why telling stories in your presentations isn’t working

A while ago, I started to explore some of the reasons for not using not using stories in your presentations (and a few other things). Now I’d like to expand on that. Let’s assume that you’re using them for a good reason, so the question now becomes “why aren’t the stories in my presentation working?” rather than “Should I use a story in my presentation?”.

I’ve not put things in order here, as your circumstances will vary, although it’s fairly safe to say that the first one is a good starting point

Stories in your presentation won’t work if you can’t tell them

venn diagram of comic skills
Yeah, it’s about jokes not stories, but the point stands!

It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? We all know the friend in the pub who can ruin even the funniest of jokes. His (or her) timing sucks; or they mis-pronounce a word so that puns fall flat; or just forget a critical detail. Who walked into the bar?

Obviously that gets better with practice but doing your rehearsal in front of an audience is a mistake.

And while we’re talking about bad story-telling, let’s mention telling bad stories. Pretty obviously if the story isn’t gripping it’s not going to work. Telling stories well is hard (if it wasn’t, we’d all be story-tellers) and so we tend to fall back on the safe stuff that we’ve heard before. The problem is that good stories are so rare that they tend to “do the rounds”.

Here’s a personal example. I have what I consider to be one of my signature stories about cro-magnon man finding unripe raspberries. To my horror I heard someone telling a version of it (using strawberries… an abomination!) in the presentation-but-one before me in a big conference. When we spoke about it, both the other presenter and I were absolutely convinced it was our story. But one of us, at least, must have heard it from somewhere – and possibly both of us! How does that feel to your audience?

Oh, and top of all of that, stories in presentations are a bit overdone. Everyone and his dog thinks they should be doing it…

Stories in your presentation won’t work if you have the wrong type of boss

Stories might be interesting – they might be absolutely bloody fascinating – but they also take time to tell. And let’s face it, most presentation in the real world are happen:

  • to pass on some information
  • that sparks a conversation
  • which leads to some decisions
  • and which then become actions.

Stories are great for a conference, when the audience has paid to be there (either literally or metaphorically) but in the cut and thrust of the (often hand to mouth, reactive) real world of business and board meetings, when your audience will (a) generally be smaller, (b) more likely to be on a similar or senior grade to you and (c) less likely to be swept along… they’re more likely to judge, and want to get a move on

scary boss at your presentation

Stories don’t interest a cut-and-thrust big boss. Seriously, imagine trying to tell a story to Lord Sugar at a board meeting and see how far through it you got.

And if you don’t know Lord Sugar, just check out the UK version of The Apprentice.

Stories in your presentation won’t work if you have a certain type of audience member

Stories don’t work if they don’t resonate with your audience. That’s pretty obvious. And bad stories and over-familiar ones won’t resonate – but it’s not your only problem. Certain types of audiences can’t resonate with stories.

For the sake of simplicity I’m going to use some terminology drawn from the Myers-Briggs Psychometric profiling tool. (It’s not the only tool and it’s not a perfect tool but on this occasion it suits my needs as it’s a great way of explaining things.) The old-fashioned MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) had four almost-independent variables, the second of which was how you prefer to perceive (and give) information.

One Type of personality called Sensing (or S for short) are into details. They like letting data build up into an overwhelming case and they don’t take short cuts. They might be slightly slower getting to a conclusion than the alternative Type (called N), but they’re less likely to make a mistake.

But along with this attention to detail comes a tendency to not be comfortable with things like analogy, and to take things a bit more literally.

Most stories are analogies in some way – but someone with an S preference is as likely to get hooked into the ways in which the analogy is invalid as they are to pick up on what is meant by the analogy. In other words their reaction to a story about, for example, how a rope making company solved an analogous problem as your company is facing, will fall flat in the fact of “But we’re not like them because…”. And the thing is, they’ll be right.

They might annoy you by not being able to see the bigger picture but:

  • they’re likely to be right in the literal sense; and
  • there’s no point in trying to force them to think different any more than there’s any point in trying to make me (not an S) better at proof-reading.

(Note to MBTI experts, yes – I know, I’m simplifying!)

According to the MBTI Foundation, the number of S people in the population is somewhere from two thirds to three quarters… and you simply can’t risk blindly using a tool that isn’t instinctive to up to about 75% of your audience. At least you need to think about it!

I’m not saying you should abandon your use of stories, but at least stop and think.

At risk of stereotyping, ask yourself if you think accountants tend to be S Type personalities. Then ask yourself how well a conference of accountants will handle a story about trekking in the Himalayas!

Stories in your presentation risk a certain type of unhelpful presentation

Let’s be brutally honest. The moment we decide we need/should/want to tell stories in our presentations we’re locked into asking the inevitable question “What stories does I know and can I tell?”. Inevitably that makes you, the presenter, something of the centre of your own attention. By definition you’re thinking about you, even if your intention is to try and find stories that will help your audience. And that leads to you thinking about your own performance as a presenter. And at that point it’s a small step to a “presentercentric” presentation. It’s not automatic of course, just a trend.

