You really can’t move within the communication world these days without someone banging on about the importance of ‘storytelling’. What’s generally missing is any real clue as to what you are meant to do about it. Some people are probably a little confused; indeed, it’s possible that there are business executives planning their next inter-office meeting and imagining that their contribution needs to be re-thought and built around a ‘arc’, complete with antagonist, protagonist, conflict and suspense, all divided into three Acts and not forgetting a ‘crucible’.
Those who have started to preach about the importance of storytelling tend to leave the notion hanging, probably in the hope that you will feel the need to seek specific storytelling expertise from the likes of those preachers who appear to be among a chosen few who have had storytelling skills passed down to them in some mystic manner through many generations. So please allow me to try and get things back into perspective.
The first point is that if you are giving a business presentation the very last thing you want to do is deliver it in classic storytelling style whereby you lead them in slowly and build progressively to a big climax. In a business presentation you need to get the big point into the minds of your audience immediately – you want to open with it, you want to close with it and everything in between should serve to bring that big point alive. In Army terms it’s the old ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them again’. If you tried to turn this process into a story you would be giving the end at the very beginning, so ruining the story!
So where and when should you use storytelling techniques? Three places in particular, at least one of which may come as a surprise.
First, and perhaps most importantly, short stories should be used as examples to bring your key points alive. Everything the storytelling preachers tell you applies here and your big point will register all the more effectively. If your story comes from your own personal experience it will be all the more effective, for two reasons. First, it will be more credible. Second, letting a little light shine on yourself has the effect of making your audience warm to you, with the result that you are more engaging and everything you say becomes more convincing. The other great benefit of telling a story, which you are unlikely to hear from the preachers, is that you will automatically go into a slightly different, more conversational tone of voice. This brings the variation in tone that is so important to your pacing and audience engagement.
Second, think storytelling when using PowerPoint. As a general rule bring your bullet points up one at a time or else your audience will inevitably be reading ahead and they will know the end of that slide’s story way before you get to it!
Third, most graphs present storytelling opportunities; and arguably those opportunities need to be exploited if the graph is to work to its fullest potential. The best example I can provide here is that every Fund Manager I have ever coached has built their presentation around one key graph which features two lines, one showing the market as a whole, the other showing how well their fund has been performing in comparison. They beam with pride at the big, positive gap between the two lines, but I say: “Slow down. There’s a story to tell here and you’re giving away the end before you have even begun”.
The first thing you need to do when presenting any graph is to allow your audience to familiarise themselves with what they are looking at, rather than be bamboozled by an instant barrage of information. So ideally you should start by displaying and explaining just the axes. Then you can start overlaying the meat of the graph, but you should do so gradually, allowing a story to unroll. In the case of those Fund Managers they can probably put up the whole of the line for the market as a whole, talking about the general ups and downs. Now, without any kind of reading-ahead distractions, your audience is all keyed up to hear about the most important element – the performance of your fund. But again, roll it out gradually. Display it in three or four progressive elements eg: show how you got off to a good start and let your audience imagine ‘did they maintain that?’; relieve the tension and show that you did; now point to the downturn that the market as a whole went into and have your audience fearing for you, as you then go on to reveal that you rode out the storm. Now you have them on tenterhooks for the big finale – did to manage to maintain that performance. Pause momentarily, then hit them with a big triumphant finish. None of this drama – and close attention to the fine details that results - could ever have been achieved by simply putting up the graph in its completed form.
So the preachers are right in certain respects, but you don’t want to simply launch into storytelling without thinking carefully about how to use it and certainly not as the basis for a whole business presentation. Well-placed bite-sized stories, however, can bring life, meaning, memorability and conviction to your messages while also adding a whole new dimension to your pacing.