Keeping your audience engaged and interested — especially while presenting — is a struggle as old as time. You can jazz up your presentations with interesting graphics or videos, but that’s often not enough to maintain the attention of your audience. You’ll need stories to truly draw your audience in and keep them captivated. This is where adding storytelling to your presentations can make a real difference between engaged listeners and catching your colleagues napping.
Before you start thinking up astonishing stories to include in your presentation, let’s take a step back to first understand why storytelling is important.
Elena Valentine, the CEO of Skill Scout Films, sums this up perfectly: We enjoy storytelling because our brains are hardwired for stories. We feel more connected to each other through stories. As presenters, good stories allow us to be both an expert and a human at the same time.
“When we hear a good story, we can really place ourselves into that person’s situation,” Elena says.
Neuroscientist Uri Hasson supports this point through a number of studies he conducted at Princeton. He concludes that storytelling causes the neurons of an audience to sync with the storyteller or presenter’s brain. Therefore, you are likely to respond to the story with the same emotions the storyteller or presenter had when they experienced it.
Given the power storytelling can have on your audience, the next step is understanding how to best wield it and integrate it throughout your presentation.
Building Your Presentation on the Foundation of a Story
Think of your presentation as a narrative in itself. Try structuring your presentation similar to a typical hero’s journey. By following a story outline, you’ll take your audience on a journey just like Amy Purdy did in her TED talk. Amy walked listeners through how she lost both her legs to meningitis but later relearned how to snowboard to continue her professional career.
|Heroic Journey Structure||Amy’s TED Talk Example|
|Introduction||Start with all background information. Introduce your “hero,” i.e. the key message.||Growing up in a desert town, Amy always wanted to live in a place where it snowed. At age 19, she finally did.|
|Rising Action||You want to closely follow the intro with rising action. This highlights the main problem that the hero will face and ultimately have to overcome.||One day, Amy got the flu and was in the hospital on life support with bacterial meningitis. This ultimately led to her losing her legs.|
|Climax||At this point, the audience will be unsure of the hero’s fate. The story continues to reel them in.||Amy decided to get back on her snowboard…but not without a lot of difficulties, especially with the type of prosthetic leg she required.|
|Falling Action||We will begin to see progress being made on the hero’s problem, but it will not be fully resolved just yet.||Instead of trying to make a leg match her, Amy created legs for herself. With her new legs, she went back to school and started snowboarding again.|
|Resolution||Wrap up your story and highlight how the character was able to overcome the problem that seemed overwhelming at one time.||Since then, Amy has won two back-to-back World Cup gold medals. She also started a nonprofit for young adults with physical disabilities.|
Elements of Storytelling
Your story does not necessarily need to end with your hero winning a gold medal. You want your audience to be just as excited about your conclusion as they were throughout your entire presentation. This can be achieved by following the structural elements of a story.
Moving ahead, let’s discuss how you upgrade your presentation stories even further using these three storytelling elements:
Creativity plays a huge role in your presentation. What many people forget, however, is that you don’t need to be a master designer to be creative. Keep in mind that how you deliver and present your story can be incredibly impactful for keeping your audience interested and engaged. For example, in one of his TED talks, author Tim Urban uses stick figures and a monkey in order to explain procrastination.
A well-designed presentation can play a role in how your audience consumes the information. However, it’s not the most important factor. As long as your presentation is used to supplement your story and complement your delivery, you don’t need to include all the bells and whistles.
- Tip for Virtual Presenting: The easiest way to prevent your audience’s eyes from glazing over is to incorporate visual content you can interact with as you speak. This can be accomplished using tools such as Prezi Video for adding a few images, incorporating stick figures such as those Tim uses, or even animating some short bullets.
We’ve already touched a bit on the importance of authenticity. Epic tales allow space for human connection and emotion, yes, but personal experiences help take your storytelling to the next level.
In a commencement speech at UC Berkeley in 2016, Sheryl Sandberg shared, for the very first time, how she felt on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. Sheryl built up credibility and trust by confiding in the audience. This also allowed her as a presenter to feel more connected with them. While this element requires the most courage, it also typically generates the biggest reward.
Of course, your stories should be relevant to the overall point you’re trying to make. This too gives you room to reference your story throughout your presentation. Amy continuously brought up how she wanted to become a professional snowboarder. This desire motivated her to keep working toward her goal.
Having an overarching story or theme to constantly refer back to creates cohesion and maintains interest throughout the session. Another good example is provided by Shawn Anchor, who starts off his presentation with a story about a unicorn from his childhood. As he moves through his presentation, he keeps referencing the story and ties it all together at the end.
Beyond the Keynote
Great stories should not be reserved for formal presentations or TED talks. The principles listed above can be applied to your daily meetings, sales calls, product demos, and more. We still want our audience, no matter how small, to be engaged with what we are trying to say.
Presentation expert and speaker Rich Mulholland shares how he integrates the hero’s journey into every sales presentation. The hero — who he refers to as the “dragon hunter” — must wield a weapon to defeat a dragon and retrieve the treasure. In the context of a sales meeting, the potential customer becomes a stand-in for the hero. The dragon represents a problem in the world that your company can uniquely solve. The treasure is the opportunity that exists if they do. By uncovering your client’s problem, you can more naturally walk them through the story of your business. This approach humanizes your product while highlighting how it can be a solution.
The next time you’re working on a presentation, think about how you can incorporate a story or two into it. Adding storytelling to your presentation will keep your audience engaged, help them connect on a deeper level, and make the experience more enjoyable overall.