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.


6 thoughts on “What If Your Presentation Won’t Fit a Story Structure?

  1. Presentation won’t fit a story structure?….This is less of an issue of having to engineer a story from the customer’s specific request, and more about the fact that the presenter lost control of the narrative at some point in the positioning stage. — More than likely, that presenter lost control because context wasn’t established and preserved early-on.

    Every presentation CAN & SHOULD fit a story structure. A simpler sequence for telling any story, particularly in business presentations, is to engage the audience/buyer in “Why” first, then “How”. More importantly (and as the eLearning student has painfully learned), communicate the “Why” early and often to ensure context throughout the cycle, — and in fact, the more “Why” the better, for maximum impact and audience comprehension.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Curtis. I like your focus on preserving the story early in the process, rather than trying to salvage it later.

      But can you give a specific example of how it fits in this case? For instance, the client clearly has a problem to solve: how to get more sales through channel partners. That’s the “why”. They just want someone to tell them how.

      Can you give us an example of how your technique might work in this case? Since we don’t have all the information, please make whatever assumptions you need, but I’d love to see what story you might develop from this situation.

      Bruce Gabrielle

      1. Bruce:

        Your student struggled to develop a story structure because he lost sight of the actual “Why”. I contend it’s not….”get more sales through channel partners”, as you suggest – I’d argue that’s the “How”.

        The “Why” emanates from the bigger picture. In your student’s case it may have been his company’s focus on top line growth, or competitive differentiation, market penetration etc. — preserving one of those themes would have provided the structure he desired because it would’ve placed his topic in proper context.

        Author Lee LeFever address this common issue in his brilliant book “The Art of Explanation”. To package and create stories he encourages readers to use simple imagery “Forest…THEN…Trees” (big picture first, then the details). Adherence to this mental model ensures any presentation can have a story structure – the critical success factor is communicating the “Why” early and often (if necessary), as I mentioned in my original post.

        1. Thanks Curtis. I’m going to check out Lee LeFever’s book.

          Let’s explore your example more. In this case, the client has come to the student with a problem “How do we get more sales through the channel?”. There may be a larger why above that — eg. we need to increase market share overall (your example). In this case, the how is to increase channel sales although many other options exist – lower prices, sell direct through a website, product line extensions. But they have selected increasing channel sales and that leads to the second how? And that’s where the student’s presentation came in.

          The message can be you should do X because Y – These 3 strategies will help you increase channel sales and so market share overall. I think that’s a fine story/message and I agree that the more the why is aligned with the company’s long-term vision, rather than short-term tactics, the more compelling it will be, especially to executives. You might introduce this “why” briefly at the beginning, to provide context to your recommendations. But now you need to structure the rest of the presentation.

          When we talk about the structure of a presentation, we are talking about the 3-4 sections and main talking points for each section. A story structure — past, present, future — is best, but not always possible or even advisable. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech roughly follows a story structure with Past (5 score years ago…), Present (But today the Negro is still not free) and Future (I still have a dream).

          So can you give me an example of what those 3-4 sections/main points would be if the story hinges around the why? You surely wouldn’t spend a full section articulating the need to increase market share and channel sales. The audience already knows this. They are primarily concerned about the how.

          Bruce Gabrielle

          1. Bruce:

            You and I may have different definitions of a “story”..and that’s likely the source of our disconnect.

            However, I remain convinced your student’s response for “how to get more sales through the channel”, etc. could benefit from proper framing of the explanation. This doesn’t require an extensive narrative or dedicated section as you suggest – just a series of simple statements starting with….”Before we address your specific concerns, let’s set context”…”Why are we here?”…followed by…”It’s obvious the market is experiencing dramatic change, here’s the evidence”…. Initiating the conversation with this structure inspires head-nodding and puts the presenter on common ground with the audience….THEN…”It appears these dynamics have affected channel sales”…. FOLLOWED BY…. “Here’s how we might address that issue (“THE HOW”).

            I can attest this re-introduction of the big picture, however brief, has been leveraged successfully in countless explanation/selling scenarios with our clients.

            Other reference material that supports this model is Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points”, where he extensively describes the ideal formula for setting the stage to package ANY story in ANY situation.

          2. Thanks Curtis. I like your approach, which is a good standard form to work from
            – starting with what’s changing that makes this issue timely
            – what affect it is having (what they stand to lose)
            – recommendation

            I also appreciate you are sharing this based on personal experience that it works. Much appreciate the comment.

            Bruce Gabrielle

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