Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Corporate Storytelling
A client (a design agency) asked me recently, “How do we use storytelling in our business presentations?” They specifically wanted to know,
- How to bring together the story of the work that we’ve done for a client
- The flow of a slide pack that tells a story end-to-end
- The flow of an individual slide that tells a story
Stick with me, and I will do my best to answer them.
First, a short note on why stories are compelling in any business context.
Stories speak to our experiences. And as Daniel Kahneman reminds us, our “remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. . . . This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference” (Kahneman 381-387).
By sharing stories, we are helping people add and update stories for their remembering selves. These stories help your audience make decisions.
My story colleagues will recognise that my preceding notes barely form a partial case for the power of stories. There’s no mention of emotion, rapport building, understandability, memorability (but not 22 times, please), or the myriad of other reasons stories have an impact.
But for what follows, knowing that stories directly impact decision-making is a good start.
OK, with that as my preamble, let’s dive in.
Using stories as an overarching structure
When does it make sense to structure your entire presentation as a story?
Let me first say that a single story rarely suffices. In every presentation, you are likely to tell at least a few stories, and if you are Brené Brown, you can tell 46 stories in a 76-minute presentation.
Sometimes it is beneficial to organize your entire presentation as a story. But when is it appropriate to do so?
If sharing a story helps an audience know what happened (or what will happen) and what might happen after that. Then using a story as your overarching structure makes sense.
Let’s test this idea against some common business presentations.
- Business proposal
- Product or service presentation
- Financial report
- Company overview
- Project update or status report
- Research findings
The business proposal
A business proposal often starts with some context (what happened) and how this context has created a situation that requires help (what happened after that). Then you propose your solution (what will happen) and describe the likely outcome (what will happen after that). It’s clearly a narrative from beginning to end. Therefore it’s a great candidate for using a story to structure the proposal.
The specific story structure we use is the Clarity Story, which I introduced in Putting Stories to Work. It has this structure:
- In the past (how were things before the change)
- Then something happened (the change that’s causing the problem or opportunity)
- So now (what we propose to do now)
- In the future (the likely outcomes of our work)
Of course, there are other sections in a typical business proposal, such as Commercials, Our Team, Timings and How To Get Started. For each one, you can tell small stories to reinforce your credentials (more on that later). But the core of this proposal is a strong narrative that could be retold orally by people inside the company as they talk about your submission. Your prospect will get it. It will make sense.
The product or service presentation
I’ve given and seen more product presentations than I care to remember—particularly software products. I started my career in the ’80s at Oracle, then Sybase and finished at IBM in 2004, when I switched focus to story work. And since then seen thousands of these types of talks.
And here’s the thing. Putting the product inside a single narrative is difficult unless you embed it in substantial success stories that exercise all the capabilities you want to show.
Concocted case studies rarely work. Made-up personas and scenarios might be helpful for designers but leave a prospect cold.
Instead, this type of presentation benefits from lots of stories. Stories about critical people who will be working on the project. Stories that illustrate why your people genuinely care about the client (we call them connection stories). Stories of past successes and failures and what you learned. There’s nothing better than a good failure story to demonstrate your confidence and authenticity as you lay the facts bare.
The Company Overview
Like a product or service presentation, the company overview is best delivered as a set of stories.
A significant one is the company foundation story. Ideally, this story shows your company’s core values and reflects the character of your leaders. For the prospect, it’s often an insight into your company’s culture.
For large corporations picking the right foundation story to tell can be challenging. You might have started in the 1800s (like Nokia as a timber mill), and the founders’ story is irrelevant to your current business.
Big companies like Nokia have many foundations. You might be able to tell the foundation story of the 5G business, one of its acquisitions, or the foundation of a division. You need a starting point that’s meaningful and relevant.
One of our partners, Amanda Marko, shared this foundation story she heard from an employee of CATV, the oldest cable TV company in the USA.
CATV was founded in 1947 by John Walson. He was an appliance shop owner in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania and was excited to start carrying televisions in his inventory. He bought the very first one himself, set it up in his house, turned it on, and got no signal. You see, Mahanoy City is more than 60 miles from the closest city that had a TV station at the time and between John and that station are nothing but mountains.
