Storytelling in Presentations For Dummies
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Whether presentations are live, virtual, or hybrid, they’re one of most effective business communication tools of our time. Strong presentation skills are a hallmark of strong leaders and people who aspire to become leaders. When you want to be seen as a subject matter expert (SME) or knowledge source, a presentation can showcase your skills and potential.

So, how can you create and deliver engaging and effective presentations? Through storytelling. This article is about how to find stories to incorporate into your presentations.

How to create stories for a presentation

Before you create a presentation, think about how you can create stories. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your mind. Stories are all around you. The key is to be aware and pay attention to your life and the lives of others. Be curious. Look about. Observe with all your senses. Try new things. Take up a new hobby. Explore different places. Talk with people. Ask lots of questions. Everyday life offers an endless plethora of experiences — all of which are potential stories.

Some of the best stories come from just being around people. Schmoozing at networking events. Drumming up conversations at dinners, meetings, and conferences. Even chatting with strangers standing behind you in checkout lines. For example, I was on a long checkout line several years ago and started a conversation with a guy standing in back of me. He wound up being one of my best clients. Serendipity!

The more people you speak with — especially people with jobs and backgrounds different from yours — the more stories you’ll find and the more interesting your life will be.

Becoming an active listener

Active listening is a communication skill that involves going beyond simply hearing the words someone else is saying, as you see in the figure below. It will have a positive impact on your business and social relationships. Active listening can also harvest some interesting stories.

©Dmitry / Adobe Stock
Attributes of active listening

When I'm talking with people in my workshops about how to create a story for their presenting, people often share their own stories. The following story was shared by someone during one of these workshops. I’m glad I was listening with my ninja ears because it’s a winner. I made a note of this story to use at an appropriate time!

Story: Several years ago Nora attended my email workshop. She told the group of a very embarrassing situation. She’d sent an email to several hundred coworkers. In her rush to leave the office after working late, she didn’t proofread carefully and wrote that she was pubic relations director, instead of public relations director. She learned of her mistake when she reported to work the following morning. Oops! I filed the story away for future use. It has provided a great introduction on the importance of proofreading everything.

How and when I use it: When I get toward the end of the writing workshop and discuss proofreading, I tell the story of Nora, the hapless PR director. I don’t use the word pubic because I want the audience to use their imaginations. I merely say … and she left the l out of public. Think about that for a moment. People think momentarily, then chuckles start. Of course, I don’t mention her name or company, but the story proves a valuable point about the importance of proofreading — everything.

Part of the process of creating an engaging presentation is storyboarding. Learn how to create a story board and all the other aspects of creating engaging, effective presentations in my book Storytelling in Presentations For Dummies.

Honing your skills of observation

"How to create a story" for your presentation might be weighing on your mind. But stories are all around you. We often go about our days on autopilot, not noticing what’s around and in front of us. By consciously observing our surroundings, we can grow our awareness and flex our noticing muscles, thereby perceiving the world with higher resolution, detail, and clarity.

Story: I was stopped at a red light and noticed a sign posted on a poll. In large letters it said, MISSING DOG. Underneath was a small picture and some text, neither of which could be seen by passing in a car. The poster completely missed the mark. Had the owner put a larger photo of the dog and the type of breed in large print, passersby would have known what kind of dog too look for. For example, MISSING DALMATIAN, would have told passersby immediately the breed of dog to spot (pun intended).

How and when I use it: During my writing workshops I focus heavily on creating robust headlines. I tell the missing dog poster story to emphasize the importance of delivering key information at a glance. Here’s the difference between a strong and a weak headline.

Strong headline: Status report indicates 2 percent rise in sales

Weak headline: Status report

Noticing when an experience sparks a reaction

When you have a reaction to something that happens or a reaction to something you hear or see, that could be fodder for a story. Whether it’s funny, scary, heedless, upsetting, informational, negative, positive, or whatever, it may have story potential.

Story: I was sitting at my computer a little over a year ago writing a book. An email popped up on my screen from my friend Pam asking me to meet her for lunch. That message sparked such a strong reaction that my heart skipped several beats. Why? Pam had died six months earlier after a long bout with cancer. Her message must have been floating in cyberspace, and she probably wondered why I never responded.

