tell stories in your presentations (nope!)

We’re all told (over and over and over) that telling stories in our presentations is A Good Thing. But I want to do better than that, because it’s not about just telling stories, it’s about using them. There’s a big difference.

Bored by your presentation?

If you tell stories, you’re an entertainer. That’s better than being a boringer (new word I’ve just created!) but it’s not exactly going to set the world on fire for your audience. That’s because all too often the stories are told for the sake of either:

  • the story itself
  • the speaker (and their ego/need for approval).

How about we shift that around and tell the story for the same of either (or both) of:

  • the audience
  • the content (TBP – see below 馃檪 ).

It might sound like semantics, but here’s how things should be done.

  • decide what The Big Point of your presentation is (TBP)
  • decide if/which stories serve the point of TBP and your audience
  • tell those stories

In other words the story isn’t used just for fun, but to drive things forward, deliberately and with intent. The chances are that your favourite story about how you wrestled a giant, man-eating crocodile while dressed only in your pants isn’t going to serve your audience. (Hint: putting anything like “And if I can, you can” on the end doesn’t mean the story was appropriate 馃檪 It just means you’re desperately crowbarring in an ego-based story into your presentation. )

Caution note about your presentation

Not using them just for fun doesn’t mean that the stories can’t be fun of course. Entertaining presentations stick in people’s heads better!

One great way into a story is the obvious “For example…”.

Clearly what that kind of story does is illustrate with a specific example the point you’ve just made. Stories about other people work particularly well and they’re less self-aggrandising. Just make sure the ‘other people’ are people (or brands) that everyone knows. And beware, ‘cos no matter how well regarded a brand or person is, there’s bound to be SOMEONE whose experience of them is different to what you’re trying to say.

By the way, here’s a pro-presenters tip. Don’t take it too literally but there’s a check you can run on your presentation’s content. If you can’t give a “For example” story, you need to ask yourself what that tells you about the content of the presentation. At the very least you can probably do a “For example, if we do XXX we should get YYY”. If you can’t, you might need to go back to the drawing board.

Remember Jackanory?

It used to be a children’s TV program. Someone would just sit in a chair and read a story to children – as a bedtime story. We refer to our ‘archive’ of stories as our “Jackanory File”.

Remember that here “a story” doesn’t have to be literal – it could just be an image or an advert or whatever else helps you illustrate a point. Usually, we find that the process of jotting the story in the Jackanory File fixes it in memory, but (and here’s the pro-top for presenters!) stories are also ‘tagged’ with keywords. Each keyword is a simple description of what the story relates to (not what it’s about – but what it can be used to illustrate). Stories can have quite a few tags.That way you can easily find something to illustrate your presentation.

For example, I know of a very successful trainer who has a story tagged #mistake #recovery #statistics #science #research #XXXUniversity. That means that whenever they make a presentation mentioning any of those things a quick search of their Jackanory File will give them a library of stories to draw from. Ever need a story to illustrate your point that you can recover from a mistake? A quick search off your Jackanory file and you’re presentation is good to go.

What about working in research? Done! How people mis-use statistics? Sorted!

Pro tipalways have a tag that includes where the story came from. For example, if it’s something that happened at a company you have worked with, tag it with the name of the company and use that to make sure you don’t accidentally take that story back to that same place, for obvious reasons!

Pro tip two – if it’s appropriate, make sure you’ve permission and you’ve anonymised the story!  That doesn’t just mean changing the names – it means taking out any way people could be IDd! (By the way when I say “If it’s appropriate” I mean pretty much all the time, to be honest!)

Presentation Confession!

Only once in nearly 15 years has this system let me down.

I used a story in a presentation, to ground an idea in the real world. There was the usual muttering of “Yep – we’re like that here” and so on, which is just what I wanted, but then I also got a “That exact thing happened where I used to work!”… the chances of someone having moved from one organisation to the next in the two weeks since I’d got the story were so slim it hadn’t crossed my mind to check.

Lesson learned! 馃檪

Finishing the presentation playing a cajon
Finishing the presentation playing a cajon

Now, at risk of crowbarring in a personal story for the sake of my own ego rather than to make a point (oops!) I have even used playing my cajon on stage as an example of a non-literal-story. I was talking about moving out of your confidence zone… so I had to demonstrate it was possible. Playing a musical instrument in front of a group of my friends and peers, including professional musicians was indeed stepping out of my confidence zone – but it worked as a physical story/example. The full version of the why and how is here.

Your turn

So what about you? What stories do you use? When have you heard pointless stories? Confess it… when have you even told pointless stories? 馃槈


  1. Great Post, in my previous career as a life coach, Personal success stories were the centre of most of my presentation. I have to confess to having elaborated occasionally for a laugh too…..

    • Simon Raybould

      We’ve all done it at some point! 馃檪

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