The Impact of Storytelling in Presentations: How to Wow Your Audience
Think of the last presentation you went to that knocked you over. I mean really knocked you over, made you sit up, and left you entranced — even as the speaker went over their allotted time or perhaps had the odd stumble. For me, this was a little shy of two months ago. It was supposed to be one hour and the session took almost two — and no one got up to leave. We were all mesmerized, not solely by the content but the speaker as well. Don’t get me wrong, the content was great, but midway through the presentation, I found myself wondering if the content would have stood on its own without this great speaker. To some extent, it probably would, but the delivery of that message, that story is what transformed it into something new and different that stayed with me.
So, how did they do it? How did this person deliver such a compelling presentation that they entranced over 200 people with ease?
They told a story. From beginning to end, they told a story that resonated with everyone. Maybe not from the beginning, but by the end we all knew it front and back. Over time, we will forget the slide deck and perhaps the speaker, but that message and emotion will never be forgotten.
Since then, I’ve been approaching many of my presentations as stories instead of sticking with the status quo. It’s not easy, and it takes a little longer to prepare for, but the results and engagement from the crowd are worth every extra piece of effort.
Here are five tips to help you become that presenter that wows everyone in the room.
1. Who is your audience?
Whether you are writing or presenting, this question must always be first. Who is your audience — who are you doing this for? Take a moment and think about that. If I am doing a presentation on podcasting, I will approach it very differently depending on if I’m presenting it to a group of software developers, a group of managers, or a group of kids. With developers, I might focus on how they need to transfer the code on their screen to the voice in their mic. With a group of managers, it might be more about the message they are trying to get across. With the kids, it would be about engagement — “Here, try this.” My content might be similar, but how I deliver this information will be quite different.
Not knowing who you are presenting to is a guaranteed fail. You will see it, you will know it when you look around the room mid-sentence and see the eyes glazing over. At that moment, you will know that what you are delivering is not aligned with your audience.
2. Find a Theme
Having a theme is often overlooked when doing a presentation, but when telling a story it is key. A theme is the feeling or emotion you want to get across to your audience and resonate with them. The theme is the combination of your ideas and messages, and it creates the structure for your story.
To go back to our podcasting example, my theme for delivering to kids would be heavy on examples, engagement, fun, laughter, and enjoyment to engage them. For managers, I might focus on how they can find an audience right here and grow their culture by developing leaders of influence. The managers probably won’t rate hearing their voice as important to do, but the children will.
The best stories we have ever heard have that moment of connection where we are sold — we want more, we sit up in our chair, and we listen a little more intently. This is not by chance, this is by pace. This is because the storyteller took us down a path laid with breadcrumbs for us to pick up along the way in the hopes that we’d join them on this journey. If the storyteller simply started with that “aha” moment, we wouldn’t have had the reveal we needed — we would not have been invested. Worse yet, if this moment never came, what then? We’d be left wondering why we were even there to begin with, what we were truly investing by giving this person our precious time.
Still unsure about pace? Think back to all those keynotes that Steve Jobs did for Apple where he became famous for “One last thing” in his presentations. That wasn’t by chance, it was on purpose. It was part of his story, and each time we came back to hear the next story, we waited with baited breath to hear this line.
4. Get the Right Tools
Remember those speakers that wave their hands around the whole time as they speak or have to constantly go to their laptop to fix something? Or maybe their demos require a lot of manual control and them staring down at the screen? You probably don’t remember their names, but you remember what they did. These are distractions to your audience. These are distractions to your theme that reduce the effectiveness of your story. Again, think back to the best presentations you have heard. What was so great about them? Was it the deck? Their tablet? Did they demo something amazing? You might be thinking “Oh yeah, they had a powerpoint deck, but come to think of it, I never saw them look at it or reference it.” Exactly. Your tools complement the story and enhance it — they don’t become part of it. If you are having to read off your deck, then send out your deck to your audience because that’s your story. Small things, like a presentation pointer, can greatly enhance your presentation because now people are focusing on you, your words, your theme, your pace, and not you bending over to hit the spacebar.
Yes, you might have to spend some money on tools and hacks to be a better storyteller, but if you are able to get your message across in a single session, isn’t it worth it?
5. Call to Action
Don’t you love the presenter who ends with “Well, that’s it.”? No conclusion, no end to what should be there, no final sign off — the slides go blank as if they did not know the last slide was even coming up. As we said before, being a great storyteller involves pacing the audience so you don’t need to draw them a map of when you are going to finish. Rather, they can infer this information, they can see it evolving, they know when it is going to get there.
But there is more to it. Your audience, the people you spent so much time crafting this message for, what is their call to action? What do you want them to do next?
In our example of a podcast, I want my audience to go start a podcast. Why else would I be telling them how to do it? Otherwise, I’ve just wasted their time and mine. And this is key — the call to action isn’t solely for the audience, it is for the speaker as well. Only once a member of the audience has taken that call and turned it into action has the story now been completed. Actions are what drive stories, not debates, not further discussion — action. So if you are not challenging your audience on what to do next, what are you trying to get across to them?
Speakers, Presenters, Orators, whatever term you like to use, the ones who stand out, the ones we remember, are the ones that crafted a story, a story that resonated with us, a story that spoke to us, and a story that made us want to go do something.
Next time you need to deliver a presentation, whether it’s last quarter’s budget numbers or next year’s fall fashions, don’t deliver it as a presentation. Deliver it as a story and see the difference — you’ll be amazed.