Can a Good Story Save a Boring Presentation?

If you have read any of our books or articles about public speaking, or if you have taken one of our presentation skills classes, then you already know that we believe the answer to this question is a resounding YES!

Which leads us to another question: Can EVERY presentation benefit from the inclusion of a story, or is it only certain kinds of presentations that can do so?

To answer this second question, let’s begin with a short-answer quiz. We’re going to list three different kinds of presentation topics, and you (and we) will then decide on a story that could be used to illustrate that topic. Ready?

Topic #1: Love Conquers All.

Story: The inspiring tale of a biracial American woman who worked hard to establish herself in a successful career, and then gave it all up to marry a prince of England, while insisting that she be allowed to fulfill her desire to make a difference in the world.

That was an easy one, eh?


Topic #2: Color Blind or Color Brave?

[Note: This is the actual title of a TED talk by finance executive Mellody Hobson, in which she persuades us that “speaking openly about race makes for better businesses and a better society.”]

Story: “My mother was an unbelievable role model. She was the kind of person who got to be the way she was because she was a single mom with six kids in Chicago . . . . She taught me so many lessons, but the most important lesson was that every single day she told me, ‘Mellody, you can be anything.’ And because of those words, I would wake up at the crack of dawn, and because of those words, I would love school more than anything, and because of those words, when I was on a bus going to school, I dreamed the biggest dreams.”

See? In a persuasive presentation like this, a personal story just kicks the whole thing into high gear, creating empathy with the audience and sustaining their interest in what you have to say next.


Topic # 3: Fourth Quarter Regional Sales Update

Story: ???

Ay, here’s the rub. Often in our presentation skills classes, students will say to us, “We love the idea of adding stories to make our presentations interesting and persuasive, but what if the subject matter is just dry statistical information? And what if upper management wants “just the facts, ma’am” and specifically tells us, “Don’t waste our time”? How do we incorporate stories under these conditions?

We agree that including a story about how inspired you were by your “most unforgettable character” in a 20-minute briefing on the status of the Veeblefetzer expansion might not be strictly relevant (or appreciated by your audience). But does this mean that technical professionals are doomed to deliver boring, story-less presentations?

Not necessarily.

Whatever the actual results of your status update, whether encouraging, discouraging, or just more of the same, remember that real people are responsible for the findings. What story would they tell if you asked them about their work? Perhaps the uptick in sales in the fourth quarter might be attributable to Sam in the packaging department, who discovered a better way to bundle the product’s composite parts. Briefly tell his story. Or maybe the downturn in sales stems from an increased push by a new competitor, and you talked to Shirley, who has some great ideas to kick start a new marketing campaign. Tell her story.

It takes successful people to make a successful company. All of these people have stories to tell, and their stories can become yours.

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