How to Use Stories in Presentations and Talks – 7 tips
March 01, 2021
No matter what the topic of your next speech or presentation, if you use stories you will have more impact.
People forget facts, but they repeat stories. That’s why knowing how to use stories should be at the top of your business public speaking toolkit.
How many stories can you remember from your childhood? The fairy stories? The classic tales? The religious stories? I am sure you could recite many of these. But how much do you remember of the corporate presentations you have heard over the last month? Not much, I suspect.
When your mother sat you on her knee and told you stories, she was communicating in the most powerful way possible. Our brains love stories because they help us make sense of the facts.
In a story not only do things happen, but also there is a reason for things happening.
- The sleeping princess was asleep because a wicked witch was jealous of her.
- The castle was abandoned because she had been asleep for hundreds of years.
- The prince kissed her because she was so beautiful.
- They married and lived happily ever after because that is what princes and princesses do in all the stories.
In your next presentation – whether to investors, shareholders or potential clients, aim to tell the story behind the information:
- Why are sales up by 3%?
- What caused the reduction in costs?
- What will this mean for the business?
- How do you stand out from the competition?
- What will the new product do?
The stronger your story, the easier it is to be remembered and understood.
You can create great presentations by taking the information you want to communicate and turning it into a powerful story that links it all together. The best communicators have learned how to tell good stories.
After all, facts get forgotten. Stories get repeated.
Seven ways how to use stories in your talk or presentation
1. Use stories to make it personal
When you tell a story, the audience recalls similar events in their own lives and a bond is created. As a result, stories enable you to form a relationship with your listeners in a matter of seconds.
Storytelling in action
For our first example, watch Audrey Choi’s TED talk on making global capital markets catalysts for social change. Notice how she begins by telling her mother’s story to provide context.
2. Use stories to share new information
Our brains are primed to pay attention to new information, which is one reason why our social media feeds are so addictive. The start of an unfamiliar story pulls people away from their smartphones and into the present moment. That’s how you grab attention.
3. Tell stories to be emotive
Stories appeal to the core of the brain, bypassing the logical and judgemental layer. We make decisions emotionally, then back them up rationally. A story gives you direct access to that emotional decision-making centre. In business, speakers and presenters too often try to connect with people only on a rational level. While your audience may understand exactly what you want them to and why, they will only act on your message if they feel emotionally engaged.
4. Use stories to suggest a different perspective
Criticising an audience or instructing them what they should do, say or think will probably result in folded arms and mutters of discontent. But when you tell a story you demonstrate the consequences of an action, then your audience can learn without becoming defensive.
Storytelling in action
Margaret Heffernan is the former CEO of five companies. Watch how she starts her talk on the perils of organisational hierarchies with a story about chickens.
5. Tell stories as an opportunity to vary your delivery
A story gives you an opportunity to communicate with more than words. Your body, gestures and facial expressions contribute to the conveying of emotion, so that your audience can empathise with the protagonist of your story.
6. Use stories to create suspense
You can entrance your audience in a state of tension until questions prompted by your story are answered. What happened next? How did it end? Bookend your speech or presentation with the start and end of a story to keep people’s interest throughout.
7. Tell stories to be memorable
Lastly, sensory details engage our brains in a different way to plain data. They are cemented into memory for longer. Include details that add to the atmosphere of your story, such as any colours, smells or sights that will help your audience visualise the scenes you describe.
Storytelling in action
As our final example, watch how Simon Sinek sets the scene with a story in his talk on why great leaders make employees feel secure.
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What’s your story?
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How to use stories in your business presentation
How do you use storytelling in business ? Leaders use storytelling so that audiences listen, remember and act on what they say.
In fact, stories are “the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal”, according to Harvard University professor Dr Howard Gardner. But many business leaders shy away from storytelling because they don’t know how to do it. The good news is that you don’t have to be an author or orator to come up with an effective story.
Simply follow our four-step process to tell a business story and read/watch our examples of business storytelling in action.
How to use stories in four steps
Business Storytelling Step #1. Break it down
Plot twists and character arcs are for novelists – you need a story that will resonate with your audience. Keep it simple yet relatable. Pitching to a client? Align your problem with something they’ve experienced themselves.
Break your story into three parts: situation, complication and resolution.
Almost every story has this basic structure, from fairy tales to business anecdotes. In fact, your story might only need to be three lines long, as long as it covers all three parts:
- The situation: what kind of environment or characters were you dealing with?
- The complication: what hurdles, challenges or problems did you face?
- The resolution: how did you fix things, and what did you learn along the way?
How to Use Stories Step #2. Use vivid language
Good writers know that the key to a compelling read is to use the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Great storytellers pepper their stories with sensory details to spark the imagination. These details make us feel like we’re really there, right in the middle of the action.
For example, metaphors involving texture stimulate activity in the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for actually perceiving texture through touch.
- Instead of talking about ‘bad’ customer service, you might refer to it as ‘raw’, ‘coarse’ or ‘abrasive’.
- Instead of talking about ‘good’ customer service, you might use ‘warm’, ‘solid’ or ‘bubbly’.
