Storytelling in presentations: 5 steps to success
Think storytelling is for bedtime and not business? Think again. Take your presentations to the next level; put down the endless slides and embrace the power of stories.
For as long as there have been humans, there have been stories. From Neolithic cave paintings to the binge-worthy boxsets of today, storytelling has always had an unparalleled ability to spark the imagination and shape the way we view the world. But the power of storytelling isn’t limited to books and the silver screen – its principles are a powerful strategic tool that can elevate your public speaking skills to new heights.
No matter what industry we work in, our presentation goals are universal. We want our audience to understand and remember our message, be inspired by our ideas and motivated to take action. This approach can’t be successfully achieved by relying solely on slide decks full of information and facts – it’s simply not how our brains work. By moulding your message into a narrative arc, we can tap into our hardwired susceptibility for stories and create the all-important emotional connection needed to achieve these goals.
Luckily, any topic can be turned into a compelling story! Business doesn’t have to be boring, whether you’re giving a performance report or pitching for new business. Whatever the topic, follow the steps below to incorporate storytelling into your public speaking and create an entertaining presentation that sticks with your audience.
Understanding the science behind storytelling
Storytelling may be an art, but how audiences respond to it is a science! Even at an elementary level, understanding this can keep you on track when developing your presentation content.
Think about your own memory. Do you remember more about the last novel you read or the last set of sales figures you glanced over?
The human brain is hardwired to remember engaging stories. This susceptibility is thanks to our limbic system, an unconscious part of the brain dealing with emotions, behaviour and long-term memory. By developing our messages into stories, we’re engaging this system, making our audience feel something about our ideas, helping our messages stay in their minds and guiding them in their decision-making processes.
Pinpoint what your story is and how you want your audience to feel
Before you can apply a narrative arc to your presentation, you need to nail down the message you are trying to convey. What do you want your audience to take away, and what do you want your audience to do? Once you know this, you can apply a relatable story that connects with your audience on an emotional level.
Personal stories often work best and will help you create a strong bond with your audience. Think about your own experiences, the journey you have been on and any anecdotes that support your message.
Myths and fables can also provide exciting storytelling points that will help your audience remember your presentation.
Search for stories that highlight the emotions and feelings of the event or topic you are discussing. The stronger, the better – it’ll create a more impactful and memorable experience for your audience.
Apply basic storytelling principles to your presentations
Storytelling in presentations isn’t much different from storytelling in a book. But you don’t need to be Charles Dickens to tell a compelling story! Several storytelling structures can help you build your story into a narrative arc that will connect with your audience.
Think about the last movie you watched. It likely included a relatable hero who needed to overcome a problem and cope with various challenges along the way. It’s a form of story that is applied to most media, no matter what genre. This storytelling structure can also be used in business presentations.
A simple three-part structure is perhaps the easiest to work with, but it is still incredibly effective! It will help you keep your communications flowing and create the suspense and drama your audience craves.
The introduction is where you want to include the hook to draw your audience into your presentation. It’s often helpful to have what you or your audience want the end goal of your story to be, why you want to get there and what made you decide to take initial action. You may like to introduce your central character – the ‘hero’ – and provide context around their personality and motivations.
Simply put, it’s the ‘who’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ of your story.
The middle is where the drama happens.
Here, you should illustrate the problems encountered, build empathy and show vulnerability. Create suspense by slowly building up to a climax – the more dramatic, the better!
Backing up your dramatic narrative with facts to illustrate the issues faced will help your audience understand the reasons for and consequences of the challenges experienced.
Describe to your audience the outcome of the conflict and the endpoint. You should include the results of the story, which can come in the form of additional facts. It’s often helpful to relate this to the beginning; was the solution the one you wanted, or – despite the challenges faced – was it something even better?
The key to the story’s resolution is to celebrate success and overcome the challenges; it will help inspire your audience to take positive action and influence their decisions.
Invite your audience to participate
The more interaction you offer your audience, the more chance they will remember your message. Incorporating storytelling in presentations can help with this.
Asking your audience to participate in a poll or share their own experiences is a great way to get them involved – but there are other, more subtle ways to encourage interaction.
Even eliciting a strong emotional reaction can be considered an audience interaction. When telling your story, change your delivery style to keep your audience engaged. Many public speakers find that saying something provocative that provokes a laugh, a gasp, or a shocked expression helps attract audience attention (but keep it clean and appropriate!).
Interaction is so much more than what we typically think it is. If your audience is visibly reacting, you’re interacting with them! Embrace it – it’s a sign you have their attention.
Back up your story with facts
Throughout this article, we’ve written a lot about elevating stories within your presentations. Incorporating stories doesn’t mean you lose the slide deck altogether!
In general, our decision-making process is governed by a combination of logic and emotion. Anchor your stories with facts to give them evidence and bring integrity to your presentation. The importance lies in not letting the points on slides become the centre of attention. It’s all about the conflict your audiences face and how your message can help them overcome it.
An example from ancient history
It’s helpful here to consider Aristotle’s “Three Means of Persuasion”. In his theory of rhetoric, Aristotle noted that purely logical arguments rarely won debates. To be persuasive in your communication, you need to connect with your audience’s emotions and connect with your audience as a credible speaker. Aristotle laid these out as the following needs:
Ethos: the character of the speaker (i.e., their values, beliefs and credibility)
Pathos: appealing to the audience’s emotions and elicits feelings
Logos: appealing to the audiences logical thought.
Aristotle would argue that a combination of all three will help you deliver a winning presentation. He’s a man worth trusting!
Who do you remember when you go to a dinner party? Usually, the person with the most exciting stories. You may have even formed solid and long-lasting relationships with them. Presentations are no different – and although they can be nerve-wracking experiences – they are nothing more than a heightened conversation.
Incorporating storytelling into your presentations is the difference between memorable and influential or forgettable and bland. Absolutely everybody has a story to tell – it’s just about finding it. A speech coach can help you develop and rehearse yours.