The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom, Part 7 – Using Stories to Bring Your Slides to Life

We’ve now covered three ways to use storytelling in a boardroom presentation: to introduce the presentation, to increase interest and to structure the entire presentation. We now cover how to use storytelling throughout your presentation, to bring a list of dry facts to life.

1. Turn a fact into a quote

Let’s say you want to make a point on your slide that customer loyalty is low and there are a lot of customers thinking about switching to the competitor. Rather than make that a bullet point, put a picture or silhouette of your prototypical customer with a speech balloon that says “I like your company, but the other company is offering me a discount to give them a try. I’m probably going to call them next time I have a problem.”

I’ve seen this technique used very effectively. In one example, a presenter was showing us the three benefits of cloud computing. But rather than just listing the benefits as text, she showed three photographs of customers with each talking about the benefit. I use this technique all the time.


2. Statistics

Most business slides are filled with charts and graphs. But data lacks the ability to create mental images, which is critical for the storytelling effect. People can relate to things if they can imagine what they look like.

For instance, in Made to Stick, the authors talk about scientists who had computed some mathematical formula so accurately, it was as accurate as “throwing a rock from the sun to the earth and getting within one-third mile of the target every time”. Does this statistic stick? Can you realistically visualize throwing a rock from the sun to the earth? Can you visualize how close one-third mile is? Are you able to get impressed by this level of accuracy?

But how about something more concrete: It’s as accurate as hitting a golf ball the length of a football field and getting a hole-in-one every time.

Both of these statistics state the same level of accuracy. But you can visualize one while you cannot visualize the other. It’s the same thing with your statistics. If you say “25% of our customers are dissatisfied” that’s just a statistic. It’s hard to visualize all of your customers and then divide them into two faceless groups. But it’s more compelling to explain your graph using language that’s easy to visualize, like “The average sales rep has 20 customers. This graph indicates that five of those customers can’t wait to do business with another company.”

3. Customer anecdotes and quotes

I conduct market research for a living and talk to customers about what they like, what they don’t like and how they make decisions. So I’m full of customers quotes and stories when I finish a project and sit down to write the final report.

Consider using customer quotes and anecdotes to make your points come to life. You can argue with a fact but you can’t argue when you hear it in the customer’s own voice.

4. Add people pictures

We relate to people. Some brain scientists argue that there are actually three parts of the brain: the part that recognizes text, the part that recognizes pictures and the part that recognizes people. Eye-tracking studies show that when we look at a picture, we are drawn to pictures of faces. In fact, our gaze is momentarily frozen on the eyes of people in pictures.

That’s why, whenever your slides talk about people, think about adding pictures of those people to the slide. I like to add silhouettes to represent the heroes in my presentations, rather than photographs. It’s easy to find photographs on the internet but they are often protected by copyright. But you can easily make silhouettes by finding a photograph online and then tracing it with PowerPoint’s drawing tool. Then you can add interesting gradient fills, drop shadows and other finishing touches. You can re-use this image on other slides to remind the audience you’re talking about the hero, not something abstract.

 5. Bleed immersive images off the slide edge

When you use pictures, try to find pictures that put your audience right inside the action. For instance, if you’re showing a picture of a business meeting, show it from the point of view of one of the participants, rather than someone watching from the back of the room. Help your audience see the world through the hero’s eyes.

There are many places online where you can find free high-quality images to use in your slides.

6. Real examples

One of the best presentations I ever saw involved someone who evaluated our product website by showing actual screenshots and demonstrating what the customer experience was like. It wasn’t pretty. They started by saying “Okay, I’m looking for an answer to a licensing question”. Then they showed us how they selected links to click on, which lead to another page loaded with links. After five or six clicks, they were back at the page they started. The message was clear: our website was a disaster.

Rather than simply summarizing the main points, consider having the audience experience a situation with you and then sum up the points. For instance, if you want to illustrate how slick a competitor’s mobile phone is, or how terrible your customer service is, don’t just list the details in bullet points but show a picture or play the customer service recording.

7. Video and audio

Some of the most memorable presentations I’ve seen have included video, especially of customers speaking. Executives love to hear things directly in the customer’s own words. Now that mobile phone have built-in cameras, and camcorders are affordable, you should think about capturing more video for your presentations.

For instance, if you’re going to a trade show, bring a camcorder to capture the competitor’s booth. Going on a customer visit? Ask if you can interview the customer on film. Record customers shopping in your store to illustrate how them make decisions.

I conduct market research for a living and try to capture customer comments on video. You can also capture their thoughts as audio and insert it into your presentation. The one tip to keep in mind when you play audio or video: tell the audience what to pay attention to. For instance, point to the person at the end of the table and say “notice how this man keeps interrupting to disagree when the speaker complains about our product.”

Closing thoughts

I’m not a believer in giving “formulas” for writing presentations as stories. The last thing we want is to attend presentations that are predictable and look like carbon copies of each other.

Still, stories are powerful and you will want to develop your own style. I personally find that business presentations do not bend easily to fit a storytelling structure. This series of blog posts is an attempt to provide some practical applications you can experiment with.

There have been several books written on storytelling and I encourage you to sample them all. There is no single book which really captures storytelling for business presentations. However, each book on its own is a great starting place for helping you develop your own unique style. 

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.

The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom, Part 6 – 4 Ways to Structure Your Preso as a Story

(Back to part 1). So far we’ve talked about how to use stories, or story elements, to introduce a presentation. But what about the rest of your presentation? Can you impose a story arc to hold your entire presentation together from beginning to end?

Some authors believe you can structure a presentation along a timeline with a beginning, middle and end. But in my experience, a true three-act play structure only works when you’re trying to introduce a vision for the future. Most boardroom presentations are not so grand: status updates, financial reports, marketing plan reviews and collaborative decision-making meetings. And the presenter is not always in a position to be making visionary recommendations for the future.

These daily presentations do not bend easily to story outlines. But you can still lift some of the elements of storytelling to make your entire presentation more cohesive and persuasive.

1. Classic Three-Act Play Structure

Motivational speakers use the classic three-act play structure. They start by talking about how things were in the past, then how things are today and then a vision for the future.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech follows this classic structure. He starts by talking about promises that were made to African-Americans when slavery was ended with “Five score years ago, a great American signed the Emancipation Proclamation”. He then moves into today: “But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free.” and outlines a number of promises that are still unfulfilled today. Finally, he moves into the most famous part of his speech, imagining a glorious future: “I say to you today, my friends,  I still have a dream.”

This structure, talking about your past and your current situation, then painting a vision for the future is appropriate when you are trying to introduce change and rally enthusiastic support. But it does not fit the everyday world of status updates, project plans and financial reports. Following are some other story structures that you might consider.

2. Case Study

There are times you can bend a presentation to fit a storyline if you think in terms of a case study – who is the case about, what is their problem, what is the solution. For instance, to present the new features of your product to the sales team, rather than presenting bullet points and product photos, you could create an imaginary character and walk them through their day, running into problems that get solved by the new product features.

For instance, I once conducted research to learn how university students choose a certain type of software. I realized their brand loyalty starts young and deepens over time. In my final presentation, I created a prototypical student, complete with a name and photograph, and talked about how the decisions they made in high school influenced the decisions they made in university and then into their professional lives. I supported the storyline with data but always going back to the prototypical student and transitioning through the presentation by aging the student.

If possible, give the main character a name and picture, to make them real to the audience. Enliven them with characteristics that are similar to the audience, such as their birthplace or favourite hobbies, to make it easier for the audience to relate to the character.

3. Cause-Effect Chain

Even if a pure case study doesn’t work, you may still be able to hold a presentation together by presenting information in a cause-effect order, the basic skeleton of the story format. Here’s how.

In my book, I teach business managers to break their deck into 3-4 sections based on a category. It can be any kind of category: price, place, product and promotion. Or North America, Europe, South America and Asia-Pacific. Or competitors, customers and channel. It doesn’t matter.

Then, say something specific about each category. What about competitors? What about the customer? What about the channel? Make a specific statement about each category.

For instance, say you can break your presentation into these three categories: 

  • Competition. We are losing share to small, web-savvy startups who compete on price and a slick user interface
  • Customers. Our customers are looking for lower-cost software alternatives available on the internet
  • Channel. More and more, customers are purchasing directly from the online vendors and bypassing intermediaries completely

Now, is there a cause-effect relationship to be found here? Perhaps you think customers looking for lower-cost alternatives are causing them to shop online, which is creating market demand for web-savvy startups. You could organize the deck as Customers – Channel – Competitors. Your overall narrative might sound like this:

We’ve always focused on the most profitable customers while price-sensitive customers either went without or purchased less than they needed. Now, rather than calling our channel partners, these price-sensitive customers are using search engines and going direct to the competition. This is attracting web-savvy competitors who are winning these forgotten customers with lower prices and an attractive online shopping experience.

Note that once you get this far, you may want to consider turning this into a case study approach with a hypothetical customer and talk about how her choices and shopping habits have changed over the past five years.

4. Theme or Extended Metaphor

When you open the presentation with a metaphor, you introduce a theme. This theme or metaphor could be revisited throughout your presentation as a thread that holds it all together.

For instance, in Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points he shows a presentation that opens with the inciting incident “We are facing an environment of unprecedented change” and uses a metaphor of a ship sailing through rocky waters. Even if you cannot adopt a story structure, you could continue that metaphor throughout your presentation, comparing the different challenges to pirates and sharks and hidden coral reefs. Different options could be compared to islands in the distance. Resources could be compared to the unpredictable wind. And so on.

Not all business presentations fit a storytelling format. For instance, in developing a marketing strategy, you may identify three trends you need to address to increase sales next year: new competitors, legislative changes, and not enough sales reps. But it’s difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to bend this to fit a storytelling format.

However, even in these cases, you can use storytelling to enliven key pieces of data. That’s the focus of our final blog article.

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.

The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom, Part 5 – Increase Interest with the Inciting Incident

In the last blog post, we discussed the first way to incorporate storytelling into your boardroom presentation by using a story to grab the audience’s attention and attune them to your message. We now talk about how to use storytelling to increase interest in your presentation.

Robert McKee is an author and workshop leader on the art of screenwriting. In his book “Story” McKee emphasizes the importance of conflict to create interest. In particular, he talks about the Inciting Incident – the thing that puts the hero’s world out of balance and starts him on the story’s path: life was good, then the enemy attacked, now we are at war. McKee emphasizes that, if your story lacks urgency, the number one thing you can do to improve it is to heighten the conflict.

Your presentation should also have an Inciting Incident: why is this presentation necessary, what is at stake if we don’t address it?

Without the Inciting Incident, there’s little urgency for the audience to act. If you feel the presentation lacks urgency, focus on strengthening the Inciting Incident. The bigger the conflict, the hungrier the audience is to hear your recommendation.

In Moving Mountains, author Henry Boettinger suggests several ways to frame the Inciting Incident. The following list is inspired by that book’s list. Experiment with several of these approaches to find one that feels right for you and will resonate best with the many stakeholders you need to persuade.

Nostalgia. Tell a story about the past and appeal to the audience’s pride for a glorious future.            

“Seven years ago, the Jones brothers opened their first mobile phone manufacturing plant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Since then we’ve been selling mobile phones and have succeeded because of superior handset design. Now it’s time to write the next chapter of our company’s history.”

Gathering Storm. Recite a list of bad news items and bring them together, like gathering storm clouds, to create a sense of anxiety and impending doom.   

“Sales are flat or declining in all regions, competitors are coming out with new handsets every month, our margins are being flattened by powerful channel partners. We need to do something different.”

Unpleasant Future. Talk with certainty about an unpleasant future if nothing is done.          

“One thing is certain: we will continue to see steady and accelerating market share losses for the next five years unless we invest in breaking open new markets.”

Crossroads. Argue that you have reached a fork in the road and you must make a decision. This works best if you can refer to a real transition that is happening.

“Handset sales are flat or declining in all markets. We just acquired Cosmic Mobile and our newly merged company must decide how to make the most of our combined strengths. We have two choices…”

Failure. Refer to decisions in the past that haven’t worked out. Avoid blaming anyone in the room because people have a way of rejecting ideas that threaten their egos.

“We invested in a new line of handsets last year but sales have not taken off the way we expected. We need to learn from our mistakes and try something new.”

