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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.

Cycle Time ChartI have issues with flip charts, whiteboards and dry erase markers and the drawing app on my iPad. The issue is that even in the middle of a brilliant PowerPoint presentation, given the option; I will use them to punctuate the conversation. The act of interacting and drawing seems to drive the message home better than just a standard presentation. Too often, it is easy to fall in love with a specific tool like PowerPoint or Keynote and then miss options to create a better connection with the audience.

Why do we care about connecting with those we are talking with? Simply put, connecting is critical to communication. If our goal is to communicate and we fail to connect then all we are doing is participating in a personal monologue.

What is the downside of mixing hand drawn charts and words with PowerPoint? First, the guy in the back taking a nap and thinking he will read the slides later is going to miss something. The same is true for those listening in on the phone or watching on video while doing email. Interestingly, I have noticed that by mixing the media up a bit and interacting with the audience there is less multitasking. Making the presentation more interesting and interactive seems to increase attention and reduce meeting nap time.

PS. Hand drawing requires guts and a sense of humor given that you will be working without the net of a spellchecker!

Review:  Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals
Naomi Karten

Audio Version – Software Process and Measurement Cast 117

If you are only going to read the first paragraph of this review, I will share the bottom line. If you have to get up in front people (real or virtual), buy Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals: Achieving Excellence. Assuming you read at least part of the book you will have the tools to raise your game as a presenter! As I prepared to write this review I asked people what makes a good “how-to” book. @allyGill, a twitter friend suggested that what made a “how-to” book good “is for it to understand who the audience is”. Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals is a book that knows it’s audience with tips, techniques and examples from Naomi’s background in Information Technology. The book deals not only with standard presentations but includes advics and ideas on team meetings, project presentations as well as our the nearly ubiquitous friend, the webinar. The second most important item in my informal poll was that a good “how-to” book had to have lots of relanent examples or stories to ensure a connection with the reader. Naomi’s seventh book while a concise compilation of advice on how to improve your presentations is rich with examples of both applying that advice in the real world and the pitfalls of ignoring the advice. The critical point for me was that the examples, presented as real world stories, are easy for me to identify with. In my case I mumbled to myself more than once, “I know that person” (and in some cases I was talking about myself). Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals: Achieving Excellence covers the waterfront in terms of how to improve a presentation including discussions of how to know yourself better, know your audience better and know the tricks that different platforms present in practical terms. @DanieVermeulen on Twitter suggested that a good “how-to” book include proven examples of what has already worked elsewhere – not only theory. I think that is one definition of the word practical. Naomi goes one step further and many if not all, chapters can be converted into checklists for application of the ideas presented. I told Naomi during my interview which aired in the Software Process and Measurement Cast 116 that I thought her books were written just in time to meet my needs. One of my recent resolutions was to use stories in my presentations as a vehicle to better convey my messages. Chapter 8 addresses that exact topic discussing the impact of using stories to convey the message in a presentation then walks through how to craft the story and the slides needed to support the story (yes, Naomi addresses the topic of slides in the book). I am the type person that usually picks up a “how-to” book when I am working on a project because it provides the reference material I need to effectively complete the task at hand. Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals: Achieving Excellence meets that criteria but is also well worth a read just to prime your presentation innovation pump. Buy it, read it, then use it as reference.