Almost anyone can deliver an effective presentation. Within as little as several hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from ineffectual to coherent, and even inspiring. We think a speaker should take their audience on a journey from understanding to new insight.
So if you’re going to take an audience on a road trip, the first important decision you have to make is, where do you start? What does this audience already know and how do you frame up your speech so they will care about what you have to say? The second decision you need to make is where do you end the journey? There’s no need to buckle your passengers in for a cross country trek; the shortest distance between these two narrative points (the beginning and the end) should lead them to new thoughts and feelings. It’s a success if they ponder the story later, perhaps even changing their minds or influencing their beliefs.
Okay, there, I’ve written it, the word story. We know that everyone is telling you that a speech, any communication really, is more effective if you tell a story. Is it really? Don’t those financial analysts just want to know the facts? Sure, they like facts, but the fact is, humans are hard-wired to respond to stories. Smart people like anthropologists and neuroscientists tell us that storytelling is central to our existence. It’s common to every known culture.
You’ve seen the speaker support in the caves at Lascaux right? It’s very easy to imagine the VP of Hunting standing in the glow of firelight, describing the harrowing and successful achievements of the spring quarter. There’s a considerable amount of detail, yet the central story, the drama of the hunt (and his simple, luminous images) is what keeps his audience transfixed in the telling.
Our brains detect patterns in visual forms and allow us to recognize objects and people; in the same way, we make sense of information. A 1944 study of 34 college students discovered that humans detect story patterns, even when they don’t exist. These students were shown a film of two triangles and a circle moving around a stationary rectangle and asked to describe what was happening in the film. One (very literal subject) described this as geometric shapes moving on a two dimensional surface. All the rest came up with very detailed stories. They saw the circle as a woman, the triangles as men and created all kinds of narratives for their movements.
The bottom line here is storytelling works when it comes to inspiring people, even changing behavior. (Read Brian Boyd’s book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction) Narrative is essential if you want your message to be delivered and your audience to take action—sell more, buy more, give more.
So, are we able to convince our mostly technical clients to incorporate storytelling into their presentations? Sometimes. As we begin talking about a presentation, a speaker always wants to cover too much ground, take their audience on a journey that will require a couple of rest stops, too many facts, and risk missing the main message and reason for the trip. We try to get presenters to start with the story, not the slides, and sometimes we are successful.