Personal stories in your presentations: Scars not scabs

Scars not scabs” is a phrase I picked up of Episode 115 of Beth Below’s “Introvert Entrepreneur” podcast where Beth is chatting to Esther Choy of the Leadership Story Lab. It rang a bell with me because of a couple of things I’ve posted in the last few months. (It’s one of a fistful only of podcasts I listen to on my downtime, such as when I’m travelling – and as you can imagine, my job includes a lot of travelling from one client to another!) Beth talks with people about a range of things, particularly introversion: it drew my attention because despite being a performer I’m very much an introvert.

The first of these is a smallSimon video, where he talks about when to use statistics in your presentations and when to use stories. As smallSimon explains stories generally trump statistics – and the important thing is that people don’t even realise it – they’re swayed by stories but think that it’s the statistics that are doing it.


The other thing that got brought to mind was a guest-blog I wrote for Presentation Guru, when I put my tongue in my cheek and ranted about what’s wrong with motivational speakers – and Gripe Number One is We’re not your therapists, get over it.

Sadly, I had a couple of motivational speakers call/email me and take me to task about being rude about them.  My (inside my head voice) response was ‘if the cap fits wear it’, I’m afraid.  I managed to be (mostly) polite though – and in once case we had a long chat that cleared up a few things that we mis-understood about each other.

All of that pre-able is by way of saying that I liked that phrase – scars not scabs. If it’s not a story you’re ready to tell, don’t tell it!

How do I know if I’m ready to use my story in my presentation?

(Note: this is opinion, not research result!)  If you ‘re telling it for your own benefit in any way, you’re not ready to tell it. It’s not exactly a hard question, is it!? Scars are wounds that have healed. Scabs are wounds you’re picking at and are still healing. By all means show them to your therapist and your friends, but not your presentation’s audience.

It’s not as cut’n’dried as I’ve made it sound there, of course, because there might be times when sharing something for your own benefit is so useful to the audience that it’s justifiable. I’ve rarely seen that, if ever, but it could happen. Most of the time when people have said that was what they were doing, their audience seemed to have a different opinion of the for_me-vs-for_you ratio!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t tell a personal story if you’re going to be upset by it. (There are some stories I don’t ever want to not get upset by.) I’m saying that if you’re telling to get less upset because telling your story is cathartic, you’re not ready to tell it: if you’re telling the audience for their benefit an you happen to get upset in the process, then that’s not a major crime 😉

Is it the same for introverts compared to extravert presenters?

I don’t think it is. By nature, introverts are more likely to chew things over in their heads before talking about them anyway (pretty much by definition!) but extraverts work things out more publicly. It seems that extraverts are more likely to be vulnerable to the problem, all other things being equal.

But what if there isn’t a story for my presentation?

What is a story? Don’t limit yourself by taking the idea of a story too literally. We’re not talking about the kind of thing you were read when you were a child, at bedtime. The pattern of data is it’s story.

The idea that a presentation doesn’t have a story is a claim I hear time and time again from new presenters, particularly those in technical areas, such as law, or coding or security, or… well you get the idea. Their claim is that all they have is data. That’s what the presentation is about – data. But here’s my challenge: what’s the story of the data? I’ll be blunt: data as data is useless. Data is only useful in it’s interpreted form.  That is the story of the data.

You’re company has Profit and Loss figures well into the black so no story?  Wrong – the fact you’re making a profit  is the story.  Need to get people to use a different version of form L16/b and that’s not a story? Wrong – why is L16/b so much better than L16/a?

If you’ve got no story in that data you might not have a presentation. Find the story or don’t present!  How’s that for a challenge?! 😉

So I shouldn’t have data in my presentations?

I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that in terms of audience reaction, stories trump the stats.

Wrapping up

Obviously there’s more to it than that, and how you judge the question of stories is harder than it sounds, but the principle is fairly easy, I’d say… what do you think?

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