Stories (and authenticity) in Presentations

Storytelling is a big part of presenting… and frankly of our whole culture. When we go to the pub we don’t sit around in silence, and a lot of that time is filled with sharing stories. Gossip is a story after all. Back-in-the-old days is nothing but stories. When-I-was young… you get the idea.

From a presenter’s point of view there’s a lot to be said for stories because they hit home in a way that statistics often don’t. Just ask anyone designing a charity fund-raising campaign – you might not like how the pick on individual families for you to help after a tsunami but they do it for a good, well researched reason. It raises more money that way.

So we know that stories allow us to make personal, emotional connections. Great. By all means use them (judiciously) to do that – but don’t be fooled into think that’s all there is. Don’t believe the marketing hype of people who want to get your money to teach you “the art of storytelling”.

Not only is making an emotional connection something you can do in your presentations in lots of other ways (a good slide, a joke, a question, your attitude, how you dress, etc) it’s not even the biggest advantage of storytelling.

I’ll say that again for the people at the back. Emotional connection isn’t the biggest advantage of stories in presentations.

Advocates of storytelling point out that we’ve been doing it for millennia – and their right, it’s inbuilt. In fact, in “Sapiens” Yuval Noah Harari points out that this is how our ancestors out-competed the Neanderthals. So I ask you this… as our ancestors sat around cave campfires did they care so much about emotional connection or jokes more than they did about survival?

Thought so. You don’t tell a story about how your last hunt failed and killed two people in the tribe for laughs. You tell that story so that the next hunting party uses a different tactic.

So what are they telling stories for? To learn, to pass on information, to spread wisdom. And that brings me to the real biggest advantage of storytelling. It allows people to learn from other people’s mistakes.

Learning from your mistakes is great but learning from other people’s is better. For a start it’s less painful and (to our ancestors) less likely to be personally fatal.

That’s the greatest advantage of storytelling – that it passes on experience without us having to experience it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no place for stories-as-entertainment; or stories-to-connect… but stories-to-teach is where evolution has landed us.

What are the best type of stories to use in our presentations?

Given the above, there’s a limited space for inspiration stories. We’re inspired, but inspiration wears off. And entertaining stories? We laugh, but laughter stops. (Side note: if you want a learning-story to work best of course, it should include some humour (or at least some other strong emotion) and be relatable.)

Knowledge though? That stays with us.

A story about being raised on Mars by giant ants might leave you’re audience feeling hugely inspired, but without being told how you survived and how that applies to their lives, on earth, where ants are small, it’s pretty trick to see how to move forward.

But a story of how to handle having ants in your kitchen and successfully getting rid of them? That’s handy.

A story of how you got $125m of investment from a chance meeting in a cafe? Not useful to your audience. Think about it… the whole point of your story is that you had a fantastically unlikely lucky moment as well as skill. But a story about how you changed the design of your first two slides in your pitch deck and got $12k investment in a pitch competition? Gold for your audience.

How does storytelling work? (A side note)

Think of stories as a form of abstraction. They represent reality but they’re not “real”. It’s a “representation”. How it works is a bit of details neuro-physiology which is a bit long for a blog, but think of it this example of how powerful the abstractions are… money!

I’ve just paid for something with my iPhone. My iPhone is a representation of a physical debit card. But neither the iPhone’s software or the debit card mean anything in their own right. What they actually do is represent money. But even that’s not the end of it, because money doesn’t mean anything in an absolute sense – it’s a convenient way of carrying around a promise to give people gold. (Even that isn’t true any more!) But who wants gold? Because even that is an abstraction. What we actually want is… wait for it… lunch.

I used my iPhone as an abstraction to make a metaphorical swap… they gave me lunch and I gave them something I’d created in my own time to create something of equal value.

That’s how stories work – they are abstractions of things which represent other things… and it’s something we evolved for a long, long time ago.

(Side note, language is the same! The word “bank” bears no actual relationship to the building where our money goes but we know what is meant, because we can make abstractions.)

What does this mean for you you use stories?

Well for a start, it means you can/should stop even thinking of the point of your stories (or even your presentations as a whole) to be entertaining. Yes, they need to be engaging to be effective because no one can learn from a story they’ve not listened to, but:

  • entertaining isn’t the same as engaging; and
  • this means that being engaging is a means, not an end.

…being interesting becomes how you tell stories, not why you tell them

It sounds like a small difference but it shifts the whole point of telling stories. They don’t have to be “fun” or funny, just engaging enough to be engaged with. There are lots of different ways of doing that.

Obvious relevance upfront

People can’t listen to something they’re not interested in but if you start your story with “Useful fact/tool” and then use your story as an illustration tool, you’re going to land a good one. In other words, if people can see why they should listen, they’ll listen.

Ten second stories

There’s a skill to this, but once you’ve played with it a bit, you’ll see how it goes down. If you can really distil the essence of your story so that you can tell (a version of) it in ten seconds, by the time your audience even has the chance to get bored, you’re done. You’ve made your point, had the impact you wanted, and moved on to something else!

The usual tools

Obviously you can still use the tools – comedy, tension, delight, surprise, curiosity, etc. That sort of goes without saying. On top of that there’s the old-school skill of just telling the story really, really well! A lot of stand-ups can get half a dozen jokes and several minutes of material out of one mediocre story by simply telling it really, really well…

Wrapping up

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