After trying to make the antennae on his roof work, John figured out that if he put an antenna on a pole on the top of a mountain and ran a cable into his house and shop, he could get a station signal. Then customers started buying their first TVs, and the same thing happened: they took them home, plugged them in, turned them on, and nothing but static.
To sell more TVs, John put his background working for an electric utility and degree in electrical engineering to use and started running cable from the homes of those who bought TVs from him up to his mountaintop antenna.
John is recognised as a pioneer in cable television and can also claim many other innovations, including being the first cable operator to use microwave to import distant television stations, the first to use coaxial cable for improved picture quality, and the first to distribute pay television programming (HBO).
The company is still family-owned and run and continues to serve a very rural area. Yet, it maintains this legacy of cutting-edge innovation combined with the service standards of a small-town local business.
Project Updates and Research Findings
These two presentation types can benefit from an overarching narrative. In this case, the narrative acts as a way-finding device to help your audience locate themselves in your talk.
A story structure for delivering research findings might look like this:
- We DISCOVERed
- Then we SYNTHESISEd and analysed
- We TESTed the initial results
- And here are our RESULTS
Warning: you could use this structure and not tell a story. To keep it a narrative, you must focus on things that happened. That is, you are linking events together with words like ‘because of that’ and ‘therefore’ and ‘then this happened’. And it should all start with a time marker: “On the first of July 2023, we kicked off our interviews …”
A financial report could quickly be drawn together as a clarity story if the talk aimed to explain why the company is making decisions on a new way forward. That’s at the level of the company.
But it could also be told as a series of small stories, as we did in the product presentation or the company overview.
An essential feature of any financial report, of course, is numbers—the data. And because of that, the astute financial leader employs data storytelling.
Data storytelling means that each chart or table shown is narrated to illustrate what happened and what might happen next.
In practical terms, this means revealing the story bit by bit so the audience is trying to predict what might happen next. The slow reveal increases engagement. Our brains are wired for prediction. If you’re interested in learning about the latest findings on how the human mind works and the role of stories, I recommend checking out Jeff Hawkin’s One Thousand Brains and Andy Clark’s The Experience Machine.
And when the charts don’t naturally support a story (such as pie charts or a complex model), you can illustrate a key point with a moment from the field that shows what the data mean.
For example, you might be showing circumplex charts of employee engagement, and it’s clear that one division is way ahead of the others. The audience wants to know why. Instead of giving a general statement, share a real-life example of a leader who made a difference with their team. On the surface, it can seem small. But the impact on your audience is unforgettable.
Here’s an example of an anecdote to help people understand employee engagement data. It is based on a real story I heard, and here I’m imagining a senior leader telling it.
“We have a leader who has a big impact on our outstanding engagement score. Her name is Alison. Here’s just one small example. A couple of weeks ago, Alison woke up early to hear a severe weather warning. It was going to pour and most likely hail, just as her team would drive to work. So she rang each one and said they should hold off on their commute until the storm passed. We know her people appreciated this because that same story was told three times in our research. This was just one thing Alison does that shows she really cares for her people.”
. . .
As you can see, some presentations are natural fits for a story as the overarching structure. If your presentation mainly describes what happened and what might follow, choose a story to knit it together.
Presentations that fit with overarching stories include,
- The business proposal
- The project update or status report
If it’s not a natural fit, then sprinkle stories throughout your presentation, such as,
- The product or service presentation
- The company overview
- Financial reports
I recoil when people ask, “So, what’s our story?” It usually means, “What should we say?” In most cases, you must tell many stories and keep telling new ones.
Some business presentations naturally fit a story structure. Let me leave you with one more example.
A few years back, I helped a mining company executive prepare a board paper. The initial draft was boring and failed to highlight crucial points. Although burying the lead is sometimes a strategy, this executive preferred a clear and persuasive document.
I proposed a narrative structure (a “clarity story”) for the entire report. Initially, she hesitated as it deviated from the typical board paper format. However, I persuaded her that the board members would appreciate it. Following the meeting, I received a brief message stating that her chairman complimented how lucid it was. She was thrilled.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kindle ed., Penguin, 2011
Hawkings, Jeff. A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence. Kindle ed., Basic Books, 2022.
Clark, Andy. The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality. Kindle ed., Penguin Books, 2023.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: