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.


Conflict or Curiosity: What drives a story forward?

Does a story need conflict? We’re taught that the standard story structure is Situation – Conflict – Resolution. And Hollywood has made good use of this story format.

But it’s not the only story format, and indeed, conflict is not even a necessary component. For example, I love this commercial, which I discovered over the Christmas holidays in Canada. It’s a good example of storytelling, not because it has conflict, but because it has curiosity.

Curiosity means raising a question for the audience and keeping them hooked: “Will these two people ever get together?”

Conflict doesn’t necessarily hook the audience. The Seattle Seahawks pounding the Denver Broncos 43-8 in the 2014 Super Bowl has conflict. But it doesn’t have much curiosity. We know how this story will end – the Hawks will win the game. And so it doesn’t hold our attention to the end.

Curiosity drives many stories, more so than conflict. Think about the great Hollywood movies of our time and you will see they are driven forward by an overall question:

Rocky: Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed?
Castaway: Will Tom Hanks ever get off the island?
Life of Pi: Will Pi and the tiger learn to get along, and eventually be rescued?
Bridges of Madison County: Will Francesca leave her husband?

We hear a lot about conflict in storytelling. Conflict is just a way to spark curiosity. But it’s not the only way to drive curiosity.

The Twilight Zone television series is a good example of how a story can be spurred forward by curiosity. Think of the typical Twilight Zone story: a man wakes up and finds his entire town deserted. Where did everyone go? Are they coming back? What’s happening? Not conflict, but curiosity.

Watch the first minute of this video. Are you hooked, even though there’s no conflict? What question is raised in your mind?

So keep that in mind as you’re building a story. What question will keep the audience hooked and drive the story forward to its ultimate conclusion?

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.


Top 5 Examples of Storytelling with Graphs

As part of writing my new book “Storytelling with Graphs” I’ve studied 50 examples of graphs that tell stories. Some of them are publicly visible, such as TED talks, newspaper infographics and YouTube videos. Some are not, such as business reports and presentations that contain confidential information.

Below, I list the top 5 examples of storytelling with graphs and below it a full list of the examples that are publicly visible. Which ones would you add? Leave a comment in the comments section. If you want to be alerted when my book “Storytelling with Graphs” is published, subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group.


#1. Wealth Inequality in America
This video, showing how wealth distribution is even worse than people imagine, does a great job of capturing our attention and then using animation and suspense to reveal the truth.



#2. Barack Obama’s Recovery Act
This has a simple and clear story structure: conflict, character, resolution.



#3. The National Debt Road Trip
Great use of metaphor to turn an abstract idea into something easier to imagine, and so talk about.



#4. What are the Wall Street Protestors Angry About?
Henry Blodget does a great job of bringing four characters to life: corporate owners, the top 1%, bankers and laborers and shows how corporate profits are sucking the life out of America. See the slide show on BusinessInsider.com


#5. Hans Rosling Ikea Boxes
Rosling is most famous for his animated bubble charts. But the Ikea boxes work even better at introducing us to the world’s inhabitants and showing how the world is changing, and will change in the future.


 The Full List
And here’s the full list of publicly-available examples of storytelling with graphs I reviewed for my new book, which should be available in October 2013. Enjoy!


Live/Animated Presentation
A Song of Our Warming Planet >>
An Inconvenient Truth  Video >>  | Transcript >>  | TED talk >>
Are The Poor Getting Poorer?  >>
Barack Obama’s Recovery Act >>
Do Women Earn Less than Men? >>
Economist (many videos to choose from) >>
Fiscal Cliff >>
Hans Rosling Ikea Boxes >>
Hans Rosling’s New Insights on Poverty >>
Hans Rosling Spread of AIDS >>
Hans Rosling Washing Machine >>
How Fast is Usain Bolt? >>
How Mariano Rivera Dominates Hitters >>
Income Mobility in America  >>
Inside Job  >>
LearnLiberty.org Videos (many to choose from) >>
National Debt Road Trip  (Matthias Shapiro) >>
Obama Budget Cuts, In Pennies  (Matthias Shapiro) >>
U.S.A. Inc.  >>
Visualizing How A Population Grows to 7 Billion >>
Wealth Inequality in America >>
What if 4 asteroids were heading toward U.S. in 50 years? >>


Slide Show
Carbon Emissions >>
Our College Crisis (Bill Gates) >>
What the Wall Street Protesters are Angry About  >>


Interactive Graph
Job Report, Diverging Perspectives >>
Obesity Epidemic >>


Static Graph
Napoleon’s March on Russia  >>
The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery >>
Titanic Survivors  >>
Traffic Fatalities >>

Great Stories Have Contrast, Not Conflict

Many very smart people will tell you that a good story has a structure: situation, conflict, resolution. And that’s ONE way to structure a story and the one that Hollywood depends on most. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.

But you don’t need conflict in a story. Rather, you need CONTRAST. That is, a change in emotion from one extreme to another: sadness changes to happiness, despair changes to hope, hurt changes to forgiveness.

Conflict is often used to generate the initial emotion (eg. boy loses girl) and resolution leads to the opposite emotion (boy gets girl back). But you can have story without conflict, as long as you have contrast.

I love this video, which is a good example of telling a story through contrast. There is no conflict, but the story starts with isolation and ends with friendship, reinforcing the main point: disconnect to connect. Notice how even the MUSIC uses contrast to reinforce the story, changing suddenly from introspective to upbeat.

This is often referred to a “taking the audience on a journey”. A journey from where to where? From one emotion to its opposite emotion. And you can use this same technique to structure your own presentations, whether they are business presentations, sales presentations, educational lectures or conference presentations.

In the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. takes you on a journey from despair to hope, from contempt to brotherhood. The journey is from one emotion to its opposite emotion.

We see this at work in Hans Rosling’s TED talk. Using Ikea boxes, he takes us on a journey from a mostly poor and needy world to a mostly well-off and aspiring world. Not conflict, but contrast.

That’s storytelling. The contrast of one emotion at the beginning with its opposite emotion at the end. Try that in your next presentation.

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.

3 Steps to Turn a Graph into a Story

What does it mean to tell stories with graphs? That’s a complicated question and one I plan to answer fully in my new book, called “Storytelling with Graphs”, due out this summer.

Storytelling with graphs means many things. At a minimum, it means finding the meaning in the data and why it’s relevant to the audience.

But storytelling is more than just finding the meaning, and in this blog post I want to give you an example of taking a graph and turning it into a story.


1. First, the data

We start with the raw data. In this case, I found a graph showing the population density by city size in both developed and developing countries. What’s the story?


2. Next, the meaning

Likely, you can’t see the story. That’s because data is dead. It’s just numbers. In order for it to come alive, it has to have some meaning to the audience. And especially, meaning that leads to an emotional reaction. What’s the meaning in this data?

Well, we see that cities are more densely packed in developing countries than developed countries. And even the smallest city in a developing nation is more crowded than the largest cities in a developed nation.

So we might focus on the problem of over-crowding in developing countries. To bring out the meaning, we need to

  1. Write the conclusion as the graph title
  2. Use a graph that clearly demonstrates the comparison between developing and developed countries. I might suggest two column charts next to each other. We aren’t trying to highlight the difference by city size, but the overall difference between countries
  3. Finally, we choose colors that have meaning. The original graph uses red and green, which are both Christmas colors and suggest negative and positive values. I’m going to instead use a sooty gray for the developing countries, to suggest the filth associated with crowded living conditions, and a bright blue for developed countries to convey a sense of cleanliness and oppenness.

3. Finally, the storytelling.

How do you feel now? Likely, you still don’t really feel anything but at least you are starting to focus on the idea the graph is talking about an important topic: over-crowding.

Now it has meaning, but it’s still just data. Abstract blobs of…something! Storytelling is a complex topic, but at the risk of over-simplifying, the foundation of storytelling is turning the abstract concrete.

Graphs are abstract: just colored shapes showing rising and falling, more and less. Stories are concrete: people, places, things!

What are we really saying in this graph and — most importantly — what does it LOOK like? We’re talking about overcrowding in cities in developing countries like India, China and Pakistan. We can find many pictures online showing what overcrowding looks like.

For instance, if you want to start a discussion about over-crowded cities in developing countries, you could start your presentation by showing the audience this picture. Ask them:  what do you see here? (Image (c) McKay Savage)

This is a bus in India, leaning to the side because its shock absorbers are damaged on that side. It’s common to see buses like this in India, leaning awkwardly. Can you imagine how uncomfortable it is to ride on a bus like this for one hour? Leaning to the side, with no shock absorbers?

What causes this? You’ll be stunned to see that some cities in India are so crowded, people cannot even fit onto the buses and trains. What do they do? Watch this video.



That’s right, they are hanging onto the outside! Day after day, the cities are so crowded the public transport system cannot fit them onto its seats. So men and women risk their lives and hang onto the outside of trains and buses. Constant weight on one side of the bus damages the shock absorbers and creates a permanent tilt to the buses. Even the trains are over-crowded, as seen in the terrifying video below.



Here’s a graph showing that the living conditions in even in the smallest cities in countries like India, China and Pakistan are more crowded than they are in the largest American cities!

Overcrowding is a serious problem. It can lead to housing shortages, slums, traffic congestion, unsanitary living conditions, health problems, unemployment, crime, pollution, social tension and other problems. What can we do to alleviate these problems in developing countries? (Image (c) jolseyshowaa)



How do you feel now? Likely, the images and videos are making you feel shock or despair or even amusement. More than the graph did.

Graphs are great at visualizing data and identifying patterns that suggest interesting stories. But graphs are not stories. Stories are concrete and have people, places and things. So, use graphs to identify the stories. But don’t let graphs tell the story. Use them to support the telling of the story.

Storytelling is more than making the abstract concrete. It also involves a sequence of events with a narrative arc, a hero who faces conflict and other things. But start by making the abstract concrete and you are on the path toward storytelling with graphs.

Pick up my new book, “Storytelling with Graphs”, when it becomes available this summer. Subscribe to this blog to be alerted when it’s available.

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.