A puzzle and patterns have a lot in common.

A puzzle and patterns have a lot in common.

Stories are a tool to help structure information so that audiences can easily consume them. They help presenters make sure their message stays front and center so it can be heard. While many presentations and stories in the corporate environment use the metaphor of a journey, some are best represented in other ways. Other patterns are useful both to fit other circumstances or as a tool to inject a bit of variety into presentation heavy meetings. (Just how many journeys can you take in any one meeting?) (more…)

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The Mountain is one example of a journey-based story structure.

Presentations are a story that the presenter is sharing with an audience, and any good story has a beginning, middle and an end. All too often the beginning is a slide that has an agenda, the middle is slide after slide of data and the end is a slide titled conclusion or questions.  Across that arc, the presenter seeks to inspire, informs or persuade. A better approach is to use one of the tried and true story structures. A story structure is often a useful tool to ensure the audience stays attentive and hears the specific points the presenter is trying to make. The presentation does not need to be the next The Lord of the Rings, but you could or should emulate those plot patterns.

The Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey is one of the most common story structures. The monomyth is cyclical story structure in which a hero team embarks on a journey and then returns when successful. It describes where the journey started, the trials along the way, the goal that was attained and the steps to move forward after the goal has been met. The hero’s journey was originally introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). It is a broad narrative structure that can be used when the presenter is leveraging a journey metaphor, one of the most commonly used stories in business and conference presentations.  The journey is commonly used to describe process improvement, methodology adoptions or business transitions. I tend to leverage a version of the monomyth pattern described by Christopher Vogler that has twelve steps in order to provide a journey type of structure to relevant presentations. (You can view a recent example of how I applied the monomyth to a presentation in Discover The Quality of Your Testing Process). Reflect on every adventure movie you have ever seen and you will recognize the pattern. Even in a business environment, audiences are very comfortable with this approach because they have been trained to recognize the pattern.

Similar Journey Story Narratives:

Freytag’s Pyramid is a structure that follows a similar pattern of rising action climax, falling action followed by final release. This pattern is commonly used in commercials to hold attention (here is an example). In this pattern, the protagonist doesn’t need to return to complete the cycle, but the problem does need to be solved. I often use Freytag’s Pyramid as a guide to ensure short presentations have a plot.

The Mountain begins by describing a current state, showing how challenges are overcome as the story moves away from the current state towards a conclusion/climax, followed by falling action. The most significant difference between the Hero’s Journey and the Mountain is that in the Mountain the conclusion does not have to be positive. For example, the Harry Potter series would have been much less of a Hero’s Journey and more of a Mountain if Voldemort had won. Similarly, the mountain would be a good structure to use to describe an Agile adoption journey that ended in implementing a new waterfall methodology. 

It is easy to see how to use the journey story narratives to tell a story of great quest; however, in a business environment, journey story narratives have a wide range of uses.  Some of the typical business uses are:

  • Establish that change has happened in an organization.
  • Make sure that the audience understands that the progress made was not easy.
  • Show that taking a risk had benefits.
  • Identify the source of new information and knowledge.

 Story patterns like the Hero’s Journey, Freytag’s Pyramid or the Mountain can be used to guide how we deliver information. Story patterns are often useful because they help the audience consume the presentation’s message. 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.

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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).