How to liven up your presentation with stories

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Note: This article is one of a series originally written by Andrew Lightheart in the run-up to TCUK 2014.

Andrew LightheartThere is one thing you can do which will make your presentation a whole heap more engaging, and it’s not too hard.

Before I tell you how, let me tell you when I notice this the most.

When I MC conferences, I get to hear a lot of presentations.

And you know what?

I can draw a line straight down the middle between the boring presentations and the interesting ones.

The one most reliable factor that allows me to do that?

Stories.

Boring speakers don’t tell stories.

Interesting speakers? Tell stories. And not apocryphal stories. Not other people’s stories. Stories from their own life. Often small, everyday, recent stories.

One day I’ll tell you about my theory of the hierarchy of story, the worth of different types of stories in the context of a presentation. Suffice it to say for now that recent stories from your life have the potential to get people very engaged.

As human beings, we hunger for stories. So much of culture is built around story. Think about it. Novels. Movies. TV series. Stories are what we pay good money to read and watch.

Plus it’s the way that informal information is passed between people, and it’s what we hear from each other several times a day.

~ How was your weekend? Leads to: story.
~ How did your talk go? Leads to: story.
~ Did your Mum have a good time when she came to visit? Story. (No, really. Ask me. Bless.)
~ What do you think of the new guy? Story.
~ How was your meeting? Interview? Date?

Story.

Stories get people engaged like no other tool.

So if you want to get people involved in your presentation without you having to resort to silly gimmicks, you’re going to need to go mining your life for stories.

Don’t think you have stories to tell? You are mistaken.

Here’s a way to make this hard: Try and come up with ‘interesting’ stories. Or ‘funny’ stories.

WRONG!

First off, people don’t need your stories to be either interesting or funny. They need to them to be useful and appropriate (more about that in a minute).

Secondly, once you listen to ordinary people telling thousands of ordinary stories (as I have over the past ten years), you realise that what the speaker identifies as a ‘boring’ story is often what listeners identify as interesting. (Also, many people, at a dinner or a party, for example, who think they have an interesting story… Hmmm… “It’s quite an interesting story, actually…” SNORE.)

Stories (well-told, and I’ll help you with that aspect in a few weeks) hold people’s attention like little else.

There are two ways you’re going to use story: evidence and analogy.

Stories are very convincing evidence.

I used to teach managers job interviewing skills (as in, how to run an interview, not how to attend one). If you want to choose the right person, what you’re looking for again and again is real examples for when the person has used the skill in earnest.

Anyone can spout keywords (“I’m a team player.” “I’m a proactive problem-solver.”) But that kind of thing is easy to fake, especially if the halo effect kicks in because the person is nice-looking or charismatic.

It’s much harder to fake experience. When you ask about a particular example of when they actually were a team player, or proactively solved a problem, you can see that they really mean it.

All the time as an interviewer, you should be asking ‘Can you think of a time when you did that? What’s an example of that?’

It’s similar when you are doing a presentation. You’ll want to show the benefits of what you’re recommending. The most persuasive evidence for that is when you talk about how you benefited from it, or, maybe, when you helped someone else benefit from it..

At times, you’ll also want to warn people away from certain courses of action, so you’ll need stories of when you screwed up because you didn’t follow this advice.

If you want to show that you really know what you’re talking about, talking about a time when you did that is the most persuasive evidence.

If you share your experiences, people remember you as an experienced person.

Stories make very effective analogies.

There are times when you have to make your complex topic simple. One way is an analogy – an image from your listener’s life that brings out important points in a way that helps them understand.

If you can discuss something that happened to you that shares the qualities you want people to identify in your topic, they can’t help but find things clearer.

(Don’t worry – I’ll give you some clues when we return to stories in a couple of weeks about how to use stories as analogies in a powerful way.)

Story-mining.

You’re going to have to go back through your life, thinking of stories.

A really good way is to think of problems you’ve solved.

1. Get a piece of paper and draw a line from your birth until now. Mark on significant events – moving house and jobs seem to be significant milestones which perhaps remind you of other changes in your life.

For example, I might have

~ moving to the States when I was a kid
~ moving back to UK
~ first house after school
~ college
~ London
~ IT trainer
~ moving in with Stuart
~ training manager job
~ moving to Singapore
~ work in Hong Kong and China
~ moving back to live with Mum-in-law
~ moving to Birmingham.

2. Then go through each of those areas and do a bit of light brainstorming about problems you encountered and solved. This is not the time to be going over traumatic times, but just thinking: What issues did I face and how did I get through to the other side?

Off the top of my head, when I lived in Houston as a kid, they thought I had a speech defect – I didn’t pronounce my ‘r’s correctly. Fatherrrr. Motherrr. So they sent me speech therapy, effectively to correct my British accent. If I turned up and worked hard, I got a free book every couple of weeks, so my parents let me keep going. Free books, right?

When I was a training manager, for instance, I had to train all the staff in all communication topics. I very quickly learned how to research a topic and put together an involving learning session using adult learning principles.

Erm… When we first started working in Hong Kong and China, I had to adapt to speaking in global English, not my British version.

You’ll quickly see that at each juncture, you can come up with five, ten, twenty different challenges you faced and (evidently!) got through.

Caveat: This process doesn’t give us stories yet.

Stories that grab people’s attention contain a couple more ingredients than we’ve listed so far. In a couple of weeks, when we’re nearer to planning the details of your talk, I’m going to tell you how to select and tell stories that serve your purpose.

Do the exercise above (and maybe blutack it up and add to it over the next couple of weeks) and you’ll see that story-finding is a breeze.

You’ll never find it difficult to find interesting stories ever again.

For now, go through your life timeline, identify major milestones, and list the challenges you moved through and problems you solved (both big and small) and we’ll come back to it later.

I promise you, you’ll look back on this as a major step towards becoming the kind of speaker you want to be.

+++++
Andrew Lightheart, the author of Presentation Now: Prepare a perfect presentation in less than 3 hours (Pearson 2015) is the UK’s leading complex-topic presentation coach. This article is one of a series Andrew wrote in the run-up to TCUK 2014 where he gave a workshop on presentation planning. If you ever want some one-to-one help with presentations, check out andrewlightheart.com. Andrew is also an unrepentant overtweeter: he’s @alightheart.

Check out all the articles in this series:

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