Telling stories in business


On my web site I run a quiz that checks how good a presenter you are. It has run for a several years and I recently collated the results for the last few months.

The most worrying trend that it shows is that most people (94%) think that they need to structure their presentation so that everyone can see where they are going. No doubt this includes having an agenda slide and breaking the presentation down in to sections. While this is very good practice for a written report, it can be deadly for a presentation.

Think of any good film that you have watched recently. Did it have an agenda slide at the start? Did it start by telling you how it would end or what will happen along the way?

No, of course it didn’t.

Films usually start by catching your attention and creating an intriguing situation which makes you wonder what is going to happen next. You are compelled to carry on watching to see how the story unfolds. The script writers, producers and actors engage you; the twists and turns in the storyline keep you wanting to see and hear more.

Compare this with a presentation that starts by telling you that first, I am going to talk about “A”, then we will look at “B” and finally I’ll tell you about “C”. Unless you are excited to hear about “A”, “B” and “C”, you are almost bound to lose interest. If item “C” is what you want to hear about, you’ll immediately switch off and stop listening while the presenter drones on about “A” and “B”. By the time he/she gets to “C” you will probably be mentally elsewhere.

Presentations are not like written reports. Written reports have a contents list so that readers can skip to the parts that are of interest to them. By their very nature presentations are sequential. The speaker decides the order in which he/she is going to talk. As a speaker you need to grab the audience’s attention, engage with them and use similar storytelling techniques as used in the motion picture industry, to hold their attention and make them wonder what you are going to say next. As soon as an audience event thinks that they know what you are going to say next they are likely to switch off.

From the quiz results, it would seem that people are starting to understand this, because the percentage of people who display the bullet points on a slide all at once has dropped from 36% down to 22%. This is an encouraging sign. Although I still feel sorry for the audiences of that 22%, or for that matter audience of any presentation still using bullet points.

There is still someway to go before storytelling is the normal way of giving a business presentation, but if you want to be successful, engaging and influential, I think it is the way to go.

Bruce Gabriel has written a series of 7 articles about how to use storytelling in the boardroom, which I would heartily recommend. You can read it here.

If you would like to do my quiz, you can find it here.

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