“Storytelling” has quickly become one of those business buzzwords, joining the ranks of “innovation” and “agile” — terms that are overused (and often misused) to the point of becoming meaningless. That being said, storytelling is actually a pretty important part of many of our jobs.
Since the beginning of humankind, stories have been the best tool we have for effectively delivering messages. And business runs on the delivery of messages (both internally and externally) — about why one product or service is better than another, how well we’re doing, or what we need to do to stay competitive. If we are good storytellers, these messages are effectively conveyed. If not, we subject the world to more corporate blather, waste people’s time, and are complicit in this vicious cycle.
I recently read the book Weekend Language: Presenting with more stories and less PowerPoint by Andy Craig and Dave Yewman, which focuses on how to elevate your verbal storytelling technique. The basic premise is that the types of stories you tell to your friends on the weekend (and the style in which you tell them) should be mimicked during the week, when you’re at work talking to colleagues, clients, or customers. Too often, this is not the case.
Now, the book is distinctly anti-PowerPoint, and I myself am not (that’s a subject for a different post). But I think there’s a lot that the book can teach anyone, whether they’re giving a presentation with or without slides. Here are a few of my favorite techniques, inspired by the book, but put into my own words:
Examples help bring your story to life
Using examples (or anecdotes) is a tried and true storytelling method, because they offer the ability to make your subject matter concrete, rather than talking in generalities. Examples also help your audience remember what the heck you were talking about in the first place — they are the illustrations that help connect the dots in sometimes dense or drab subject matter.
Here’s a good example (….of giving examples) to help hit this point home: Would you remember the technical specs or product features of a particular blender, or would you remember that it’s powerful enough to blend an iPhone?
Tell the most important part of your story first
We’ve all heard the aphorism “don’t bury the lede,” and nowhere is this more important than when giving a presentation. In the first two minutes of any presentation, your audience’s eyes, ears, and brains are wide open — they are hoping to be engaged. If you can convince them to care about what you’re saying upfront, they’ll be more apt to listen to your entire presentation. Otherwise, they’ll likely shut off and their attention will wander. So use this time wisely.
Clarity doesn’t mean “dumbing down”
Being clear does not mean speaking down to your audience (which nobody appreciates), nor does it mean using simple phrases that a 5-year old can understand. However, the overuse of acronyms and “insider talk” is a common (lazy) crutch in presentations. If your presentation does delve into highly complex topics or ideas, don’t assume your audience will automatically understand them. Take the time to define terms that might aid in understanding, and take the time to say things like “what this means is” and put things into plainer English. Doing this will also help with the pacing of your presentation.
Being intentionally clear will actually help you stand out from every other “commodity presentation” that often draws from the same well of jargon and catch phrases. Dare to be different in this regard.
Your presentation is more than just your words
Techniques such as “pausing, pacing, and projection” are tools in your storytelling toolbox that can help you create a sense of drama in your narrative. This is as true for giving presentations as it is for telling your 5-year-old a really great bedtime story. When your facial expressions, body language, and vocal energy work in concert, the impact is profound.
There is a beauty in the simplicity of these ideas, and putting them into practice is as immediate as you want it to be. If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, and having a digestible reference guide on hand for telling effective stories, please do buy the book!
Next on my reading list: Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte.