The Power of Storytelling in Presentations
by Andrea Pacini —
If you truly want to connect with an audience one of the most powerful strategies is to share stories and real life experiences. Facts and figures are hard to remember but we love hearing anecdotes.
Many business owners, leaders and professionals make the mistake of only sharing information in their presentations. They include abstract concepts, facts and figures. As a result, their presentations remain dry, factual and boring.
You don’t want to be a boring presenter. As Dr John Medina says in his brilliant book Brain Rules, “the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.”
In a previous article I explored how to simplify your presentations, to ensure that you keep your message, your visuals and your delivery as simple as possible.
Another technique I looked at was how to use the Rule of Three to present a clear message.
To take your presentation to the next level, you should also make your presentations Original and Enjoyable — two further principles from the Presentation SCORE method. Let’s look at how to spice things and add some colour.
Let me tell you a story
If you have an important message you want to communicate, ask yourself, “Is there a story I can tell to illustrate my point?”
In the context of a business presentation a story could be a personal anecdote about yourself or someone else, a real-life example, a case study or a tale about a client’s success.
In my experience, most business presentations are made up of 99 percent facts and, if you are lucky, 1 percent story. To me that’s often the wrong way round. It’s sometimes better to flip it and spend more of your time sharing examples.
In his book Lend Me Your Ears, Professor Max Atkinson describes a study he made of audience reactions to presentations. He positioned one camera on the speaker and the other on the audience. The study found that whenever a speaker used the phrase ‘for example’ it grabbed people’s attention. They tended to lift their heads or eyes in anticipation of what was to come.
With that in mind, tell more stories! This is one of the most powerful ways to make your presentations more original and enjoyable.
Here are some examples where storytelling has helped some of the clients we’ve worked with at Ideas on Stage.
Each of these examples shows how a story can bring a message to life. The audience is much more likely to remember examples over abstract information.
People will remember the story and the message. Storytelling is not about telling a story for the sake of it. It’s about telling a story to illustrate a particular point.
Susanna Lawson — Founder of OneFile
In 2021 I worked with Susanna on a presentation about women’s confidence. She decided to include a personal story about her own experience.
Susanna told how she founded the apprenticeship software company OneFile with her husband. They delayed starting a family while they focused on the business. Aged 29, when the company had grown, they had their first son and Susanna took a year off on maternity leave.
By the time she returned to work the company had doubled in size from nine to 19 employees.
She said: “Before having our baby I wasn’t really maternal. I told the team I would be back in a couple of months. But once he came I knew I needed to be off for longer and we agreed I would take a year. In that year OneFile doubled in size because it coincided with massive improvements in technology.
“I initially came back to work part time. After a couple of weeks I overheard a couple of the new team members. One of them asked, ‘So who is she then?’ and the other replied ‘Oh, she is the boss’ wife’.
“I was absolutely devastated. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I wasn’t the boss’ wife — I was the boss! But they just didn’t see me as that! My confidence was in tatters. I have very rarely cried at work but this was one of those times.”
The story was an extremely powerful and personal way to explain her own relationship with confidence to her audience.
Nishita Dewan — Director at CollaborateHQ
TEDx invited Nishita to talk about The Magic of Unlikely Alliances. She approached me to help ensure she was fully prepared to give a fantastic presentation.
She wanted to nudge everyone to form diverse collaborations and to harness the potential of diversity of thought.
Nishita discussed an unlikely collaboration between Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and the Ferrari Formula 1 race team.
She referenced a story about a couple of doctors from GOSH sharing their frustrations at the high error rates when transferring critically ill infants from the operating theatre to the intensive care unit.
Nishita recalled that as they were having lunch, they shifted their attention to the TV, which was showing the Formula 1 race. By pure serendipity, they observed the moment the Ferrari team completed a pit stop in under 7 seconds. They observed the precision and teamwork from a team of pit crew technicians—working together to optimise the car for the track—and in that moment, they realised the uncanny similarity between the pit stop and their handover process.
So the doctors and their team travelled to the Ferrari HQ in Italy to learn more about this handover process. From this transfer of knowledge, the doctors designed a new handover protocol with more sophisticated procedures and better coordinated teamwork. As a result, they achieved a 20 percent improvement in patient safety, saving childrens’ lives.
Diana Hudson — Director of the social enterprise Creative Exchange UK
The two stories above are about the presenter themselves in Susanna’s case and about somebody else in Nishita’s presentation. Not all stories have to be so in depth. Sometimes giving a quick example is all you need.
I worked with Diana Hudson to prepare a presentation on the topic of Circular Economy. She felt the audience didn’t have much knowledge on the subject, so she included two examples to explain what the circular economy is.
Diana said: “MUD Jeans is a company that specialises in renting jeans. As a client, you can pay a subscription to own a pair of jeans for some time and then exchange them for a different pair as your needs or requirements change.
“Another great example is Food Float, a not-for-profit that provides local, fresh food to people in and around Dorking in the UK. They gather together local food producers and sell their products within the community. This minimises costs, packaging, miles and puts money back into the community.”
Diana’s choice of Food Float was excellent because it was relevant both to her audience and her message. Her presentation was for an audience in Dorking. The choice of a local example meant something to her audience — and also helped to explain what the circular economy is.
What stories can you tell?
The examples above provide some insight into how stories can help to bring a presentation to life.
As you prepare your next presentation, think about some of the most important points you want to get across. Then ask yourself what story you can tell to illustrate your points.
If you only include information, facts and figures, they will touch the logical part of the brain. In basic terms, our brains are divided into two parts: the logical part and the emotional part.
When you tell a story it touches the emotional part of the brain, which can be far more powerful.
A good presentation must stimulate a mix of logical and emotional responses so you satisfy both areas of people’s brain.
The exact proportion of that mix will be different for each audience, which will have its own unique requirements.
Think of your presentation as a seesaw. A seesaw is parallel to the ground only when nobody is using it. As soon as two kids start playing with it, the seesaw starts going up and down.
A seesaw parallel to the ground is equivalent to a presentation with an equal mix of logic and emotion. Depending on the context, you may want to shift the balance either towards your logical arguments or towards your emotional arguments.
What you never want to do is have a presentation that relies on logic alone.
We’re wired to receive facts and figures in the logical part of our brain. Touching the emotional part with stories, anecdotes and examples is far more powerful.
If you can bring your presentations to life with stories they will have more impact on your audience.
Stories can be anything which provides a real life context to your message. Think about what anecdotes, examples and case studies you can tell the audience which fit with your narrative.
The relative weight of facts versus stories is up to you. But I would recommend not relying on facts alone if you want to keep your message original and enjoyable.
I love to hear from people who have read my articles and improved their presentations. Please get in touch with feedback and feel free to share any articles with your friends and colleagues.
If you want to become a more confident presenter, take the Confident Presenter Scorecard. Answer simple Yes/No questions, get an instant score plus suggestions for improvement. It takes less than 3 minutes. Once you complete the scorecard, you’ll receive a free pdf copy of my best-selling book Confident Presenter.