Effective storytelling techniques for presentations [Real case study]
What’s the best way to master storytelling techniques for presentations than a case study from one of my last project?
One day, my COO comes and tells me that we’ve been contacted by a manager of a large multinational company, to support her for an important presentation.
I checked the brand name of the company and I had never worked for them before, meaning they would be a new challenge!
We organized a briefing meeting to learn more about the project.
She was a young, very smart professional who needed to give a speech to an auditorium of students in Italy. She explained that she represented her company for a specific cultural program and she had to give an inspiring speech to students based on her experience.
Speeches based on sharing our own experience are often tougher than you think. We believe that we can say whatever we want, and we need no preparation because, hell! We know our background, right?
It’s almost right. I’m not debating how well you know your background, but—except for those who are VIP or famous influencers—your background is often not enough to excite an audience.
The speech was to be given in Italian (local language), which I don’t love on presentations. Italian is a beautiful language but, in my opinion, English is much more effective on presentations. English requires less space than Italian and, nowadays, we are all used to reading in English.
In terms of timing, she was assigned 5 minutes, maximum. There were no constraints on visualization and design, and the only request was to make the slides inspiring, using the company logo on every slide.
Good storytelling resonates with the audience
Do you remember when Nanny told you stories before going to sleep? I still do. Wasn’t it magical, wasn’t it special? There was something great in her voice reading those stories. Stories made me dream and excited me. I was curious, I wanted to know what was going to happen next.
Now, let’s move with it, do you remember the stories she used to tell you? Do you remember your favorite story?
I don’t know your stories, but I’d bet she didn’t read you Stephen King horror stories. Why? Because you would never go to sleep! The real reason is that Stephen King stories are great and very famous ones, but they don’t fit with children’s needs
If you want to create a story that really thrives amongst the audience, you’ve first got to understand them. Who are them? What does trigger their emotions? Which emotions push them to act?
In our case study, the manager needed to talk to young students for a maximum of 5 minutes. She didn’t have much time to make her point.
Let’s focus on the students. What do you think could excite them? Think to their struggles, what could be a common student’s pain? Something they want to solve, something that touches them deeply.
We have all been students in life, so we could just think to our experience, paying attention not to be too specific. Remember, you need to find a common trait, to connect to the largest number of audience members as possible.
I’m sure some of you have already a solution in mind (there might be many solutions), but let’s pretend we are really working in this project (as I did), and we want to source some help.
We Google and we look for some famous speeches to students.
I’ve got 2 inspiring speeches to share with you:
- The Alan Watts speech named, What if money were no object?
- Steve Jobs’ speech at Standford University’s graduation ceremony (TIP: this one is a bit long, take your time to watch it after you read the article)
Have you seen the videos? If not, I recommend you take the time to watch them, because I’m sure you’ll love them.
Both videos are trying to give a unique tip to students who don’t really know what to do with their life: follow your passion.
Thinking back, I remember that when I was a high school student, I didn’t know which university I really wanted to attend. So, I started a bachelor degree, and I changed faculty after one year. I didn’t know if I wanted to work when I graduated, so I enrolled in a master’s degree and I changed faculty after a year!
Can you guess what happened when I graduated from the master’s degree? I didn’t know what to do! Why? Because I had to choose a job without really knowing what the job consisted of in the daily routine.
Isn’t this common to most of the students? I think it is reasonable to think so. Therefore, we might conclude that students need guidance. However, this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Everybody finds the path that bests fits him in life.
How can a manager help an auditorium of students choose their future in just five minutes? Well, she can’t, but she can do the most valuable thing to them: she can share her experience.
The students will value the experience, and will understand if it is something they might like or not. In any case, she helped them to learn more about an interesting opportunity or to exclude it from the possible choices.
This audience analysis is a good starting point to make an effective presentation. It gives you point of view on how to frame the story for the audience.
Storytelling isn’t telling stories
It’s time to make this story come to life. The young manager wrote her speech and shared it with me. I asked her not to worry too much about it, and to just write whatever she felt she wanted to share with the students.
She came back with the following script:
My life, during high school, was entirely based on playing tennis, my true passion. I performed very well, I lived for it and I achieved great results. I’ve always dreamt of becoming a professional tennis player.
However, when arrived at the point to choose whether to keep playing tennis and move to the USA, or studying, I wasn’t strong enough to say, ‘I’ll go to the USA on my own’, and finally I stopped playing tennis and I dedicated my time to study.
At a certain point, I even grew to hate tennis, so I took it out of my life completely and I didn’t even want to talk about it.
I graduated from high school, I left Sicily to enroll in a prestigious university in the north of Italy. I used to watch sport on television and, for a moment, I thought I wanted to become a sports journalist. I even asked a professional sports journalist to give me some tips, and I finally ended up as a young lawyer in a legal studio.
I didn’t like that job, I didn’t feel motivated. Then they asked me to join the tennis tournament of lawyers, and I decided to join.
I met a person who introduced me into a group of tennis players, who began inviting me to their matches.
By chance, when I decided to quit my job, one of these guys presented me for a job opening in the company where he worked, and I got the job.
I completely changed my life. I turned from being unmotivated, to eager to learn.
I believe that dedication always pays back, it only requires some time. Be patient.
You can find motivation only inside yourself. You need to be proactive and to think positively, otherwise your mind will take you down the wrong path.
Today, I wake up excited to go to work.
Did you like it? Not bad, huh?
So, we have understood the audience (previous paragraph), we have the story of the client, you might think we can proceed to design the presentation, right?
Extremely wrong! This is where most of the storytelling we see nowadays fails.
Why is that? Simple: because storytelling is not just telling stories to people! Nobody cares about you, people are not motived about your story as it is.
