When was the last time you got home from work and said to your family: "The funniest things happened at work today..."?
Or re-lived a great game of football with your friends in the pub: “Did you see that goal… in-off, and back of the net…” – and then a blow-by-blow account of every moment, every tactic, leading up to the triumph?
Or overheard – or had – a conversation that runs something like this: “So then he goes bla bla… so I said bla bla bla… and he’s like bla… and I’m like, no, bla BLA….”?
All of us tell stories all the time. But for some reason, most people don’t use them in presentations. It may be that, with our business hats on, we associate storytelling with the childish and the frivolous, and so regard it as entirely irrelevant. After all, we’re there to talk about facts. Perish the thought that we might ever find a place for emotion.
But if you want to get those facts across in a way that really has an impact on your audience, tell a story about them. There are plenty of tomes out there about the relationship between business and storytelling, (and I’ve come across lots of lazy bandying around of the word ‘storytelling’ in a business context, too, when actually there’s nothing there that a professional writer or actor would recognise as related to story at all).
Think of it this way:
What do those facts mean, in terms of your experience, or the experience of your team, organisation, clients?
What would a future look like in which those facts had informed ideas and actions?
Or in which they’d been ignored?
What would the consequences be for your business?
How would that make people in the company feel?
If you can paint a picture for your audience, not only do you tell a story; you invite your audience to enter into the experience of that picture – and to feel things about it. Which will help them see just what the implications of your facts are, or could be. And that imaginative experience – that story – can often put over information far more clearly than lists of statistics and complicated flow charts (which may have their place; just not in a presentation).
Allusions to well-known myths, fairy tales, or Hollywood blockbusters, can be a great way of breathing new life into your subject-matter.
What’s the Trojan Horse that might be threatening your business from the inside?
Who’s been the Fairy Godmother in the story of your success?
Or the Darth Vader threatening your company’s future existence?
Nor does telling a story have to mean embarking on long rambling anecdotes. A lengthy narrative might be appropriate at times, and personal disclosure can also have its place – but a good story can often be extremely succinct, e.g.’For Sale: Baby Shoes – Never Worn.’
It doesn’t necessarily demand great ‘creativity’ either. Do it right, and your audience will automatically start using the clues you give them to identify with the story for themselves.
So they’ll get the point. Provided, of course, that you pick the right sort of clues.
The key is to use sensory detail. Tell us what you’re talking about in terms of what it looks like: make the abstract stuff real and concrete for us. And don’t stick just to visual detail – that’s to ignore four other senses. If you can throw in an appropriate word or two about what something sounds like, or smells like, for example, you instantly bring to life what you’re talking about for us in ways that can have all kinds of memorable implications. Better still, make it tactile, experiential for your listeners. Ask yourself:
Is there an appropriate prop I could pass round as I’m speaking?
Something that makes a noise, or has an interesting texture, or tastes good?
Could I play music, or sound effects that introduce or support my message?
And here’s an even more radical thought – but I’ll make the point by beginning a story:
Once upon a time, there was a business person who gave a brilliant presentation entirely without slides…