10 Great Ways to Use Storytelling in Business PresentationsBy Lou Solomon
Straight data is tough to absorb and often unsatisfying. But when we hear, “Let me tell you a story,” something in our brain relaxes and slips into an effortless ride. Adding the storytelling element is the key to a memorable business presentation.
Stories engage people in a way that analytical content cannot. The reason is connected to human biology and the dichotomy of brain function.
The left brain handles linear thinking–numbers, letters, logic, and sequence. The right brain thinks in pictures and color — it loves to imagine and “experience” a story — and because it houses memory and the big picture, an occasional story will help listeners engage and remember your message.
Here are 10 Great Ways to Use Storytelling in Business Presentations:
A rich and relevant quote can warm up your message. Quotes fall into the category we call “story-bites,” which are pieces of imagery and color.
Now, don’t use tired quotes that most people have already heard. Use short, expressive quotes (sparingly) that carry a touch of heat.
For example, you might open your talk saying, “Bob Dylan once said, ‘Chaos is a friend of mine.’” From there you might expand on the opportunities given the company in times of constant change and disruption.
To tell a meaningful mini-story, you might not have to look any further than your own experience. For example, a few years ago I was snowed in at O’Hare. All the flights were canceled and when the ticket agent told me she didn’t know when I would get home my heart sank. I was upset and angry.
Feeling a bit hopeless, I went to the lounge and tried to do some writing. A fellow traveler who was also stranded shared my table. She asked me what I was working on–and without trying, wound up giving me a fresh idea. When I got to the gate I hunkered down and finished the piece. It was ten times the article I had been writing. Being stranded gave me the chance to be open to a different perspective and to focus completely. When I stopped fighting the situation, I found the gift.
3. Metaphor, Analogy
A metaphor makes an interesting comparison between two, unlike things to develop understanding. If you were talking to your teammates about having the x-factor, and what it takes to win, you would be comparing the team to champion thoroughbreds born with three times the size of the average horse, which was linked to a genetic condition known as the x-factor.
An analogy makes a comparison between two alike things for the purpose of explanation. Here is an example from the “I Have a Dream Speech” by Martin Luther King: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
A fable is a simple story that teaches a practical lesson about life. Steven Covey made the metaphor “Sharpening the Saw” famous in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effectively People, by telling this fable.
There is a fable about two woodcutters. An exhausted woodcutter struggled to saw down a tree. A young man who was watching asked “What are you doing?
“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”
The young man pressed on. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”
The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.
The young man pushed back…“If you sharpen the saw, you would cut down the tree much faster.”
The woodcutter said “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”
The woodcutter fable sticks to the brain and this advice comes along for the ride: To live a balanced life means taking time to renew yourself. It’s all up to you. You can renew yourself through relaxation. Or you can totally burn yourself out by overdoing everything.
An anecdote is a short, interesting story about a real person, like this one about Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson tells a story about taking a class as a young actor at a theater in LA. The course was taught by a talented character actor named Joe Flynn. Joe gave Nicholson some great advice. He warned him that well-meaning people in the business would advise him to take voice lessons and change the nasal quality of his voice. Joe was right. Everyone Jack met urged him to change, but he remembered what Joe said and never took a lesson. Today Jack is one of the greatest character actors of our time—and his voice is a trademark.
At some time or another, we’ve all attempted to fit it by changing who we are. Anecdotes like this provide a wonderful way of communicating the wisdom of being true to one’s self.
Company stories must be told through the lens of a real customer, a passionate employee, or a dedicated partner. This is humanization.
In the very early days of Google, co-founder Sergey Brin told the story of how a man named James who was experiencing symptoms he feared might be heart attack symptoms. James wasn’t sure what was happening and took a few seconds to Google the early symptoms to verify. The symptoms matched. He called the medics early and received treatment without complication. James wrote to Brin to express his deep gratitude for the quick access to information he needed to make the right decision just in time. Without that access, the story might have ended very differently.
7. Historical Notes
Story-bites of history are very satisfying to the curious brain. For example, if you were giving a talk about what can happen with a powerful focus on the customer, you might use this one:
James Casey was a high school dropout in Seattle who started the American Messenger Company with one bicycle in 1907. He built that business on a relentless focus on the customer. That business would become a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise called United Parcel Service (UPS).
8. Who I Am Story
Leaders who are willing to share what their life has taught them to empower others build trust and influence.
In one of the most famous speeches he delivered, Steve Jobs addressed the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University. Here are excerpts:
Truth be told, I never graduated from college and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation…This story is about love and loss. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life…Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick…Don’t lose faith.
9. Signature Stories
Signature stories like the ones told by Steve Jobs are stories that belong to you. They may be about people of great influence, defining moments or turning points of significance.
If you are after authentic leadership, you must understand the experiences that have shaped you. These experiences range from a conversation between colleagues to defining successes.
Here are prompts that will help you think about your own Signature Stories:
- The most important thing I learned from my parents
- A kindness I was shown that impacted my life
- A meaningful, personal success
- Something I had to learn the hard way
- A decision I made that changed my life for the better
- Resilience when things go wrong
- Something important I learned from a customer/client
- A time I took a risk and was rewarded
- Someone who mentored me and what I learned
- Someone I mentored and what I learned
10. Openings and Closings
When you begin or open your presentation or keynote, all eyes are on you. The attention in the room is high. Listeners are open to being engaged as they form an impression of you as a speaker. So how can you leverage that window and hold the attention of your audience? One answer is to jump right into the language of the story by using one of the examples we’ve covered here.
This is one of the most effective ways to capture people’s attention. The key takeaway of the story is a perfect way to set the stage for the content to follow. If all you use is an opening story, remember to circle back, at a minimum, at the end of your presentation to the key message and suggested action.
Data, economic benefit, or analysis is an awful way to begin or end your time with people. On the other hand, storytelling can make both your opening and closing engaging.