People love when you can talk about them (check the video below if you don’t believe me!).
VIDEO PETER COUGHTER
Therefore, having a story is a requirement, but it’s not enough to catch the audience. If you really want to excite them, you need to make it about them.
Hook the audience in the first minute, or you’ll lose them forever
Sequoia Capital says that during a one-hour meeting, there is a dramatic drop of attention in the first five minutes.
I will add that, if your audience is tired, you are not the first one to present or you present after lunch, for example, you’ll have less than five minutes of attention.
Therefore, you lose your audience in the beginning of your presentation. You need to play hard since the beginning, because this is the only way to get them through the presentation. You need to hook them.
I told you before that to make the story relevant to your audience, you need to make it about them. Now I’m telling you that you need to play hard since the beginning of the story.
Do you already see the solution?
Let’s go back to the client’s script and analyze it together.
I come from South of Italy, I attended high school there.
My life, during high school, was entirely based on tennis, my true passion. I performed very well, I lived for it and I achieved great results. I’ve always dreamt to become a professional tennis player. […]
This script won’t work, because it does not start from the audience’s point of view, it starts from the manager’s. You need to turn the story in your audience’s favor.
During the audience analysis, I shared 2 inspiring videos. The Alan Watts video is very powerful, though it’s not very fitting with the story of a manager. But the Steve Jobs one fits very well, so we’ll cut a very short part of it and we’ll use it as the opening.
Jobs starts by saying, “You can’t connect dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Remember, you are talking to students who are desperately trying to look at the future to find an answer to their doubts. They are looking for a guide or an inspiration that could help them make the right choice.
This opening is disruptive to them, it starts by suggesting they stop looking at the future, because the only way to make a sense of things is to look at the past.
This breaks the students’ expectations and generates curiosity. You might expect the students to wonder, “How can I make a choice in the present looking backwards, if it regards my future?”
The second sentence introduces the answer. “So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
Jobs talks about trust. There’s nothing rational behind it; It’s all about your gut, your karma, your emotions.
Isn’t it powerful? Isn’t it inspiring?
Jobs concludes by saying, “Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it guides you off the well-known path, and that will make all the difference.”
Finally, he states the importance of trust is crucial, for you to get the confidence to follow your passions.
At this point the video stops, and the young manager comes to the stage.
How do you think the audience will be at this point? I believe, that after this 25 seconds of introduction, accurately taken out of a long speech, they feel you are talking about them.
They can find themselves in those words, so I’m confident they’ll want to know more about the person who understood them and their needs. Now it comes the moment when she appears on stage.
The show begins, let’s start with the presentation
It’s time to get into the manager’s story. However, again, we won’t get into the traditional introduction of, “Hi, my name is, I did this, and I did that…” Instead, we start talking to the audience.
Presentations are a conversation with the audience. When you give a presentation, you need to connect with them, you need to talk to them.
Therefore, the first 2 things she asks when she comes on stage are:
She is linking to the video and customizing it into the audience’s specific needs. This sounds like she’s shown a general solution (the video), and now she wants to know more about how the students adapted it to their specific situation.
Do you see how the audience has always been at the core of the attention, even more than the speaker?
At this point, the introduction created the boost of attention she needed to introduce her story. However, she was not sharing her story in a pretentious way, she is sharing her experience to tell the audience how she tackled the problem.
This way of reorganizing the storyline puts her in a very powerful position and turns a selling situation (Manager: “I want to tell you who I am and why I’m good.”) into a sharing situation (Manager: “I want to share a possible solution, the way I did it.”).
Aren’t you curious to know the manager’s story now?
This is the turning point, the moment when the protagonist struggles and gets to the point where she needs to change.
This is the moment named “call to adventure”. The protagonist knows she must take a new challenge to change the actual situation, to feel good again or to solve her pain.
During the speech, it is crucial to emphasize this part and take a moment, before going to the next slide, which represents the solution.
The solution is to follow your heart, perfectly in line with Jobs’ video, and very inspiring. Moreover, the Jobs video reinforced that trust is what you need to be confident enough to really follow your passions, even when everything goes wrong.
Do you see how everything comes together and the big pictures seem to work perfectly? The story without the video would never have been the same.
The final call to action is the same as Steve Jobs says in the video. The manager leaves a message of hope.
What’s good behind this way of telling this story is that she is perceived as more approachable and close to the audience.
Visuals must be consistent with your story
If you go back and scroll the slides once again, you’ll notice that I’ve made a set of very strategic choices, which allows me to create a presentation that fits with the story and allows the manager to engage the audience.
I used beautiful, full-screen images because nothing more than images conveys emotions so well. However, I didn’t just choose stock pictures, I used her own pictures to make the presentation more personal, and to allow her to better connect with the audience.
Being on the slides and saying she lived the problem gives credibility to her story, which is fundamental to keep the audience engaged (If the audience doesn’t trust you, they won’t listen to you).
Red is a powerful color, and it is also the branding color of the client company, so I decided to get rid of all the other colors, keeping the presentation professional and light using just red, black and white.
She says that she shared the same pain as the audience, and that the only way to relief it is to follow your passion, which is what she did and it worked for her.
Being more approachable, she has a much better chance to engage the audience and make her messages resonate with them.
Summarizing – Effective storytelling techniques for presentations
Storytelling is a very powerful tool to create an emotional connection with your audience. Storytelling can turn a boring script into in an inspiring presentation.
However, you need to remember that storytelling is not just telling stories, it’s more. The content structure (what to say first and what to say afterwards) makes the difference.
Focus on your audience, understand them, and create a presentation for them.
Craft your stories under their point of view and you’ll be sure that your stories will resonate with the audience, and eventually inspire them.