The power of stories
Most presentations start with a bulleted agenda page that described what’s expected to unfold.
- I will introduce points 1, 2, 3, and 4
- I will discuss point 1
- I will discuss point 2
- I will discuss point 3
- I will discuss point 4
- I will summarize points 1, 2, 3, and 4
Then, the speaker is likely to take up too much time explaining the first point, and then races through the rest, telling the whole story relatively quickly. At the end, again too much time is invested in redundant repetition of what the audience has just seen and heard. It’s the common, yet uninspiring, strategy of “Tell ‘m what they’re gonna be told, tell it to them, and then retell ‘m what you just told.”
In education, repetition is used to "force" children to learn
Centering on repetition to attain results, is a strategy often used in education systems. Teachers repeat material over and over again, until the brains of their uninterested students are bent to remember some. This memory pattern cannot be relied upon. All is forgotten a day after the exam. Much like factories, many educational institutions also maintain a production line, of diplomas, powered by grades. In the end, most students face no other choice but to cooperate and jump through the hoops.
In presentations, repetitive pounding of facts on the heads of investors or potential customers will eventually shape their brains in your angle, but their minds will remain untouched, making them indifferent to your message, bound to forget it immediately.
Stories are the empowering tools granted humans for effectively conveying messages and information. I imagine any system will prove successful if compulsory compliance was taken out of the equation, and a creative plot forms the central element. (Why, even the young generation will be excited in an education system that invites them to really apply their minds and hearts.)
Stories spark natural curiousity
Telling it so
Instead of a presentation designed to be an endurance test, create it as a story. Your message can best stick if you were to tell it so.
“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
This is a famous short story by Ernest Hemingway, the shortest he ever wrote, and his favorite. Our minds are immediately intrigued, asking questions, “Why? What happened to the baby?” and we wrap our own imagination around these words.
Human nature requires an inspiring structure, a motivating framework, with which to relate to things and remember them by.
You’d have experienced this, brainstorming ideas in a team in front of a whiteboard. After an hour of discussion, it’s covered with scribbles reflecting the heat of the debate. If you snap a picture of the whiteboard on your mobile, there’s a good chance it’ll remind you of the entire session, word-for-word, even weeks later. It’s not the quality of the notes on the whiteboard that trigger the memory. In fact, these could be completely illegible. It’s your brain connecting pieces of the session (hi)story with physical elements on the whiteboard. 3D spatial structures help recall the full richness of the debate.
Bulleted lists only hint at the story
The human brain was not designed to remember bullet point lists, or the telephone numbers of an address book. Rather, our ancestors had to rely heavily on spatial memory to recall locations for finding food. Then, after eating those apples from the tree, they had to remember their way back home, carrying ripe fruit for their family.
Another example for this notion, is a trick used for remembering a random series of objects. Imagine the objects along a familiar route, such as your commute to the office in the mornings, where the elephant is next to the train station, ducks are under the viaduct, and a bike is in front of the windmill. Creating a simple visual storyline in your head, literally seeing the objects upon the familiar route, is a simple way to memorize a list of objects. If you are interested in reading more about how our memory functions, I recommend the book Moon walking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.
So, in presentations, your story constitutes the (emotional) framework over which your audience can store the information in their brains.
Business presentations are stories as well
Some argue that a business presentation can never be as exciting as a movie or a novel. While this may be true to most, it is perfectly possible, and highly recommended, to apply story telling in business contexts. You’ll find that corporate minds relish inspiring and motivating plots.
Take a customer case example for instance. Most case examples in business presentations consist of wordy customer quotes, full of fuzzy language. “Company X really gave a best-in-class service to provide my company with a scalable and flexible architecture solution.” Uhu...Okay... And?
Instead, tell it so that its more experiential, with the essence placed on the plot: state the customer’s problem and explain how you solved it, wrapping everything up with enriching and entertaining anecdotes that will allure your audience.
Here’s another example. One way to describe the customer’s problem solved by your product, is a simple bulleted list. Another way, is to describe a day in the life of a customer, from getting up in the morning to bedtime at night, highlighting examples along this timeline, where other market solutions fell short and your products helped.
You can introduce your presentation using an actual story, and provide and anecdote in the end to accentuate the story as the underlining message about your company. Throughout the presentation you can come back to the story, with analogies, as you introduce more concepts and give more information.
They say that you must give in order to get. This is especially true for pitches. Presentations are your opportunity to offer audiences a well told story, one that carries information, but is also inspiring.
No such thing as one structure
One story is intended for getting a group of people to find a solution, another is oriented at communicating the solution and creating a buzz around it. The difference between the two is in their structure.
