Then, one of the keynote speakers transformed the atmosphere. He said he was going to tell us stories. Almost instantly, I noticed a change in the room. Those who had been slumped in their chairs straightened up; those who had been idly flicking through the handouts quickly put them down. The speaker had our undivided attention.
He used a few slides: they were photos that helped him tell his business stories about inward looking clients who then had an epiphany; bold clients who let his firm reconfigure their offices to encourage creativity; disillusioned clients who had lost touch with their customers while chasing profits.
His session was lively, poignant and funny. But, more importantly, this was the one session delegates were still talking about over lunch.
Telling stories in business presentations, no matter how dry the subject matter, will bring your presentation to life. They demonstrate how you connect with your subject and help reinforce the point you are making. Stories add an authenticity that both gives you confidence and gives your audience confidence in you.
Here are some tips on how to formulate a good, compelling business story for a presentation and how to tell it well.
You may have got a few laughs down the pub when you told that anecdote about getting stuck in the lift at a recent trade show, but will that story resonate with your audience of investors, customers or staff? Will it set the right tone and help you get your message across?
I once hosted an event outside Copenhagen where a protected species of cattle roamed through the sprawling grounds. The first speaker kicked off his session with a story about how the beasts came to be on this slice of corporate land. As a consequence half the room spent the morning craning their necks to glimpse a bull out of the window, rather than focusing on the projected sales plans.
Much better was the bank executive who told of his own customer experience at a seminar about customer services. He had popped into his local branch on a quiet Saturday and strolled straight up to an available teller. She immediately apologised for him having to wait in line. Bemused, he replied that he hadn’t waited because there was no-one else around. The teller simply repeated her apology. Perplexed, he eventually revealed himself to be on the board of the bank and demanded to know why she insisted on apologising for a queue that wasn’t there.
The teller explained that Head Office had sent word that all staff were required to improve customer service by apologising to customers for having to wait. Furthermore, if employees did not comply with this directive then if might affect their bonus. This story demonstrated how those at the top can make big decisions without knowing how they will be implemented. The executive presented it as an opportunity to adapt thinking at all management levels.
Remember, you are telling your story to make abstract ideas come alive. Something I often tell CEOs when we are preparing for radio interviews is that since the listeners can’t see you, the trick is to paint pictures with words to breathe life into what you are saying. The same principle applies when you are telling a story. Set the scene, be descriptive.
Imagine you are at a retail conference talking about store re-fits. There is a huge difference between saying “I walked in and the store was a mess which didn’t make me feel like shopping” and “It was like being in a teenagers bedroom: clothes were jumbled on the display tables, the racks were bulging with all different styles and sizes and it wasn’t even The Sales! I knew then we had to do something drastic to woo shoppers”.
Characters help tell stories too. Like the bank teller I mentioned earlier. I hope that you imagined the colour draining from her face when he customer revealed himself to be a bank boss! Characters can help liven up data. For example, a recent BBC study revealed that men get more prize money than women in 30% of sports. That is a big enough statistic to start a conversation, but it is much more effective if you can talk about women’s World Squash Champion Laura Massaro, whose prize money was half of that of the men’s Squash Championship winner.
Remember not to let your message get buried in a flurry of ideas. Think about articulating your messages upside down: instead of building your case, explaining the background and then coming to the conclusion, say the punchline – the “headline” – first and then the rest. This topsy-turvy style draws the audience in.
Whether it is a good joke or a personal experience that led to a change in the business, the story you tell should always be true, but it doesn’t have to have happened to you to work in a presentation. Think about setting up a shared computer file at work that everyone can update with various anecdotes that you can review before your presentation. Telling stories about colleagues can demonstrate solid teamwork as well as highlight that you, as a leader, are a good listener too.
Next time you address an audience, use a story. Keep it simple, and remember the advice given to new Economist journalists: “simplify, then exaggerate.” Story telling is a skill you build with practice. Stories will help you become a more influential and more persuasive. After all, facts get forgotten, whereas stories get repeated.
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