How and when I use it: During my email workshop, I relate this story to convey how you should never assume someone received your message. Emails can get lost, wind up in the recipient’s spam or junk folder, get blocked by the server, have an invalid address, or who knows what else. If you don’t get an expected reply within a reasonable amount of time, either send another message or (better yet) phone the recipient.

Noting when you (or someone you know) beat the odds

You can create your own story out of an experience in which you “just knew” that you (or someone else) couldn’t do something. It was too difficult, too strenuous, too farfetched, too whatever. Discuss how you (or someone) wouldn’t take “no” for an answer but kept on plugging away.

Story: Before I got my first book published eons ago, I sent manuscripts over a period of several years to dozens of publishers and got dozens of refusals. I had read that writers have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than getting a book published. However, I believed in myself and refused to give up. After several years of getting one rejection after another, I finally got a “yes.” I’ve had 25-plus books professionally published.

How and when I use it: I host a writing group for seven other people; we call ourselves the Scribe Tribe. They aren’t professional writers, yet they’re wonderful scribes. I’ve reminded them of my long journey to getting published as I encourage them to submit their work. Many of them started submitting their work (and after many rejections) have gotten articles published. One even published a book. I’m so delighted that my experience of beating the odds has inspired them.

Drawing upon what you’ve read

The stories we heard as kids taught us many lifelong lessons: Laugh at your mistakes; be a true friend; make yourself heard; there’s no place like home; you can’t always get what you want; everyone has a special gift; pick your battles wisely; be a good sharer; good things come to those who wait; and so much more.

As adults, our stories aren’t that simple and they don’t necessarily start with “Once upon a time.” But the stories we opt to share will instill valuable teaching and learning lessons. In addition to your own stories, you’ll find stories in newspapers, magazines, and on social media.

When creating a story, a presenter should feel comfortable telling other people’s stories, as long as they give credit where credit is due. Here are two examples I include as a contrast:

Story example 1: When the Affordable Care Act (also known as ACA or Obamacare) was enacted in 2010, it was several thousand pages long. (The numbers vary depending on which site you look at, but it was veeeeery long.) The frightening truth is that our representatives routinely vote on huge, complex bills without having read anything more than an executive summary.

This isn’t a political statement. Most reps admit they never read more than the summary in the ACA, and the same is true for many other lengthy bills. Now, contrast that with the United States Constitution, often called the supreme laws of the land. It’s only four pages long.

Story example 2: One of the shortest letters ever written was from Cornelius Vanderbilt, (business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping). It read, “Gentlemen, You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.” (19 harsh words)

How and when I used them: I make reference to these two examples when I’m presenting the workshop segment on keeping it short and simple (KISS) while stressing how to find a good balance and using tact. In all writing and speaking, include what’s necessary and ditch what’s not.

Avoiding story overload and clutter

Storytelling is like salt. If you don’t include any, the dish is bland. If you include too much, you ruin the dish. Just the right amount makes for a delish dish. So, how many stories should you tell? There’s no magic formula, but there’s one constant: Space stories out so audiences have time to absorb and reflect on each one. Here are some guidelines:
  • If your presentation brings together many different layers, such as scientific data, evidence, or other hard content, interjecting stories makes the data more digestible — somewhat like sherbet served as a palate cleanser between courses. Each story should bring your point to life and transition from one topic to another.
  • Consider a solid story for each major section of your presentation. However, don’t include a story for the sake of telling one. It’s better to tell no story than tell a weak or irrelevant one.
  • If the presentation is less than a half hour or it’s to share one specific idea, one story should suffice. Tell it near the beginning of your presentation to engage the audience.
  • If the purpose of your presentation is to describe (for example) how people from different walks of life have benefited from a situation, you might think of sprinkling stories in two or three places.
  • Referencing your opening story at the end is a really great way to tie the presentation together and lead into your call to action.
Regardless of how many stories you tell, cut the clutter. This relates to anything that doesn’t increase understanding, such as inconsequential facts or figures. Remember that not all data are equally important.

Ask yourself what you need to express the essence of your message and eliminate what’s not relevant. As Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and philosopher) famously said in the 1600s, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Make sure to use the most current facts, figures, and statistics because data can change quickly.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts MA leads writing seminars across the country, including the popular workshop “Stories and Storyboarding: Building Blocks to Influential Presentations.” Roberts is also the author of over 25 books and is often quoted in national news outlets and magazines. She is the author of Technical Writing For Dummies.

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