I worked as a management consultant for ten years, where documents and presentations were forged over highly analytical and logical structures. Such a structure requires you to carve up the problem in the right way, allocating bits to different people on which to work, and then stitching it all back up again, to arrive at a logical solution.
McKinsey uses the concept of MECE, Mutually Exclusive, Cumulative Exhausting, or, in normal language, “no holes, no overlaps.” This ensure that the analytical work captures the entire scope of the problem, and nobody wastes time on doing double work.
Have your logic straight, but use emotion to convince
A logical structure is extremely useful for retrieving information after the work is complete. Go to the market section, drill down to the U.S., section x.y, and find what you were looking for, fast.
Logical structures talk to the head, but less to the hearts and minds in your audience. This is why movie directors and authors hardly ever use it as a structure for their plots. If all movies were played in chronological order, or characters introduced alphabetically, our recreation activities would be pretty boring.
Logical structures are great for people who have been working on a subject for a long time, but it is less suited for those just being introduced to a subject matter.
A business plan is not a presentation
The moment you finalized your business plan or completed your strategy document, is not the moment your presentation is finished. These are completely different documents, with separate types of stories, not only in look and feel, but especially in content.
One very small piece of analysis buried on page 94 in your strategy document can be the headstone on which to build your entire argument in a presentation. A customer case example from page 65 can serve as a livelier way to introduce the problem, instead of a logical definition from section 1.1.2. Consider sharing an example of what your technology can do before diving into market sizing. In presentations, it is okay to deviate from the business school structure of your documents.
There are other reasons to deviate from organized, dull, business school structures. In presentations, investors or potential customers do not think linearly as they listen to you. You can imagine some of the important questions they may have in mind, and raise these issues deliberately early on in the presentation. Do this, even if it doesn’t fit with your trained logical structure.
Ideally, you’ll want to start your presentation design completely from scratch rather than recycle material and structure used in your business plan. Shift from problem solving mode to a story telling one, and you’ll find you can do this successful.
I call the recycling of materials in presentations “Frankensteining.” It works as follows: First you open all the available PowerPoint presentations of the company, recent Board reviews, sales deck, technical architecture outline. Next, you put all of this material together in one single file, rearranging slides as you go along, and producing an all-encompassing finished deck. Great, you’ve created a Frankenstein of a deck. While it may function, it is not balanced, and has a monstrous storyline.
To get the right flow of your presentation, go analogue and distance yourself away from the PowerPoint or Keynote screen. Sketch things on paper, move yellow sticky notes around a whiteboard, or brainstorm a possible flow using mind mapping applications on your computer or tablet (try iThoughtsHD.)
After the small talk
I usually get the best possible pitches during the first informal briefing of a presentation project. Following some smalltalk, we’ll dive into the substance. “So, what’s the story?” I ask, and out it comes, with the main idea folded around a structure that comes most natural. No slides, no agenda format, no nothing. Its delivered directly from the heart.
It is sad to see this raw and pure presentation flow often demolished in the rigorous process of presentation design, as we add information and reshape the structure. Part of the value in a presentation designer hired specifically for a project, is to take that first raw storyline and translate it into well designed slides without diluting it.
My advice is to start the presentation design process by telling your story to a good friend. Tape yourself on video or audio, and closely pay attention to the order in which you unfold it. When are markets discussed? When do you use examples? How is the technology explained? Think about the required props as the conversation advances. Did you sketch anything on a piece of paper? At what point? Did you refer to your detailed business plan to show data? All of these pointers provide insight about which story structure comes most naturally to you.
Reserve time to design your presentation and tell the story. Such creative processes cannot be strained by time constraints. Many of the presentations I designed as a management consultant were poor either because of time constraints or the hour in which they were created, often at 3AM, right before the 9AM review meeting. Believe me, at 3 in the morning, your brain is not very creative, and you’ll be forging your charts in survival mode.
But, it is not only the last-minute stress that blocks creativity. If you begin thinking about a problem early, your subconscious gains an extended timeframe in which to mull things over. People always wonder why the best ideas seem to pop up in the shower or other unexpected moments. It is because your mind continues to chew on issues without you being consciously aware of it, even during your sleep.Your senses play a key role in triggering this process of creativity, so make it a policy to start thinking a long time before the presentation deadline. Then put it all away for some time, only to come back to it later. Put it away again, distance yourself and return to it again. Ideally, I take 2 to 3 weeks of lapse time to design a presentation from beginning to end.
Quick sum up
I have argued that to make a story more memorable, you can deviate from rigorous, boring, logical structures, and tackle those elephants in the room early on, as you initiate discussion of burning issues. Tell your story, preferably in the way that comes naturally to you. Give of yourself.