, and so on. We are wired to 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 this is dull, uninteresting, and unimportant to our survival. The brain cares about story.

The Power of Story

Story is an important way to engage the audience and appeal to people’s need for logic and structure in addition to emotion. Humans are predisposed to remembering experiences in the narrative form; we learn best with a narrative structure. Humans have been sharing information aurally and visually far longer than we have been getting information by reading lists. A 2003 Harvard Business Review article on the power of story says storytelling is the key to leadership and communication in business: “Forget PowerPoint and statistics, to involve people at the deepest level you need to tell stories.”

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, legendary screenwriting coach Robert McKee suggests a big part of a leader’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. “To do that she must engage their emotions,” McKee says, “and the key to their hearts is story.” The most common way to persuade people, says McKee, is with conventional rhetoric and an intellectual process that, in the business world, often consists of a typical PowerPoint presentation in which leaders build their case with statistics and data. But people are not moved by statistics alone, nor do they always trust your data. “Statistics are used to tell lies...while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown.” McKee says rhetoric is problematic because while we are making our case others are arguing with us in their heads using their own statistics and sources. Even if you do persuade through argument, says McKee, this is not good enough because “people are not inspired to act on reason alone.” The key, then, is to aim to unite an idea with an emotion, which is best done through story. “In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotion and energy,” he says.

Look for the Conflict

A good story is not the beginning-to-end tale of how results meet expectations, McKee says. This is boring. Instead, it’s better to illustrate the “struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.” What makes life interesting is “the dark side” and the struggle to overcome the negatives—struggling against negative powers is what forces us to live more deeply, says McKee. Overcoming negative powers is interesting, engaging, and memorable. Stories such as this are more convincing.

The biggest element a story has, then, is conflict. Conflict is dramatic. At its core, story is about a conflict between our expectations and cold reality. Story is about an imbalance and opposing forces or a problem that must be worked out. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with these opposing forces such as the difficulty of working with scarce resources, making difficult decisions, or undertaking a long journey of scientific discovery, and so on. People prefer to present only the rosy (and boring) picture. “But as a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them,” says McKee. If you tell the story of how you struggled with antagonists, the audience is engaged with you and your material.

Contrasts Are Compelling

Whether we are talking about graphic design or the components of a story, the principle of contrast is one of the most fundamental and important elements to include. Contrast is about differences, and we are hardwired to notice differences. You can see the principle of contrast everywhere in good storytelling, including filmmaking. For example, in Star Wars IV, there is obviously compelling contrast between the good and noble Rebel Alliance and the dark side of the Death Star and the evil empire. Yet great contrasts exist even between main characters in the story who are on the same side.

The young, naïve, idealistic Luke Skywalker character contrasts with the old, wise, and realistic Obi-Wan Kenobi. The level-headed, diplomatic, young Princess Leia contrasts with the slightly cocky, irreverant, older Han Solo. These characters are compelling to millions of fans because of their inherent contrasts and the series of negotiations they go through as they deal with their differences. Even R2D2 and C3PO are engaging characters, in large part because of their strikingly different personalities. In your own presentations, look for contrasts such as before/after, past/future, now/then, problem/solution, strife/peace, growth/decline, pessimism/optimism, and so on. Highlighting contrasts is a natural way to bring the audience into your story and make your message more memorable.

Using Storytelling Principles in Presentations

You do not always have a lot of time to prepare your presentation or perhaps it is difficult to see what the story is, so here are three simple steps you can use to prepare virtually any presentation relatively quickly.

Basic elements to include in your story:

  1. Identify the problem. (This could be a problem, for example, that your product solves.)
  2. Identify causes of the problem. (Give actual examples of the conflict surrounding the problem.)
  3. Show how and why you solved the problem. (This is where you provide resolution to the conflict.)

Essentially, that’s it: Introduce the problem you have (or did have) and how you will solve it (or did solve it). Give examples that are meaningful and relevant to your audience. Remember, story is sequential: “This happened, and then this happened, and therefore this happened, and so on.” Take people on a journey that introduces conflict and then resolves that conflict. If you can do this, you will be miles ahead of most presenters who simply recall talking points and broadcast lists of information. Audiences tend to forget lists and bullet points, but stories come naturally to us; it’s how we’ve always attempted to understand and remember the bits and pieces of experience. Robert McKee’s point is that you should not fight your natural inclination to frame experiences into a story; instead, embrace this and tell the story of your experience of the topic to your audience.

Stories and Emotions

Our brains tend to recall experiences or stories that have a strong emotional element to them. The emotional components of stories are what helps them be remembered. Earlier this year, four students in my Japanese labor management class did a presentation on employment security in Japan. Three days later, when I asked other students to recall the most salient points of the presentation, what they remembered most vividly were not the labor laws, the principles, and the changes in the labor market in Japan but, rather, the topic of karoshi, or suicide related to work, and the issue of suicides in Japan, topics that were quite minor points in the hour-long presentation. Perhaps five minutes out of the hour were spent on the issue of karoshi, but that’s what the audience remembered most. It’s easy to understand why. The issue of death from overworking and the relatively high number of suicides are extremely emotional topics that are not often discussed. The presenters cited actual cases and told stories of people who died as a result of karoshi. The stories and the connections they made with the audience caused these relatively small points to be remembered because emotions such as surprise, sympathy, and empathy were all triggered.


© Horace Bristol/CORBIS

Stories and Authenticity

I have seen pretty good (though not great) presentations with average delivery and graphics that were relatively effective because the speaker told relevant stories in a clear, concise manner to support his points 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 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 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 and captivated the audience with his stories of the firm’s past failures and recent successes, stories that 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) 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 hollow.


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 facts used to be difficult to access. Not anymore. In an era when information about seemingly anything is only a mouse click away, just possessing information 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, “Computers are useless for they can only give answers.” Computers and Google can indeed give us routine information and facts we need. What we want from people who stand before us and give a talk is that which data and information alone cannot: meaning.

Remember we are living in a time when 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, inspires, or stimulates us with knowledge and 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 boring presentations today; after all, the majority of presentations still follow just such a formula. And if designing visuals for your presentation were simply a matter of following a list of rules, then why on earth should we keep wasting our time creating slides and other multimedia? Why not simply outsource our facts, outlines, and bullet points to someone who could do it more cheaply?

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 screen. (If it were, why not send an e-mail 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 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. Formal speech and writing devoid of any emotion 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, conversational style is far easier to stay engaged with.

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