The Presenter as Storyteller (Part 2)

In our last article (“Can a Good Story Save a Boring Presentation?”), we suggested that you try to add stories to enliven otherwise dull, data-driven technical and financial presentations (the kind where the audience wants “Just the facts, ma’am”). Individual stories about the folks who actually produced the data you’re reporting on can be a great way to make your numbers more human (and therefore more interesting).

Here’s another idea: Why not try structuring your entire presentation as a story? Instead of the usual beginning, middle, and end structure (or the opening, objective, main points, conclusion, and close structure that we describe in Tips of the Tongue), consider designing your presentation to encompass these classic storyline elements:

  1. Generating Circumstance
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Denouement

The Generating Circumstance sets the conflict in motion. It is the reason why you are making the presentation in the first place. In a classic story (such as The Hobbit), it is the arrival at Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit hole of the mighty wizard Gandalf, who tells Bilbo that he must immediately set off on a mission with thirteen militant dwarves. In a technical presentation (such as a progress report on the facility expansion in Fab 11), it might be a quick overview of when the need for the expansion became apparent and when the decision to expand was made. In a financial presentation (such as projected sales results based on new governmental tariffs), it might be a reminder to those present of how the company was doing this time last year, before the tariffs went into effect.

The Rising Action includes all the discrete events that led to today’s report (or, in Bilbo’s case, led to his arrival with the dwarves at Smaug’s mountain). In a technical report, it might cover the various milestones in the expansion project’s progress. In a financial report, it might consist of a geographical comparison of increasing and decreasing international markets.

The Climax is where it all comes together. Bilbo discovers (and reveals) Smaug’s weakness. The expansion project is successfully completed (or fails miserably); future sales will stage a comeback after an initial period of tariff hiccups (or the company will go bankrupt). (Not all stories have happy endings!)

In the Denouement (from the French, meaning “to unknot”), all the loose threads are tied together. Bilbo goes back to the Shire; the expansion project affects all parts of the production process in significant ways; future profits will be generated from new and innovative sales channels. The question, “So what do we do now?” will be answered.

In his New York Times article, “This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)” (May 22, 2007), Benedict Carey declares, “Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find.”

Using a narrative construction for your entire presentation might be just the ticket to engage and maintain your audience’s attention, no matter how many boring blueprints or bar graphs you need to show them.

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form,” said French film director Jean Luc Godard. Amen to that.



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