Stephen King calls it telepathy: the power of a story to take an image from an author’s head and effortlessly place it in the heads of others. Storytelling is a powerful tool. A successful presentation contains a balance of logical argument and emotional appeal, and the most effective way to encourage an emotional response is to tell a story. For more on why stories are a fundamental part of your business presentation arsenal, see our article on the importance of stories.
How to find your stories
You don’t have to be Stephen King. In fact it’s best if you’re not, because your stories should be business-appropriate, not terrifying. Focus on small stories or anecdotes that help emphasise a business point. At The Pickering Group we call these Spotlight Stories because they’re short and highly illuminating. They usually come from your practical experience: authentic snapshots of innovation, leadership, principles, customer service, vision, resilience, success, failure, courage, curiosity – you name it. And they’ve usually got a punchline or an unexpected twist that makes your point unforgettable.
Five Elements of a Spotlight Story
- Context: when and where the story took place. This helps the audience picture the scenario and ties it into reality. Just as ‘Once upon a time’ sets up a mythical distant past, ‘Last week in Wellington…’ establishes a real and concrete setting.
- Consequence: one thing leads to another. One of the ways we create meaning with stories is to show how events link to each other, such as ‘the goat ate it, then because of that…’ This creates a sense of flow and narrative.
- People and their actions: every story needs characters that act. These will be the real people of your experience and the things they did and said that created the story.
- The Twist: every good story contains an element of surprise. A story without one is anticlimactic and feels pointless, so the end of your story needs to have some kind of reveal that justifies the telling of the tale.
- Relevance: The story must support your message in some way. If the story isn’t relevant to your presentation, doesn’t elucidate or emphasise any business point, then there’s no reason to include it in your presentation.
In Brené Brown’s amazing TED talk The Power Of Vulnerability, she recounts the time an event planner refused to call her a ‘researcher’, because it sounded boring. Instead the planner wanted to use ‘storyteller’. Brown, an academic qualitative researcher, recoiled from this airy-fairy label, and drew deep on her courage to compromise on ‘researcher-storyteller’. Brown allows us to see the vulnerability she felt at having her identity and credentials under fire, but at the same time ensures we know what her formal credentials are. In just a minute and a half she establishes her authority on the subject and empathy with her topic, using warm, self-deprecating humour that charms us into paying attention. It’s an excellent example of a Spotlight Story.
The Right Tale for the Right Ears
Ask yourself these four questions: What point does this story make or reinforce? Is it compelling? Will my story provoke thought or emotion in my audience? When should I tell it for the best impact? Different audiences will have different tolerance to story. While stories can illustrate a complicated concept to fresh ears, an audience already familiar with that concept may find it patronising or pointless. But as with Brown, a story can also illustrate you, or create a sense of urgency or celebration. The key is to make sure your story is appropriate for the audience you have.
How to construct a story: Beginning
One of the most powerful ways to begin a story is to start in the middle of the action. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, makes this suggestion: if you’re telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood, don’t begin with the invitation to Grandmother’s house or packing the picnic basket. Begin with ‘It was dark inside the wolf.’ Immediately people are hooked: they want to know how you got there and what will happen next.
How to Construct a Story: Middle
A story builds. The tension should increase, or the stakes should get higher as you get towards your big reveal. Don’t get bogged down in detail. The middle of your story should clip along, hitting the important, relevant events but avoiding tangents or filler. We all know someone who interrupts their own stories, wandering off topic or giving background details about every minor character. We avoid those people at parties, and they’re even worse in a boardroom where you can’t sneak off to get more chips.
How to construct a Story: The End
Your reveal, twist or climax. The end of a story should resolve the events that came before in a satisfying way. If you started your presentation with a story, return to that story at the end. Give them an epilogue or moral, or save the denouement for an impactful close. If you can call back to your opening words it provides a sense of closure and completeness: “Let me leave you with this: it may have been dark inside the wolf, but ultimately that darkness helped her see the light.”
Happily Ever After
You may feel like the nearest rock tells a story better than you do. But actually you, like all humans, are an innate story teller. You’ve been conditioned since birth to mimic, empathise, and communicate with stories. It really is a kind of telepathy, the closest we can get to genuinely shared experience. At The Pickering Group we can help you find your spotlight, and your Spotlight Stories. Our business storytelling courses will help you mine your experience for effective stories and shape them into powerful communication tools. Learn more about our courses here, join our mailing list below, or join us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for inspiring, thoughtful content.