New Development. Talk about how something in the environment has changed which creates an opportunity that wasn’t possible in the past.

“Most phones have 3G wireless access, which wasn’t available even three years ago! We’ve always been a handset company. But why can’t our handsets come with access to online software downloads like games, ring tones and business applications?”

Evolution. Talk about how the world is changing and you must keep up.   

“Five years ago we had three competitors. Today, we have nine. Five years ago email on the phone was a novelty. Today’s it’s a commodity. The industry has changed and so we must also change to stay ahead.”

Dare. Appeal to people’s pride by challenging them to meet a difficult-to-attain goal. It could include a competitor’s taunt or a comparison to a company’s past achievements.

“Our competitors say we’re behind the times. Are we going to let them steal our share? Or are we going to fight?”

Pay Your Dues. Show how some rule has been broken and now you are obligated to make amends.

“Handset sales are flat or declining in all regions and our shareholders are rightly upset. Their expectation is steady growth. We need to present them with a new plan that will achieve what we promised them.”

Adventure. Create a desire to take on a risky new strategy by talking about the potential treasures, and also the dangers, versus the status quo.   

“The mobile handset market is mature. We can settle in for steady three percent growth per year. Or, we can break out of the pack and invest in handsets with a completely new form factor. It’s tough to predict what form factors will catch on so we’ll have to be willing to experiment and have more failures than successes, but if get it right, it will mean strong and steady growth and pulling ahead of the competition.”

The Great Dream. Paint a picture of a utopian future that is bold and visionary and builds a strong desire to get there by any means possible! This works best when expressed by a high-ranking officer and appeals to basic human emotions. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an example.

“I imagine a future where our handsets stand for pride of workmanship and rewards for a job well done. I imagine college graduates, filled with hopes and dreams and ambition, picking our phone because it says I’ve arrived. I’ve worked hard, I’ve overcome every challenge, and I’ve arrived.”

New Information. You tell people that what they thought was true is not true, or you just learned some new information that changes everything.

“We’ve believed that a good price, good form factor and widespread distribution are all that’s needed to be successful. Well, we were wrong. Every mobile handset maker has that. We need something more.”

This is not an exhaustive list, but a useful starting point as you think about how to approach your Inciting Incident. There are many ways to introduce an Inciting Incident and you should pay attention to other speakers to learn their methods for introducing a problem that makes the audience starved for the answer.

In the next blog post, we talk about how to structure your entire presentation in the form of a story. (To receive an email when part 6 is posted, subscribe to this blog) 

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.

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.

The Secrets of Storytelling in the Boardroom, Part 3 – Three Secrets for Better Stories

In my last blog, I discussed the four benefits of using storytelling: clearer message, increased trust, more word of mouth and increased agreement. But what, exactly, is a “story”? And how do you make your story compelling?

There are various definitions of a “story” but in simplest terms, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Something happens, which causes something else to happen, which causes yet something else to happen.

But arranging your PowerPoint deck into a cause-effect chain is more of a story skeleton than a true story that can inspire a storylistening trance. When you are crafting a story, there are three main secrets of effective storytelling.

1. Have a hero the audience can relate to

All stories need someone the audience can relate to: a hero. Just adding a human element to your story moves it further away from logic alone and further toward storytelling. When you find yourself about to talk about SOMETHING, like market segments or international markets, instead try to talk about SOMEONE, like students, mobile professionals or software developers in China.

More tips for creating great heros: 

  • Make it easy for the audience to relate to the hero and project themselves into the story and see the world through the hero’s eyes. Mention values, personal traits or demographics that are similar to the audience.
  • The speaker may be the hero, such as telling your audience about a customer you met or bad product experience you had. In that case, don’t just TELL the audience what happened, but RE-EXPERIENCE the event including the feelings. Transport yourself back in time and you will transport the audience with you, where they can see the world through your eyes.
  • You may decide to make the audience the hero in your presentation. In that case, you will be trying to build a vision of what the world could look like. This approach fits best for motivational speeches or visionary speeches by the company leaders, but may work less well if the audience is more pragmatic and wants to review current status and discuss short-term plans.

