Telling stories never gets old. Our brains have an embedded need for narrative, whether it’s schemas, scripts, cognitive maps, mental models or metaphors. In many ways, stories are how we think and make sense of the world around us, and this extends to business concepts as well.
This hidden power of storytelling can influence how we make decisions and how we persuade others of our ideas.
In presentations, stories are the most effective way of organizing information. A powerful form of communication, they translate ideas and move people to action. Moreover, they turn the audience into viral advocates of the proposition, whether in life or in business, by paying the story—not just the information—forward.
Harnessing the power of storytelling for presentations
Humans are hardwired for storytelling. Neuroscientist Uri Hasson of Princeton University researched the effects of storytelling on the brain by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Hasson and his team scanned the brain activity of several participants while they listened to a story. Once the story began, the brain activity of the listeners synced up on a deep level, and “neural entrainment” spread across all brains in higher-order areas including the frontal cortex and the parietal cortex. He found that the storyteller’s brain activity synched with the listeners, while he was telling the story. Hasson’s research showed that an effective storyteller causes the neurons of an audience to closely sync with the storyteller’s brain, which has significant implications for presenters.
A key rule of telling stories is giving your audience an emotional experience. Purposeful stories that reach the listener’s hearts and minds are those that move them to action. Specialists say that the most effective and efficient way to do that is through the use of metaphor and analogy. These linguistic devices are key components of the way we think, building blocks of the very structure of knowledge. They can be used to evoke images and turn on memory, along with rich sensory and emotional associations, bringing the listener into the story, cognitively and emotionally, as an active participant.
We perceive and remember something based on how it fits with other things. One way the brain sorts things is by metaphors (...).
When you're describing things in a story, you are creating visual imagery that engages you in multiple ways.
Pamela Rutledge, Psychologist and Director of the Los Angeles-based Media Psychology Research Center via
Every story has to fit within the context of your presentation, or at least tie in with your surrounding remarks. Forced stories have the opposite effect, they disconnect the audience and make it harder for them to understand where you’re going with the presentation.
Stories have purpose. They have to be relevant to the experience and interests of your audience. Each story should have a point to it that your listeners can easily grasp and identify with. You want to use stories to put information into perspective, not replace it. Make your stories clear and relevant, to support the information in your presentation. That means keeping them fairly short and removing unnecessary details.
When you think of a story to accompany an idea in your presentation, think of it like painting a picture of your idea. Create an easy-to-visualize story where something happens in a specific time and place, played out by characters that your audience is likely to connect with. Don't try to overdo it or use too many stories. If you’re not comfortable including a story, don’t do it. Otherwise it might seem forced and have a negative impact on your listeners.
If the type of presentation allows it, opt for a personal story. These are naturally embedded with emotion, making you vulnerable and connecting you to your audience. It will also make it easier for you to select how you want to tell the story, what details to include and what elements are most likely to strike a chord with the audience.
The power of stories also comes from scarcity. Don’t go overboard with stories; instead, use them sparingly and make sure that they are the right ones to stay with your audience even after the presentation is over.
Storytelling structure in presentations
I’ve recently finished reading Christopher Booker’s book: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. I think the book captures the essence of how and why all stories boil down to one of a few plot structures, and how they can act as outlines for effectively presenting all sorts of information.
Here’s an infographic I found detailing the seven plots that the book talks about, for you to try out in your presentations:
Another interesting way of structuring stories is the classical three-act formula, recommended by Nancy Duarte. You’re probably familiar with this format—the protagonist is identified as likable, then they go through all of these difficult times, and finally, they emerge transformed.
This is a type of structure that enables you to create a story arc to support the hero’s transformation. It’s a technique that builds tension within the audience and releases it, creating that emotional impact we talked about.
Storytelling in business presentations
It might seem counterintuitive but telling stories is actually key to many business presentations. Whether we’re talking about a pitch deck for an investment, a sales pitch for a new client or a product presentation, you should aim to sell a story, not list of numbers.
A great example is tech giant Cisco Systems. The company used to deliver fact-heavy presentations promoting their products. But when they stopped listing features and started telling stories, they became much more effective and successful. By telling the story of a small, struggling, local business owner who grew his company and managed it more effectively using Cisco, the company was able to humanize information about technology and make their benefits more relatable.
One storytelling technique useful in business presentations is using visual elements. Visual design is an universal language that can help you connect the dots between important data points and business conclusions that everyone sitting in that presentation can follow. In fact, in a survey conducted by TDWI, 74% of respondents believed data visualization to be responsible for a “very high” or “high” increase in business user insights. For example, you could organize data from a report in an infographic instead of a table. Or you could translate a strategy into a visual concept that you illustrate with an image.
Another effective technique is to create contrast, in a what is vs what could be scenario. For example, in a pitch deck, when describing the problem that you’re trying to solve with your product/service, it’s easier for investors to connect to it and relate if you explain the two scenarios: how your target market conducts life and business without a solution, and how their lives and businesses would be significantly improved if they had your product/service.
Storytelling isn’t just a way of entertaining audiences, it’s a way of presenting your ideas in a language that the human brain understands best. Used wisely, it’s a powerful device to keep listeners engaged in what you are saying, and it is a motivating factor for action.
As you practice your storytelling abilities, you'll find that right mix between facts, ideas and stories that keep audiences attentive and move them to action.
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