A good story makes information engaging

Presentations are the lingua franca of many . . . OK most corporate IT departments. Presentations are used for many purposes, such as to inspire, inform, persuade or some combination thereof. The problem is not that presentation are a common communication vehicle, but rather they are often misused. I recently attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting where I watched a presenter go through slide after slide full of bullet points, charts and graphs.  Trouble is, I can’t remember much of the presentation a week later. If he had approached the presentation as a story using one of common story structures and added specific vignettes, the presentation would have had a better chance at making an emotional connection and being memorable.

Story structures are tools to build a connection with an audience and aid absorption of the entire overall message. An example of a common story structure used to guide a presentation is called the “Mountain”. The Mountain begins with describing a current state, shows how challenges are overcome as the story moves away from the current state towards a conclusion which that satisfies a need. I often use this structure to describe a project or an organizational assessment.  Each step along the path can accompanied by relevant and powerful vignettes to highlight specific points and to increase the audience’s connection to the presentation.

The most basic goal of a presentation is for the audience to remember what was said. In a Wall Street Journal article, Cliff Atkinson, a communications consultant and author of Beyond Bullet Points, suggested that raw data is not as persuasive and memorable as many in business believe.  Mr. Atkinson suggests distilling what is important and wrapping it in an engaging story so it can be remembered. The Inc Magazine blog entry by Riley Gibson makes a similar point, suggesting that stories create interest and investment so that audiences can “hear” and accept what you are saying. Richard A Krueger in Using Stories in Evaluation (2010, pp. 404-405) stated, “Evidence suggests that people have an easier time remembering a story than recalling numerical data.” The story structure provides a container to hold the data and message that is at the heart of the presentation so people can remember. This similar to my son-in-law’s uncanny ability to remember movie lines. Supporting this thesis are any number of study guides prepared for students, such as the one published by the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine that suggests using a story (more emotive the better) to enhance long-term retention and recall.

As I was leaving the Chamber of Commerce meeting, I overheard someone say they were glad that at least there were appetizers before the presentation because they didn’t get the point of the presentation. The comment was harsh, but even I, the ultimate data geek, had a hard time remembering the punchline. Whether a presentation is developed to inspire, inform or persuade, if the presentation does not connect with the audience then the time and effort for all parties are wasted (even if the refreshments were good).