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Creating Engaging Business Presentations with Storytelling

Have you ever witnessed a business presentation without either a spreadsheet or bullet points? No? I can’t remember too many either. Yet, all too often this de facto standard of presentation acts as an aide-memoire for the presenter, rather than a compelling story for the audience.

How to Make Boring Presentations More Interesting

A few years ago I was working on a major infrastructure project with my colleagues from Advance Consultancy. I sat in a room with about 60 people. The project manager took to his feet. He hit a button and up onto a large screen came to an Excel spreadsheet containing about a hundred columns and a thousand rows; well that’s what it looked like from where I was sat!!

The numbers don’t actually matter. What matters is that he then went through the row, line by excruciatingly boring line. Within a very short space of time, the vast majority of his audience had clearly switched off and entered a trance-like state. Now, sometimes it’s not an Excel spreadsheet, but a PowerPoint pack of data or text-filled slides that do the same job, equally as effectively. That’s not just my opinion. In his book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds claims that:

Most (business) presentations remain mind-numbingly dull, something to be endured by both presenter and audience alike. 

Continuing this theme presentations authority Nancy Duarte argues that most business presentations are the bland leading the bland.

It got me wondering. Why are most business presentations so bad? Why do so many people find delivering presentations so hard? Well, when you consider the nerves, the fear, the anxiety, the awkwardness, and the audience’s stares, it’s probably no great surprise that many people struggle with presenting. However, I suggest that the real problem isn’t fear. It’s more than our messages are often flat and lifeless.

Structure Your Presentation Like a Story

Storytelling Presentation Skills Eagle Training

So what can you do to avoid this pitfall? The answer lies in telling stories; yes that’s right, stories. Stories are the heartbeat of powerful presentations. Why? Because stories capture the audience’s imagination, engage their emotions, and breakthrough the mundane. They’re memorable, they connect, and, yes, stories even sell.

Yet I vividly remember being told by a senior manager that “You can never use stories in business presentations”. Well, a while ago my corporate trainer colleague Martin Eldon and I were asked to design and deliver a presentations skills workshop for a finance team from one of the world’s largest food companies. We were tasked to help the delegates to deliver a very strategic and data-driven presentation and make it more interesting and fun. Imagine that; a financial presentation that was interesting and fun!! I’ll tell you more about this workshop at the end of this article.

Creating Engaging Presentations using Storytelling

In a Wall Street Journal article, Cliff Atkinson, a communications consultant and author of Beyond Bullet Points, suggested that raw data is not as persuasive and memorable as many business leaders might believe. However, in the article Atkinson suggests that distilling what is important and wrapping it in an engaging story so it can be remembered.

There’s nothing quite like a well-told story. When a gifted storyteller does their thing, the information they’re delivering becomes meaningful. It has colour, shape and texture. More importantly, their presentations will be remembered for all the right reasons. And, the topic of the story doesn’t have to be inherently dramatic, strange, or unexpected to be engaging. As they say, it’s all in the delivery.
In fact, nailing down a powerful story will work wonders on your nerves. This is because, above all, stories bring your presentation to life. If you don’t believe me, just look at how many millions of people have watched TED Talks.

Chris Anderson of TED Talks once said,

“A great presentation is a human connecting to humans in a direct, almost vulnerable way. The talks that work the best are the ones where people can really sense humanity, emotions, dreams and imagination.”

Intellectual & Emotional Presenting

How can a presenter do this? The answer is by telling stories. In our Presentation Mastery programme, we show the following diagram (courtesy of Doug Stevenson) to explain this in more detail.

Business Presentation Skills Telling Stories

In my experience most business presentations are aimed at the left-hand side of the diagram; at the intellectual, left-hand brain. They are aimed at the audience’s conscious mind, focused on the content, the data of the presentation. It’s all about the structure and organisation of the content in spreadsheets and/or PowerPoint slides, which is logical and orderly and which is designed to make sense to the audience.

When the screen lights up with a slide filled with dense text, detailed tables, charts and graphs, the audience’s focus goes to the text or graphics and they start to read. When they start to read, they stop listening. The text or graphic becomes the centre of their attention and the presenter basically becomes a narrator or ventriloquist!

Now, we would never decry or underestimate the importance of text or graphics. All we would say is that there is more than that. Successful presenters also make sure that they connect with the emotional, more right side of the brain. This is about the unconscious mind and thinking about the nature of the presentation as much as the content. It’s about using stories and metaphors that contain strong and vivid imagery that hits home with people and has them ‘feeling’ the presentation.

Maya Angelou, the great civil rights activist, once said that:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

And that’s why stories work so well; yes, even in business presentations. The great presenters and orators in history know just how powerful and compelling a well-constructed and relevant story can be in influencing people’s feelings, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

Business Storytelling steps to Guide Your Next Presentation

So, if storytelling can be such an important part of your presentation, how do you go about creating a great story?

  • Step 1: Remember that stories are not self-justifying. They do not exist for their own sake. Stories exist to make presentations come alive. Every story must have a purpose, or “takeaway.” What do you want your story to accomplish? What one principle is most central? If I were a communication wizard, what one idea would I magically implant in my listeners’ minds?” What’s the story behind the numbers?
  • Step 2: This might sound obvious, but the next step to crafting a powerful stories is to make sure your stories are actually stories. Asking yourself “What?” as in, “What actually happened?” forces you to tell an actual story. Obviously you must make it relevant so the audience can get the connection between your story and the key message of your presentation.
  • Step 3: Consider using the incident, point, benefit structure for your story. I have found it keeps me on track. What was the incident? What point or learning do you want the audience to get from your story? Finally, what will be the benefit to them if they get the point?

Presentation Skills Training

OK, so the presentation skills workshop I mentioned at the start of this article went really well. Julian Ogden, one of the sponsor’s colleagues and a senior finance manager at Pladis Global attended another of our Presentation Mastery workshops. At the end of the two days, he said, “I never knew that you could actually make a presentation on VAT on biscuits interesting.” Praise indeed!

OK, time for an unashamed plug! Just imagine what it would be like to incorporate a story or stories into your next presentation and have people remember it for all the right reasons. If you would like to know more about our Presentation Mastery programme and how to use stories in business presentations please call us on 01376 346939 or email and we’d be delighted to have an initial chat about your specific requirements.

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