Asking the “what stories” question risks moving you towards a first (or at best a second order) presentation. If you’re not sure what I mean, check out this blog or the video below.

Story fixation

This is a bigger problem than it sounds, so stay with me… it’s a problem that’s been well documented everywhere from police investigation crimes to doctors diagnosing and prescribing. The problem is what I’m going to call ‘story fixation’ and it happens like this: once you’ve got a story in your head there’s a very strong tendency to interpret everything you see and hear in the light of that story. That’s obvious and very (very!) well documented in research data…

What’s not so obvious is that this means we tend to disregard evidence that doesn’t fit with our story.  We become fixed on the story and how to support it. (You might like to see this semi-rant about journalist-style-presentations which goes into this a bit more).

cajon for music presentations

If you’re a doctor and the story is that someone has cancer, and you can interpret all your evidence to fit that story, you might miss that the possible diagnosis of a stroke. If you’re a detective and your story is that X did it, you may miss the clues that Y did it. If you’re presentation’s story is about sales success in the next six months you might miss the signs that in month eight you’ve got a problem. If your story is about how badly the corona virus has hit your company you’ll stop looking for the good things that might have come out of the shutdown (I’ve lost almost all my work, but my bread-making, Spanish and cajon playing have come on well! ? ).

I’ve certainly done it – I can remember leaping to the conclusion, early in a conversation with a client, that their presentation should use one particular analogy (ordering in a restaurant). It was a good story to use, but in all honesty I have no idea if there was a better one. They story became the focus of our design process, not the data.

That means your presentation runs the risk of being ‘locked in’ to one story, when there are alternatives – and those alternative stories might be better.

So what do you think?

Remember how presentations don’t exist for the sake of existing? You’ve got a reason (hopefully!) for standing in front of your audience, remember? It follows that you also have tools you can use to achieve your aim. Stories are a tool.

You might find it’s useful to tell a literal story (all I ask is that you think about it first) but you might very well find it more helpful to think of looking at your data and at the point of your presentation, and pulling the storyline out of the data. All data have a story – the general trend. That’s the story you should be looking for, not just stories!

Don’t tell stories in your presentation – use them.

You can also think of stories as illustrations of the point you’ve just made, to make that point more concrete (such as I’ve done in this blog with personal stuff). That will certainly make your content more accessible to S Type personalities… but use them sparingly and after your big idea, to ‘ground’ it in reality. Stores for the sake of it are at best a waste of time and at worst a form of presentation-masurbation. 

Telling stories for you, not to help your audience, is the same as masturbating instead of sex with a partner! ?

What’s your experience of story-use in presentations?

Oh! You want to know what we do?

Firstly I practice telling stories. I listen to other storytellers. I watch certain comics with a critical eye, asking myself how they do what they do. Then tell the stories to my computer, to the microphone, to the wall, to the robin that lives in our garden, to my iPhone, to the wind.

But I don’t just do it over and over. I use intentional practice, to make progress faster. I also use this rehearsal technique to sound more interesting when I actually present the story.

The second tool is more to do with collecting the stories. If you’ve got a big enough bank of stories you can pull from you’ll not be as likely to screw up, repeat a story, try to shoe-horn your story into somewhere it barely works or use one that’s a barely useful analogy. All good.

Bernard Cribbins – legendary storyteller from Jackanory. Credit Zak Frakelton for The Times

The way we do is called a Jackanory File. (Jackanory was a kids TV programme where there was simply a story-teller, a chair and a book!) The way I use it goes like this… every time I hear something that could be used as a story, I:

  • check that I’ve got permission to use that story
  • jot it down in Evernote. (I’ve got a folder full of notes, each note containing one story)
  • make a conscious and deliberate anonymisation. (This one is important! If you’re not sure you’ve anonymised it enough go back to where you got the story from and ask them. If you hesitate to do this, you’ve not done enough to make the story anonymous.)
  • put tags on the note which note:
    • each individual ‘topic’ that story could relate to – the same story might work to illustrate #failure and #resilience for example
    • where the story came from. This is important to make sure that no story ever goes back to the place/people it came from as a secondary way of respecting privacy and keeping it anonymous.

To be honest, it’s rare I need to look for a story in the Jackanory Folder because (a) I’m smart, (b) stories that are interesting enough to use tend to stick in your had anyway, and (c) the process of putting the story in the Jackanory Folder also tends to put it in my head.

As a side note, keeping a note on the provenance of your stories like this is a moral thing for professional presenters like me. If I can’t find the story in my Jackanory Folder with a note of where it came from, it’s not mine!

So that’s my system. YMMV! 🙂

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