Strategic storytelling in presentations: unleash your storyteller

Strategic storytelling in presentations is a powerful way to engage and connect with your audience.

Let me give you a example.

In my training and development programs I will sometimes start with a story. This is the story of a man walking through the woods.

He’s enjoying the sunshine, the scent of the trees, the sound of the birds. And as he’s walking, he hears another sound. He enters a clearing, he sees two woodcutters, with a big two-handed saw, trying to cut down a tree. But they’re not making much progress.

The man looks a while, and he can see the problem. He shouts out to the two guys, “Hey guys, I can see your problem, stop a moment and I’ll help you”. They shout back, “we don’t have time to stop, we have a big order to fill. We must keep chopping the trees”.

The man shouts back, “but your saw is blunt, stop and sharpen it!”. And again, they shout, “we don’t have time to stop, we have a big order to fill, we must keep chopping the wood!”.

The man shrugs his shoulders, smiles, and continues his walk through the woods.

I pause for a moment after I’ve told that story, and look around the room. I tell the participants that the training is their opportunity to ‘sharpen their saw’. To step back from the commercial pressures that they face, and spend a little time improving their performance, so they can go back to work and be more productive.

It takes a minute or two to tell that story. It’s time well spent. Using the story helps the participants to understand the value of focusing on the training to improve their performance.

And I should note, this is not my story. Sharpening the saw is one of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

The impact of strategic storytelling in presentations

Before Instagram, before the internet, before computers, before writing was invented, there were stories. Stories that were told around the campfire, to pass the communities’ collective wisdom from one generation to the next.

Because of this, stories tap into our psyche in a way that is more powerful than any other form of communication. Strategic storytelling in presentations can have the same impact.

We know this because of recent developments in neurology and brain imaging. In his HBR article, Why your brain loves a good storytelling, Paul Zak shares his research.

Enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity

It’s this character driven action, tension and emotion that is the essence of a good story. It’s so powerful that it triggers a neurological response.

Zak describes how oxytocin is released into the brain as the listener connects with the story. And oxytocin is very useful. It improves memory and recall, it triggers a ‘safe to approach’ signal and it enhances empathy.

Research done by Uri Hasson at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute takes this a step further. He discovered that personal stories cause the brains of both storyteller and listener to sync up. Hasson calls it “brain-to-brain coupling.”

“The listener’s brain responses mirrored the speaker’s brain responses.”

Storytelling in presentations is a powerful way to bind your audience to you and drive collaboration!

Strategic storytelling in presentations: when & why

Strategic storytelling in presentations starts with a clear, action-oriented goal for the presentation. What do you want your audience to do, as a result of listening to your presentation? There should always be a ‘to do’ goal. Otherwise, where’s the business value!

Then, develop the structure of your presentation

With your action-oriented goal, and a clear structure, you’re ready to explore how to use stories strategically in your presentation.

There are 3 ways to use a story in your presentation:

  1. As part of the opening, to connect with your audience.
  2. In the middle, to make complex content easier to understand.
  3. At the end, as a call to action.
Strategic storytelling in presentations - when and how

Each story might be 2-3 minutes long. If you’re using a story in all 3 locations in your presentation, that’s 6-9 minutes of storytelling. In a 30 to 60-minute presentation that is a good use of your time.

How to structure your story

As Paul Zak wrote, ‘enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity’.

That might sound complicated, but it’s quite simple. Here’s a classic story structure:

Strategic storytelling in presentations - story structure

The ‘sharpen the saw’ story that I shared earlier follows this structure, as do most good stories. Think of a movie that you like, or a book. You’re introduced to the characters, then a problem (or opportunity) arises, there’s action, and a result.

We connect with the stories because we connect with the individuals in the story, we share their struggles and triumphs, we experience the journey with them.

One of the reasons that the Star Wars franchise is such a successful movie franchise is that it follows this classic structure.

Here’s the original Star Wars movie, summarized:

Strategic storytelling in presentations - story example

To understand how this storytelling structure works in a presentation I have two examples of strategic storytelling, both from TED talks.

The first is Bryan Stevenson, as he talks about injustice in America. The first time you watch this I recommend you start watching it at 5.43, just when he finishes his opening story (it’s a longer story than most). See how it feels. Then, watch it again from the start, you’ll see how the story helps him connect with his audience.

He builds a profound connect with his audience through the stories that he tells.

The second is a video that I also share in my presentation hook article. This is a 3-minute story at the start of a 12-minute presentation. Take a look:

Again, an opening story to connect and engage the audience.

These examples of strategic storytelling in presentations set a high standard. None of my stories achieve this level of impact. Yours might not either. Don’t despair, our stories still have value.

Find your stories from your life’s experience

Most of your stories will come from your life’s experience. I have stories about work, about my social life, about my family, that I use in my training and other business presentations.

We all have experiences to share, and stories to tell.

And we can all select stories from our life that align with the strategic intent of the presentation we’re giving.

A good story should:

  • Have a nugget of truth at the center of it
  • Be something that you can tell with authenticity
  • Use the Set-up, Problem, Action, Result structure
  • Take the characters, and the listeners, on a journey (a dramatic arch)
  • Align with the strategic intent of the presentation

For example:

  • If you’re in Sales, talk about a customer, the solutions you’ve implemented with that customer and the impact on their life.
  • If you’re in Customer Service, talk about a person, their experiences and how you helped them.
  • If you’re in IT talk about how your work makes an impact, bring it to life by focusing on an individual that benefited from your work.

Bring the stories to life by focusing on a person, and their experiences. Bring these experiences to life with vivid, visual, and emotional language.

Build a portfolio of strategic stories

Once you start to find stories, take some time to practice them. As mentioned earlier, strategic storytelling in presentations should be quite punchy, 2-3 minutes. In half an hour you can practice a story 10-15 times!

Ideally, aim to build up a portfolio of stories that are closely connected to your daily work.

Craft and hone your stories so that you have them ready to serve you in future presentations.

Strategic storytelling in presentations: in summary

Strategic storytelling in presentations is a uniquely powerful way of connecting with your audience (and I forgot to mention, it can be fun too!).

Make sure you know why you’re telling the story. It should align with the goal and key messages of the presentation.

  • Use stories at the start of your presentation, to connect.
  • During your presentation, to make complex content easier to understand.
  • Or at the end of the presentation as part of a call to action.
  • As you’re crafting your story, use the Set-up, Problem, Action and Results structure. This will help you create the ‘dramatic arch’.
  • Don’t set the bar too high, we’re not trying to recreate Star Wars, 2-3 mins is fine.
  • Use vivid, visual and emotional language to bring the story to life.

Try it! Practice. Tell your first stories in a relatively ‘safe’ environment (a team meeting perhaps). Get feedback and cultivate your skills.