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Creating A Story: Presentation Skills

Apr 23, 2008
Who doesn't love a story?! Whether it's ours or theirs, fiction or non-fiction? Who doesn't want to be drawn in and captivated? From the days of humans exchanging tales around a flickering cave fire to watching today's widescreen TV, storytelling as a way of embellishing or improvising an event is an art that will always be with us. Ancient times as well as our current high-tech times have provided stories which educate, entertain, convey information, put forth the morals of a particular culture and more.

Powerful personal stories increase the impact of any presentation. Whatever information or point you want to get across, add a story. You will capture your audience's interest and help clarify your message, thus increasing the overall effectiveness of your presentation. A personal story woven through your presentation increases the interest factor by several degrees. If you need to lay out technical details, don't forget to touch the human side of your audience. The human qualities in your story will inject life into any potentially dry presentation which may cause your audience to drift off and start planning the rest of their day. Wrapping your point or information in a story suggests informality and candor, and keeps the audience alert and interested.

A personal story about a frightening or difficult situation adds drama to your presentation. From that primitive stone-age tribe who sat around and listened to stories in their cave to today's high tech sales force armed with the latest electronics, the art of storytelling survives. Stories capture attention and make information believable, memorable and understandable.

Believability
Storytelling builds authenticity. Studies* show that stories make information more believable. In research about the believability of advertising claims, several groups were shown advertising which was based on: 1) Stories about the founder and his family; 2) Statistics about the company; 3) A story and a few statistics. Surprisingly? the groups who were told only the story - without any statistics at all - were most likely to believe that the advertising claims were true and that the company would follow its proffered policies.

Memorability
Stories help an audience retain the information you give them. Facts and dry data are processed in the left hemisphere of the brain - the linear, logical and analytical side. By including stories in your presentation, you activate the right hemisphere of the brain - the creative, emotional and playful side. When listeners hear a good story, they visualize images and experience feelings. When the information you give them is processed by the "whole brain," it will be remembered and more meaningful to the listener.

Relationships
Stories build relationships with listeners. The speaker connects with the listener in a way that responds to some of our deepest desires to be connected. When companies screen for employees, they pay close attention to the candidates' verbal interpretive skills. The ability to communicate at the interpersonal level and to build relationships is extremely important. These interpersonal skills include the ability to tell stories effectively, thereby creating a shared experience. When you give a presentation, you need to build a warm and receptive environment with a story to create this shared experience.

Elements of Effective Stories

Reveal something personal about yourself, the presenter. What are you really like? What is the company really like?

Use humility and vulnerability to build empathy. Don't relate a personal success; instead, describe a personal difficulty so the audience will empathize with you.

Choose an incident or emotional experience - a common reference point - with which the audience can identify.

Develop characters for your story and make them come to life. Let the audience see the emotions of the characters in your story.

Use archetypes -- universal symbols like a mother, teacher, fool, powerful leader - to reel in your audience and help them relate to your story on a deeper level.

Use details to hook the audience. Stimulate their imagination by using exact times, dates, what others looked like. Create relevant details and visual images.

Conflict is at the heart of any good story. Describe a struggle. People understand struggles between opposing people or forces as well as in themselves.

Create dialogue for your characters. Use specific quotations and different voices so the audience feels they are there, eavesdropping on the conversation.

Creating a Story

Opening: A story is anchored in time and space. For example: "Last night I was describing this workshop to my spouse and..."

Body: Build your story with significant personal events, vivid details and clearly drawn characters. Add depth and dramatic impact with conflict, archetypes, vulnerability and dialogue. Make sure to include a common reference point. Connect with your audience and build trust.

Conclusion: End strongly and segue to a relevant point. Build a transitional bridge from your story back to a pertinent topic in your presentation.

Practice
Time yourself telling the story you decide to use. Preferably, tell it to another person. If no one is available, tell it to the furniture in the room or try it out in front of a mirror.

Now practice getting into and out of the story more quickly. Edit: trim unnecessary details and fill in any gaps you noticed while telling the story. On your second telling, try to cut in half the time it takes to tell the story. If your story still drags, keep cutting and polishing, until it flows.

Example
This is one example of the power of stories and storytelling. I read this story in an article titled, Telling Tales: The art of corporate storytelling in the October 2007 issue of The Costco Connection, a magazine put out by Costco as a way of connecting with their customers.

Medtronic started as a home hobby and has grown into a worldwide creator and manufacturer of medical technology. Medtronic, based in Minneapolis, has embraced storytelling as a key ingredient of its success. Every December, the company throws a holiday party for its employees and invites six patients and their physicians to attend and share how they were helped by Medtronic's products.

One patient who shared his story was Gary Prazac, who was diagnosed with Parkinsons' disease at age 49. Prazac emotionally recounted how the disease turned him into an "old man, shuffling along with a cane and wearing the 'Parkinson's mask'", a deadpan facial expression.

Prazac explained how he had become stuck at an airport when he was unable to move from his chair, forcing him to miss his plane. Huge doses of medication helped control the tremors but caused other unwelcome symptoms. This went on for years, until his doctor suggested a new therapy involving the implantation of a deep-brain-stimulation device made by Medtronic. Prazac said, "The surgery reversed at least 10 years of symptoms. It was literally a miracle. Medtronic gave me my smile back."

Medtronic's Chairman and CEO, Art Collins, attributes much of the company's success to the stories told at the holiday events, calling it "the day we come together as a family joined by a great and enduring mission; serving others."

*Pondy, L.R. et al., Organization Symbolism
About the Author
The Henderson Group trains and coaches business professionals in the art of communication and presentation through our experiential methodology. Since 1990, The Henderson Group has helped Fortune 500 companies worldwide improve employee productivity and business results through the development of communication skills. You can find us online at SpeakFearlessly.net and HendersonGroup.com or Attend A Workshop
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