You can do this with your business storytelling too, by adding splashes of sensory detail to your stories. Using vivid language and imagery invokes the five senses. You can paint a picture in their minds and make them more receptive to what you say. For example, when describing a product launch, you might say
“The new prototype was Ferrari-red, with modules that clicked into place like a seatbelt into a buckle”.
Business Storytelling Step #3. Use metaphors and analogies to make ideas relatable
Do you break down technical, complex or scientific concepts into easily understood ideas? Metaphors and analogies can help make even the most complicated of topics relatable to an audience, by comparing the known to the unknown (or turning dry stuff into more interesting material).
Here’s an example of a metaphor applied to the most basic business context:
A fragmented business is like a leaky bucket; it may still work but you have to make a lot more trips to get your water. If your business is leaking money then you’ll have to sell more to keep up. It’s far easier to plug the leaks than to keep going back to the well.
How to use stories Step #4. Engage your audience with emotion
Stories appeal to the right-hand side of the brain, bypassing the logical and judgemental left-hand side. We make decisions emotionally, then try to back them up rationally. A story gives you direct access to that emotional decision-making centre. In business, presenters too often try to connect with people only on the rational level. But people will only act on your message if they feel emotionally engaged.
As Maya Angelou said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Emotion is the vehicle that will take your audience on a journey with you. So share the emotional highs and lows. Tell your audience how the situation felt. Describe how the challenges and solutions affected people personally.
For example, if you’re telling a story about how you changed the company’s direction after misreading the market, describe the consequences of that mistake. Reveal how you felt when you realised things needed to change. Then talk of the frustrations of making those changes, and your joy and relief once they were implemented, as well as the positive impact they had on customers and employees.
How to use stories in presentations: Case Study
One of our clients, John, was the MD of a large utility company. He approached us to help him improve his public speaking. John had avoided speaking in public, but now he had to deliver a presentation on health and safety to hundreds of staff. That’s a dull topic at the best of times and, to make matters worse, his presentation had been prepared for him by the HR team. It was pretty dry. John knew how to communicate well from his training with us. So he binned the HR presentation. Instead, he started his piece with a great business story. He said:
“I once managed building sites. In my first two weeks of a new job, we had a crane collapse on site.
“That night, I had to knock on the door of a house and tell a woman that her husband was dead because of an accident on my site.
I never want any of you to have to go through what I went through that day. And that’s why I’m talking about health and safety today.”
John started by describing the situation (managing building sites), introduced a complication (crane collapsing) and finished with the resolution (telling a woman that her husband had died and wanting the audience to never have to experience that). The language is simple, but has a powerful emotional impact: we can all imagine what an awful day that was.
Videos: business storytelling in action
For other examples of business storytelling, watch the previous CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick use a story about what happened over 100 years ago as a warning against over-regulation today, or watch Stanley McChrystal share what he learned about leadership from the military.
We’re hardwired to understand the world through stories. Our ability to recall the past and imagine the future is a defining aspect of what makes us human. Great stories enable us to do this, and effective leaders use them to help us do it.
Learn how to use stories and leverage the power of storytelling
We’ll help you use stories to inspire, engage and persuade your audience. We’ll help you learn how to use stories and then help craft your message, transform your content and rehearse your delivery. You’ll feel calm, confident, and ready to deliver your most powerful talk or presentation yet.
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What makes storytelling so powerful?
Storytelling is in our DNA. Humans have been using stories for thousands of years, from ancient cave paintings to trivial stories about waiting in line at the supermarket. Creating a narrative isn’t hard; most of us do it every day.
American author and business consultant Peg Neuhauser neatly summarises how business leaders can learn from our rich storytelling heritage. She says,
“No tribal Chief or Elder has ever handed out statistical reports, charts, graphs or lists of facts to explain where the group is headed or what it must do.”
Recent scientific work has put a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. When we’re presented with “hard facts” (data) it only activates a particular area of the brain associated with the simplest form of language processing, decoding the incoming words into meaning. And that’s it. However, a story ignites the parts of the brain linked to the actual experience of the subject, according to a study reported in the New York Times. In other words, stories create empathy.
How to use stories in your business communications
Being able to articulate your story, or that of your company, is crucial to almost every aspect of business management. Film producer and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Peter Guber explains,
“An effective CEO uses an emotional narrative about the company’s mission to attract investors and partners, to set lofty goals, and to inspire employees. Sometimes a well-crafted story can even transform a seemingly hopeless situation into an unexpected triumph.”
Yet, contrary to popular belief, storytelling is not always about you or your company. The most powerful stories are the ones that resonate with your audience. It’s all about context. So, When you want to use storytelling in your next leadership communications, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who am I speaking to?
- What is most important to them?
- Which stories will resonate with this audience and their interests while communicating my message effectively?
One way to ensure you have the right story for the right context is to begin curating a library of stories. Encourage people at all levels in your business to contribute relevant stories to this library. You’ll be able to pick and choose the most powerful one for each audience you need to address, as and when you need them.
Transform your talks and presentations with business storytelling
Find out how we can transform the success of your business communication with great business storytelling. Call Louise Angus on 020 7018 0922, email her via email@example.com or fill in our enquiry form.
About Benjamin Ball Associates
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