What If Your Presentation Won’t Fit a Story Structure?

A student in my eLearning program (Speaking PowerPoint Academy) posted an interesting – and important – question on the forums recently. It’s important because so many presentation “experts” talk about storytelling like it’s the easiest thing in the world. But is it really?

For confidentiality, I’ll paraphrase/disguise their question:

How do you create a presentation when the topics you want to cover don’t have a past-present-future structure? For instance, my client wants to know three things:

  1. What are the levers of profitability for a certain product?
  2. How can we influence our partners to gain access to a certain resource (eg. shelf space)?
  3. What are some non-financial incentives/motivations for our partners to sell our product?

Let’s take this step by step


1. Story or Not?

This common situation brings up two important points: although storytelling is the most powerful structure, 1) not every presentation CAN fit a story structure and 2) not every presentation SHOULD fit a story structure. Not every presentation lends itself to a past-present-future structure. And even if you can make it fit a story structure, you may be crushing some important points down that really need to be brought to the surface.

In this case, let’s start with the audience. They want to know:

  1. What are the levers of profitability for a certain product?
  2. How can we influence our partners to gain access to a certain resource (eg. shelf space)?
  3. What are some non-financial incentives/motivations for our partners to sell our product?

Now, for the sake of the exercise, let’s assume we have some answers to those key questions.

  1. Levers of profitability: brand awareness (drives customer preference/store traffic/higher margins), channel marketing dollars (better shelf placement), distribution (expands reach)
  2. How influence channel sales efforts: customer demand, co-marketing dollars, approach individual store managers
  3. Non-financial incentives: personal attention to store managers, manager’s emotional attachment to your product (packaging, brand, few customer complaints/returns)


Now is there a past/present/future structure here?

  1. Past: how we’ve done things before: poor brand marketing, no co-marketing dollars, not enough sales reps to reach out to smaller stores
  2. Present: Channel partners are indifferent toward us. Sales results are flat while competitors are racing ahead of us –
  3. Future: If we invest in better brand awareness, co-marketing dollars and more field sales reps we can grow to the next level

It’s a story, I suppose, but the important points are buried into the third act. And that’s one problem with stories – the audience needs to wait until the end to hear the punch line. But in business presentations, we need to START with the punch line. In addition, the client’s main questions get crushed into one section and don’t bubble to the surface. So let’s abandon the past/present/future structure and just lay out the main points we have.

  1. Profitability levers: brand awareness, shelf placement, inclusion in channel marketing, distribution
  2. Incentives to channel: customer demand, co-marketing dollars, personal contact with store managers
  3. Non-financial incentives incentives: personal attention, emotional attachment to product


2. Look for Natural Order

What we have right now is a topic list. And because there is no sequence to this information, it won’t hold together in the audience’s mind as anything more than a list. However, if we can impose some sequential order on it, then it can start to feel more like a story.

So, can we find a natural order? Is one thing more important because it will help with other things? We might argue

  1. First: brand awareness campaign driving customers into the store
  2. Second: co-marketing dollars. Once stores see we’re serious about driving them (and competitors) traffic, they will want to siphon more of that traffic over to them
  3. Third: increase distribution by approaching individual store managers: Once we have success stories to share, we have some useful information for other store managers

By finding a sequence, even an artificial one, we can begin to turn a random list into something closer to a story structure.


3. Make it Visual

But we can still do more. There’s a main difference between a story and a report: a report is something you observe; a story is something you experience.

Images form the substance of stories because it takes a fact and turns it into something you can see and feel. Facts are dead. Stories are alive because they are visual.

What visuals can we use to bring these facts to life?

  1. First: examples of what the brand campaign might look like (or what competitor brand campaigns look like), pictures of throngs of customers flooding stores/happy store managers
  2. Second: examples of what the co-marketing materials might look like, shelf placement might look like
  3. Third: Photos of potential store managers meeting field reps

Of course, you still need to present your facts as text slides. For all their persuasive power, pictures are not as precise as text. They work best together. Dedicate about 25% of your slides to pictures and the other 75% to text. Introduce the idea visually first, then elaborate on it with text slides.



Now we have something that looks like a story with a sequence to it. To recap

  1. Don’t bury the important points to force it into a story
  2. Instead, look for a natural sequence to the information. It’s similar to a story
  3. Bring your story to life with images of what it DOES look like and what it COULD look like


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.