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Using Stories as a Presentation Tool

Business presentations don't always have to be about numbers, charts, and graphs. Sometimes telling a story can help your audience grasp a concept more readily than staring at raw data.

As communications expert Jim Lukaszewski says, "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good story is worth 10,000 pictures." Well, maybe only 9,999. But his point is well taken. In the world of business, the ability to tell "your story" is essential — whether your story is motivational, financial, technical, or the company story.

The do's and don'ts of using stories

The following sections give you some guidelines for using stories effectively. Most of them come courtesy of Jim Lukaszewski. (He's founder of The Lukaszewski Group, Inc., a management communication consulting company based in White Plains, New York.)

Tell stories for a purpose

A story should have a reason for being told. And the reason — a lesson, moral, objective — should be obvious to the audience. One of the fastest ways to turn off a business audience is by telling pointless stories.

Tell stories about people

Face it, human beings are a narcissistic species — they like to hear stories about themselves. So if your story involves people, it gets attention. And if you can talk about people familiar to the audience, such as other industry members, even better. Here's the uncommon knowledge: If you can't talk about real individuals, talk about hypothetical people. Use names. Personify your stories. Jim guarantees that this gets your audience involved.

Try out stories first

The first time to tell a story shouldn't be when you're standing at a podium addressing your audience. You need to know how the story works. Try stories on your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and anyone willing to listen. Theoretically, the story will get better every time. By the time you use the story in a presentation, you should have a polished gem.

Develop a repertoire of stories. Every story won't work with every audience, so having a selection of stories from which to choose is nice. Develop several stories that you feel comfortable telling; then you can fit them to your topic and your audience.

Job seekers can use that story in a presentation about interviewing techniques. Or you can use it to make a point to salespeople about being ready for the unexpected. The only limit to its use is your imagination.

Collect stories

Most people are exposed to good stories every day. You see them in the newspaper. You hear them on radio and TV. People tell them to you. Write down the stories you like. Collect them. Start a file. Then you have them at your fingertips when you need them.

Checking out different types of stories

You can use many different types of stories to liven up your presentation. Here are a few of the more common ones.

Success story

A success story documents the triumph of people, actions, or ideas. Think of the stories that you liked as a child. Most of them ended with the words "happily ever after." Those words are the sign of a success story. People like to hear stories about how an idea or action worked out successfully — especially in the business world. They're popular in any type of business presentation.

Personal story

Any time you add a personal story, you get people's attention. People are much more interested in personal stories than they are in just plain facts. A personal story is a tale about something that happened to you, the presenter, with your friends, colleagues, or relatives — anything that really occurred. These are the stories that you can't make up. The time your friends dared you to jump into a pond with your clothes on when you were 8 years old. The time you flipped a coin to answer true-false questions and aced a test. The time you got bumped from a flight and met someone who ended up being your biggest customer. You can use all these types of personal stories to make points in a business presentation.

What if you don't have many personal stories? Interview other people, and tell their stories. Getting stories from other people — coworkers, clients, vendors — is so simple to do, yet so few presenters do it. Other people's stories are a great source of material that you shouldn't overlook. (Just make sure you don't mislead your audience and claim the story as your own. And ask for permission to use this story. If the person you're telling the story about is in your audience, make sure she doesn't have any objections to you using it.)

Humorous story

A humorous story amuses your audience while making a point. It can be a funny story about your work or anything else. Humorous stories provide a great way to create rapport and get attention — as long as they don't embarrass anyone in your audience. They're particularly useful in sales presentations.

Parable

A parable is a story with a simple moral or lesson — and you don't need to be a preacher to tell one. Parables have become popular with presenters who talk about business ethics. They can also be very useful for sales and marketing presentations. (The moral of the story is that the company that didn't buy my product went bankrupt.)

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