When to Use Storytelling in Presentations

If you were to compare the worst presentations you’ve sat through to the best, you would likely see some patterns emerge. The former is typically packed with too many slides filled with too much content that the presenter feels compelled to read to you, line-by-line, with a mind-numbing monotony that makes you wish you were anywhere else in the world at that moment (e.g. having a root canal, in traffic court, trapped in an elevator, etc.).

In contrast, great presentations are more about the presenter than the slides, and they make you feel like you are witnessing something special as someone shares their unique perspective, insight and expertise with the world. There are many traits that make great presentations great, but one common characteristic is how the presenter uses storytelling to infuse richer meaning and humanity into the key messages he or she is conveying. Well-selected stories well-placed can add colour and dimension to a presentation, making it a more memorable experience for the audience.

To help you infuse your next presentation with more stories, outlined below are five guidelines that you can follow:

Expand your thinking around what a story can be.

We define story as “an exchange of meaning shared from one person to another,” and it can take many forms. For instance, it can be a more traditional narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end: a narrative that comes from your own history, from someone else’s history or simply from history. But it can also be as simple as a beautiful image, insightful quote, parable, metaphor, video clip, cartoon, infographic or newspaper headline. Once you think more broadly about the definition of story, you begin to recognize all the different “meaning exchanges” that can be peppered throughout a presentation to give it greater depth and diversity.

Be strategic in the selection of stories.

When you use stories in your presentation, it’s important that you don’t just tell any story at any time; you need to tell the right story at the right time. Because it’s not just storytelling, it’s strategic storytelling, used to compel your audience to think and feel in a specific way.

Use a story at the start of your presentation to personally connect with your audience and establish context.

Often when you present, you are walking into a room full of strangers who are likely expecting yet another “ho-hum” presentation. Starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defences and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you. In addition, if you’re really strategic about the story you tell upfront, you can set the stage for the core content of your presentation that is to follow, preemptively shaping the way your audience will think about it and, in the process, making them more receptive to it.

Use stories in the middle to exemplify and give meaning to key points you are making.

Shorter and more concise stories used throughout your presentation (such as an arresting image, relevant quote or illuminating infographic) can effectively bring to life the core ideas you are putting forward. It’s like you’re lobbing out a compelling concept to the audience and then quickly tossing them a short story to make that concept more real and tangible. That said, when you place pithier “exchanges of meaning” throughout your presentation, be careful not to provide too much of a good thing. Even the most brilliant presentation will start to feel tedious if every single point is followed up with a story (“Oh God, here he goes again!”)

Use a story at the end to provide one last inspiring thought before you finish.

Ending your presentation with a moving video clip, a poetic quote or another narrative can serve as the perfect cherry on top of the proverbial sundae. It’s your way of giving your audience one last moment of inspiration and understanding before you send them on their way: one final dose of meaning to connect back to and reinforce the key messages and ideas you have put forward.

So the next time you’re preparing a presentation, think about embedding some stories in it to make it more engaging, enlightening and meaningful. But also think about the purpose and intent of the stories you’re embedding, making certain there is a relevant point to each one. Your audience will connect with your presentation more, take more away from it and love you all the more for it.

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