The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom – Part 4, Three Ways to Open Your Presentation

(Return to part 1). One of the best examples of using storytelling in front of a skeptical business audience came in 2002 in a business school lecture hall at the University of Chicago. It was an MBA class on entrepreneurship and each group of 3-5 students pitched their business idea to a panel of cool venture capitalists. Their approach tended to follow this logical path: the market size is X, if we can get 3% of that market our revenue will look like this in 3 years.

Then our instructor Jim Schrager, a long-time veteran of the VC world, stood up to model the correct way to pitch a new business idea. He stood in front of us in silence for about ten seconds, while we squirmed, waiting for him to begin his business pitch.

He opened his mouth and began to tell a story. “In 1998, the Vice President of a global technology firm was side-swiped on the highway by a semi truck, sending him into a concrete bridge piling at 70 miles per hour. His car was destroyed, his wife died instantly, but he miraculously survived. Paramedics pulled him from the twisted metal of his shattered car and rushed him to the nearest hospital, bleeding profusely. The doctors and nurses raced him into surgery. But it was too late. They could not stop the bleeding and this wealthy business executive died.”

Shrager paused and looked around the room, which was hushed. Then he went on “If the hospital had our product, that man might still be alive today.”

Then Schrager went on to describe the product, the patents, the several hospitals where the product was in use, the inventor’s credentials and so on. Everyone in that classroom felt humbled. We had focused on impressing the investors with the market size. Schrager used a story not only to help the potential investors understand the product, but to turn them into humbled admirers before he even talked about the revenue potential.

I will never forget how powerful was that example, and it illustrates the incredible magic of a story to help an audience see the world through the hero’s eyes. Even in a boardroom presentation, you need to start out by grabbing the audience’s attention and getting them on your side. While your presentation may not lend itself to such a powerful and tragic story, there are at least three ways you might consider using a story to begin your presentation:

1. Springboard story. 

Stephen Denning, author of The Leaders Guide to Storytelling describes a springboard story as a true story that illustrates a problem you are facing and introduces the solution to that problem. The Schrager example discussed above is an example of a springboard story.

Customer case studies are an excellent source of springboard stories. I conduct market research for a living, including interviewing customers, potential customers and channel partners, to learn how they make technology purchasing decisions. I am always on the lookout for good customer stories of the challenges they face and how they are solving those problems. When I present the final results to clients, I will often begin by using a customer story to illustrate the problem and the solution. Talk to your sales people; they are a great source of customer stories.

According to Denning, it’s best to include both the problem and the solution in the springboard story. Problems make listeners sour, but solutions keep people positive and their confidence in you high.

2. Analogies and metaphors.

An analogy or metaphor is a similarity between two different things, like the similarities between a bird and a plane. This is how human beings learn; we make generalizations from one thing and apply them to other things. This happens naturally and automatically.

We not only see similarities; sometimes we actually transfer traits from one thing to another. For instance, we compare a first kiss to a sports car and automatically transfer the excitement and newness of the kiss to the car, even though the similarities are not real.

And analogies work. For instance, in a 2009 study at the University of British Columbia, researchers showed advertisements for sports cars, massage chairs and mountain vacations. Some ads contained straightforward features and benefits. Other ads used analogies, comparing the sports car to a first kiss and the massage chair to a hot tub after a hard day of skiing. The result: audiences were about 50% more interested in products when the ads used analogies, because they generated positive memories and emotions that transferred onto the advertised product. In a 2004 study at Northwestern University, people falsely believed facts were true of one story when they read them in a similar story.

A great example of using an analogy is how Microsoft describes the importance of cloud computing. For those who don’t know, cloud computing means using software (like PowerPoint) through a web browser instead of as an application on your computer. To explain the importance of cloud computing, Microsoft begins with an analogy of how the first automobile was introduced in the early 1900’s and no-one could see its potential to change the world. Cloud computing is like that; we can’t quite see how it will change the world, but it’s inevitable.

Consider opening your presentation with an analogy when presenting:

Complex or new ideas: Familiar analogies help audiences understand difficult-to-imagine ideas. For instance, to explain cloud computing to an unfamiliar audience, you could use the analogy of how we used to send physical mail to our loved ones. Now, we send email. We don’t need the physical paper and ink anymore. Same thing with software. We don’t need to load a physical CD into our computer; we can just log into software through the internet.

Controversial ideas: Some ideas go down easier after hearing an analogy. For instance, perhaps you feel your business is being threatened by internet competitors. Rather than argue and defend this claim, you could start out by talking about the decline of telephone books, maps, newspapers and TV Guide. Then, when the analogy has been made, you talk about how your business is being caught in the same trends.

A decision-making meeting: Analogies can help people see a problem in a new way and generate creative new solutions. For instance, if your company is losing sales to a competitor who tells lies about your product, does that remind you of anything? How would you deal with a schoolyard bully? Or a computer hacker? Or a slanderous news reporter? By recasting the problem in the form of an analogy, you can brainstorm solutions you may not have thought of.

The analogy should be a true story, not a fable or fabrication. One study at the National University of Singapore found story ads were more persuasive than logical ads. But when the audience thought harder about the story ads, only the stories that seemed true were still persuasive.

Analogies can be found by reading the news, history books, or just paying attention to common situations around you. Sometimes, analogies suddenly hit you like a bolt of lightning when you’ve been thinking about it long enough. When you have a complex or controversial idea, ask yourself “what does this remind me of?” Then brainstorm as many ideas as you can, both good and bad ideas.

3. Use an image as a metaphor.

A metaphor is not a story, but like an analogy it can activate stories stored in memory. And just like analogies, metaphors make us see the new situation as similar to the metaphor, including the emotions and other characteristics of that metaphor.

As an example, I once attended a business presentation to learn about different licensing programs. Licensing is usually a very dry subject, riddled with legal rules and conditions. But this presenter, rather than show a table comparing the different licensing programs, showed three 7-11 soda cups; small, medium and the Big Gulp. We now had a familiar metaphor to use as a placeholder while the speaker explained the three licensing choices.

You can also invent a metaphor, such as describing how a new technology is frightening to customers. Cloud computing is a new concept among technology leaders, and they are concerned what happens when someone else is in charge of their company’s private data. To introduce this to an audience, you could create a picture of customers standing at the edge of a cliff and being invited to step out onto a fluffy cloud. This metaphorical image conveys, in ways words cannot, what a big step it is to step off solid ground and into the unknown. The audience creates their own internal story, aided by the hero (customer looking over the edge), conflict (uncertainty of stepping onto a cloud) and imagery. 

This is at least three ways to use the power of stories to begin a presentation. In the next blog post, we discuss one of the most important storytelling features to introduce conflict and so increase interest in the rest of your presentation – the Inciting Incident.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.