Finding the hero is perhaps the hardest part of using storytelling in boardroom presentations, where discussions focus on issues and abstractions like “strategies”, “market segments”, “competitive threats”, “business metrics” and “financial performance.” Many of these presentations simply do not have a hero and cannot be told as a story.

Still, start by trying to identify the hero by asking “who” are we talking about, rather than “what” are we talking about. Finding the hero is the anchor point for moving from a logical argument to a storyteller approach. However, even if you can’t find the hero, there are still many ways to use storytelling, which we will cover in the rest of this blog series.

2. Conflict

A hero needs a goal. And when the hero faces challenges reaching their goal, it’s called “conflict”. Stories where everything goes according to plan are boring. Stories where the hero has to climb mountains, fight dragons and face his childhood enemy to rescue the princess are interesting. So when you tell stories, enliven them by saying what the hero is trying to achieve and what is standing in his way.

More tips on crafting story conflict: 

  • The best way to increase interest in your story is to focus on increasing the conflict, according to screenwriting expert Robert McKee. A story about a smart person getting his Ph.D. is not interesting because they face no hurdles. But a story about a homeless man with a heroin addiction pursuing a Ph.D. is interesting. He faces many challenges to completing his goal.
  • Even better, the hero should face some risk in pursuing the goal; that is, they stand to LOSE something if they fail. Perhaps the homeless man is hiding from the mafia. To pursue his Ph.D. he must come out of hiding and risk his life to pursue his goal.
  • Be explicit not only about what the hero is trying to accomplish, but why. This internal motivation — love, greed, fear, revenge — makes the hero easier to relate to because the audience has had similar motivations, or admires persons with those motivations.

Boardroom meetings are often about goals and challenges, so they are a natural fit for storytelling. But pay attention to highlighting the conflicts and risks if you want the audience to be a bit more attentive, and sprinkle conflict and motivation into all stories you use during your presentation.

3. Use pictures and picture words

The most important thing is to use pictures or picture words, to help the audience visualize the setting and become immersed in the story. People become transported into the idea through the hero’s eyes. When people experience the story internally, it becomes theirs and change happens effortlessly.

In one landmark study of the storylistening trance, researchers visited storytelling festivals and interviewed people in the audience who appeared to be (and later confirmed they were) in a storylistening trance. The one thing that most agreed on: stories they could visualize were the most engaging.

More tips on helping your audience visualize the story: 

  • Provide specific dates and locations, if possible, to help create an internal context. Did this story happen in 2010 or 1867? In downtown Seattle or rural India?
  • Use picture words, like “students” instead of “customers”, “computer” instead of “PC”, “men and women” instead of “voters”.
  • Use action words like “jump”, “chase”, “run”. These also generate mental images.
  • Encourage your audience to become immersed by saying things like “just imagine” and “let me paint you a picture”. Consider using pictures on your PowerPoint slides, or actual props, if the concept is too unfamiliar for the audience to imagine
  • If you use pictures on your PowerPoint slides, choose images that immerse the audience into the scene rather than images that put the audience outside looking into the scene. For instance, if you talk about football, show a picture from the viewpoint of the player — on the field facing an opposing player or inside the huddle — rather than a picture taken from the stands.
  • Add irrelevant details to your descriptions. For instance, instead of saying “mobile phone” say “pink mobile phone”. It may not be relevant, but adding irrelevant detail makes the story more realistic. One 1974 study found people remember 50% more when unnecessary details are added to a sentence.

Not every presentation can be told as a story, and especially in a business meeting. Boardroom discussions tend to revolve around abstractions like “strategies”, “market segments”, “market share” and “competitive threats”. Executives care about metrics and fact-based data, which often don’t strictly lend themselves to stories. So although these tips are based on what makes a great screenplay, not all the tips translate to a boardroom presentation.

Still, there are at least four ways to use storytelling, or the persuasive elements of storytelling, in a business presentation:

  1. Attention: to grab the audience’s attention and make it easier for your audience to understand and agree with your argument
  2. Interest: to create interest and desire to hear your message
  3. Structure: to structure the overall presentation
  4. Enliven: to enliven key points of the presentation

We now cover each in detail, starting with using storytelling to open your boardroom 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.