Presentations and keynotes
‘According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
—Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian
The business problem
Most business presentations are dry and boring, and as a result totally forgettable. The mistaken assumption is that clear points organised in a rational way and spoken out loud or placed into a fancy PowerPoint template can pass as an effective business presentation. Left-brain efficiency may rule the way we operate in business processes, but it shouldn’t rule the way we communicate.
The typical solution
Storytelling is a tool that can overcome this common pitfall. A series of well-placed anecdotes pulls the audience into a journey and turns dry logic into interesting context. It also helps a presenter connect with the audience at a personal level.
Story pulls the audience into a journey
In 2018, while working for Amazon Web Services, we helped an executive—let’s call her Kylie—prepare a presentation for 10,000 people in Las Vegas. Kylie had led a digital transformation in her emerging nation, focused on eight pillars. She now planned to share all eight, in detail. But this would have made for a boring presentation, with no sense of movement. Instead, we found a journey in the way Kylie’s team tackled her nation’s connectivity challenges, which had stunted medical access, education, and growth. This created an urgency to shift her team’s role from being operational to become leaders of the connectivity drive. Her team was cast as the character facing many ups and downs on the journey but eventually triumphing.
Delivering a list of bullets in a rational structure is akin to force-feeding the audience and expecting them to rapidly digest the entire meal. Story, on the other hand, offers more space, whereby the audience can make their own connections, visualisations, and conclusions.
Story takes the audience on a journey from one state to another, with ups and downs that hold their attention. Contrasting the current state and future potential creates tension. But a good presentation will go further, continuing to raise and collapse audience expectations. This may be through the unfolding journey of a leader, an employee, a customer or a combination of these, but the crucial point is that overcoming hurdles, leading to some kind of transformation, holds our interest.
Story puts dry presentations into compelling context
Presentations are full of assertions and opinions, which may be backed up with facts. Story, however, allows the presenter to wrap facts in context and deliver them with emotion—small anecdotes can have a big impact.
For example, Kylie described how the transformation made her team more strategic. On its own that’s a rather bland assertion, but she tied it to a small anecdote, recounting the first time she was called into a board meeting. The company’s president had relied on Kylie’s IT perspective to make a crucial decision, when before IT barely had a voice. Using this small anecdote, Kylie gave credibility and meaning to her assertion.
You can also use a story structure to make the ‘why’ behind a call to action more compelling. It helps create an imperative to overcome inertia. For example, to explain a restructure you may share the story of sceptical employee who resists change but soon sees their customers leaving in droves. This leads them (and the audience) to not only hear the reasons for the restructure but to feel the urgency for it.
Story makes a presentation personal and relatable
Story gives the audience a feel for what’s at stake. Most presentations remain in organisational or task-driven realms, but story allows the presenter to bring in a more human perspective. As we relate to other people, we’re more likely to care about the outcome than we would for a generic corporation. In fact, the more specific you can get—introducing dialogue, characters, times, and places—the better the story will resonate.
And it’s not only the presenter who uses story. The audience can start to identify their own roles within a narrative or in relation to an anecdote. They can start to see how their work or innovations can advance a story.
Effective presenters also use story to share why they personally care about something. We call this a connection story. For example, every leader says people are the most important factor in their organisation. That’s a motherhood statement until the speaker provides a specific story showing why they hold that belief or what action they are taking in relation to that assertion. More important than being a dynamic speaker or crafting beautiful slides is the underlying story. Kylie was a very quiet presenter; yet, she was able to hold the attention of a large audience because she had a compelling personal story.
So the next time you have a list of facts or set of initiatives to share with your teams, try and find some stories that gives them flavour and wrap them in tangible or personal examples.
Holtje, Jim (2011). The Power of Storytelling: Captivate, Convince, or Convert Any Business Audience Using Stories from Top CEOs. Prentice Hall Press. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0735204608/ref=rdr_ext_tmb
Anecdote Story Finder. https://www.anecdote.com/story-finder
Anecdote Keynote Presenters. https://www.anecdote.com/keynote-presentations
Powerful Ted Talks. https://www.ted.com/playlists/386/10_years_of_ted_talks_powerfu
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