when stories in your presentation are a bad idea

I got a slightly disgruntled client email recently. They were more than happy with the content of the training and were chuffed to bits with the general results I got, but they thought some of the stories I use to illustrate my content weren’t helpful. Long story short, one of those stories had triggered something in someone I was training.

That resulted in them not been able to take on board what I was saying. Because they were a close team, that also affected the other people in the room who were concerned on their behalf.

The feedback was fantastically honest and transparent and it was a pleasure to be “told off“! 馃檪 (Confession: How I’d have felt if they hadn’t been generally raving about how good it was I don’t know!)

So what went wrong? Why was using stories a bad idea?

There are three options to consider here:

  • using stories in presentations is a bad idea in itself
  • the second is that it was the choice of stories that messed things up
  • the way told the stories that was the problem.

Taking the first point first, the video below explains a bit about why stories are a good idea in a lot of presentations… in short, stories bypass “identity variables”. Additionally, of course, stories mean your audience is more likely to emotionally engage with your content – and that in turn makes it more likely they’ll remember things.

As a side note, this video looks at how to use stories in support of your point rather than the becoming the point and this video looks at the various stages involved in becoming a “Zen Storyteller” when you’re making presentations.

Could the way you tell stories be a bad idea?

They are if you wrestle alligators… what do I mean by that? I’m exaggerating (obviously!) but I’ve heard too many presenters whose idea of telling stories in presentations is to say things like “I was raised by alligators – and if I can do that, so can you!”

It’s so removed from the experience of the audience (and what they think they can do) that it just doesn’t work – the stories become alienating…

The other issue – and it’s probably more common in business presentations – is that because people have been told to “tell stories” they find what they think is an over-arching story for their entire presentation. They then use it as a hook onto which they hang all the points they want to make in that presentation.

In the jargon, it’s called “inverting the story matrix” 馃檪

The video below unpacks it nicely (I think!)

(Another side note: this post talks about when to use personal stories and this post talks about being too self-centric in your choice of stories. If you’re too big a hero in the story it’s probably a bad idea.)

Confession time – why were the stories in my presentation a bad idea?

Why was someone slightly unhappy?

Some of it isn’t my fault. Honest. People are people and you can’t allow for everything that might upset everyone or you’d never say anything at all. On the other hand, I realise on reflection that I did the Alligator Thing for at least one of the stories. (Mind you, out of a seven hour training session that’s not a bad ratio 馃槈 )

The bigger issue however, was that a couple of the stories I used were too personal and therefore triggered responses. Remember I mentioned that stories often generate an emotional response? In my case the generated an overly-emotional response. I used a story about one of my children to illustrate a point and that started things going badly.

By mentioning my children I’d passed the line of “professional” for this audience and triggered a response from someone in the audience who was struggling to start a family. No matter how useful the content is, I’d moved to a bad place on the graph of “competence vs warmth”… and there wasn’t an easy way back from that.

What’s the big learning?

Firstly, don’t be me! 馃槈

Secondly, think carefully about the stories you use. There are huge advantages to using them, but somethings to consider before you do so will help making sure you don’t make the mistake I did.

  • remember that any story can trigger a response if it happens to match someone’s personal circumstances, so think about being a bit “vague” sometimes to avoid people in your audience “over-identifying”
  • keep your stories ‘short and light’ so that if you over-do it, you can move on easily and quickly
  • make stories about other people… even if it’s you you’re talking about, tell it as if it’s someone else
  • ensure things are anonymous (really anonymous!) unless it’s you personally. Even if you have got permission to share stories your audience might not assume that is the case and get huffy
  • do a ‘risk assessment’… Is the impact of that particular story worth the risk of someone responding badly?

Any other words of advice, oh wise reader?

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