Effective Presentation Techniques: The Use of Stories

busienss presentation techniquesOK, a quick recap. In this mini-series of blogs about effective presentation techniques we’ve looked at: what the research says, skilful delivery, knowing your audience, having a clear and effective structure and having a defined objective

Now onto to the fifth characteristic of effective business presentations; the use of stories. Let’s start with a definition

What is a story?

In his brilliant book ‘The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works’ David Crystal says “By ‘story’, of course I mean any narrative that presents a sequence of events”. What a beautifully simple definition! But why are stories so effective in business presentations?

The value of stories

The first reason that storytelling is seen as valuable comes from the belief that, as one of the people I interviewed said, ‘humans work with stories’. Another proposed that storytelling ‘follows 50,000 years of human learning about information transfer’ and another that when stories are used ‘people can feel the rightness of what you are saying – they feel, experience and then post rationalise’.

The second proposition relates to the more pragmatic issues of gaining and maintaining the audience’s attention, helping the audience to easily grasp the point and helping the audience retain the message.

Stories – for me, it’s personal

I’ve always used stories in my presentations. I’ve never really known why I did this (on a technical level) but I do know for engagement, illumination, and all round fun they really work.

In my presentations on management topics I generally use stories about the mistakes I’ve made in my management career. Why? Well firstly I was a very poor manager so I’ve a wealth of stories in the ‘what not to do’ category! Socrates is attributed as saying ‘Speak that I may see thee’ and I’ve found that there’s nothing quite like a self-deprecating story for building rapport. What’s not to like about the ‘overpaid, over confident external consultant / speaker’ saying something like ‘let me tell you about a time I broke this rule – and certainly paid the price’?

NB cultural difference alert. As you may know, British people tend to value and enjoy self-deprecating humour (e.g. Oscar Wildes’ ‘I am so clever sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying’ or the late comedian Bob Monkhouses’  ‘They all laughed when I said I would become a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now’). Many other cultures don’t.  As ever, you need to know your audience!

How to tell stories

There’s a fair amount of information on storytelling in presentations (the most comprehensive coverage I found in my research was in Nancy Duarte’s book ‘HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations’). In my own stories I tend to use a structure (with an addition) from the world of recruitment called CAR (you can see how this works in recruitment here). My addition is an ‘L’ to make CARL. Here’s (a very abridged) example of how I use it:

Context

Here I would describe briefly the situation

When I was a new and experienced manager (and a not very good one) I was asked to manage a team of 20 debt collectors (oh the glamour of it all)…

Action

This is where you explain the action of the story – what you did and what others did So I asked the 4 supervisors to share my proposed change with their team members….

Result

What happened as a result of your actions

We implemented the change in September. By Christmas, 3 team members were on sick leave, 2 had left, 3 were asking for transfers and the rest were working as slowly as is humanly possible without grinding to a halt…

Learning

What you learnt from the experience

One of the key things I learnt is that ‘consultation’ doesn’t mean coming up with an idea, telling just a few people about it (very enthusiastically) and saying ‘can you run this idea past your ream and let me know what they think’ (My guess is that at least one of them didn’t even mention it to his team and the others said something on the lines of ‘the new manager wants to make her mark, she’s come up with a frankly ridiculous idea but let’s just agree for now; she’ll forget all about it when she gets round to doing some real work’). Consultation means…

Summary: Effective Presentation Techniques and Stories

Effective storytelling takes some practice. And please, I beg you, never tell a story you haven’t thought through; that doesn’t have a clear sequence of events and a learning point that is totally in line with your objectives for the presentation (I’ve heard many an impromptu story told that has fallen as flat as a pancake – and received with about as much excitement). As with all presentation techniques stories need preparation. But when they work, they are magic.

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