Presentation storytelling in five easy steps

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Creating compelling PowerPoint narrative using traditional storytelling tactics

 

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of being human. Find a way to shove it into your PowerPoints and you’ll be a presentation pro in no time.

 

Using traditional storytelling techniques creates compelling presentations. But using presentation storytelling properly means knowing the techniques. You can’t just slap “once upon a time” through to “happily ever after” across your slides and call it done. (Well, you can, but you probably shouldn’t.)

So we’ve broken the secrets of presentation storytelling down into five easily-digested steps that you can go away and shoehorn into your existing decks. Let’s start by getting to know stories a little better though.

What makes a story a story?

If we asked you if you knew what a story was, odds are you’d reply with an eye roll and an affirmative. But if we asked you to actually define the components of what makes a story work, your answer might be sheepishly different.

Which, as it happens, is totally reasonable. Because it’s really hard to pin down a consistent definition of what it is that makes a story a story. There are consistent elements that pop up across lots of different kinds of narrative – strings that tie together everything from Grimm’s fairytales to Tarantino’s flicks. But stories are so much more than that. Stories are how we forge intimacy with our peers, how we drive empathy and make arguments convincing. How we transfer wisdom and propel creativity to lofty new heights.

  • For presentations, stories are how we win pitches, secure investment, successfully market, captivate conferences, build credibility and launch products. Storytelling is the backbone of a good deck, and it should be the foundation of every slide.

Setting aside story’s more ephemeral qualities, here’s a breakdown of some of the definable, replicable and teachable traits most stories follow.

Step one: begin with a hook

Step one for almost every story the world over (and especially relevant for short-form stories like most presentations) is beginning with a hook.

We’ve talked about classic narrative arcs across other blog posts (there are six, and you can find them here[link to Storytelling arc posts]), and even though it looks different every time, all of them open with a hook.

Here are a few different ways that might look:

Curiosity cultivation

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“Barrabás came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy.”

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
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“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

You can hook the audience at the beginning of your presentation to cultivate a curiosity gap. Who the chuff is Barrabás, and who’s this child Clara writing to? What did Eustace Clarence Scrubb do to almost deserve such cruelty?

Adapting curiosity gaps into a presentation storytelling technique often means dropping your hottest take, asking a challenging open question or floating an outlandish idea right at the beginning of your deck. In short, you’re doing whatever it takes to engineer a tasty dollop of intrigue.

Hint-dropping

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
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“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Austen’s opening sets the societal scene but also drops a gentle hint of satire to come. Compelling, curious, engaging from the get-go. No wonder it’s a classic. Same hint-dropping from Sylvia Plath here – we also don’t know what her hero was doing in New York in that queer, sultry summer but we can’t wait to find out more. Both of these (satisfyingly contrasting) examples hook their reader with a foreshadowing hint of what’s to come.

In your presentation, you can use the opening few slides to dangle a tantalising tidbit from your conclusion and then use the rest of the presentation to fill in all the consequential knowledge gaps.

Sparkline paradoxes

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
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“This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

The delicious contrasts of these contradictory openers economically set up an emotional atmosphere for a reader that pays dividends later down the line.

Sparkline paradoxes rely on the power of polarity, and you can use the same technique across your whole deck, or just the opening of your presentation, to get your reader instantly involved, invested and intrigued.

The better your hook, and the more clarified your message, the more likely it is that your audience is going to remember it by the end of your presentation (and long after). A single, strong statement of fact is often enough to do exactly that.

In short, get the beginning right and the rest will fall into place. (With loads more work, that is.)

Step two: intro the hero

Okay. You’ve hooked with the best of them and now your audience is chomping at the proverbial presentation bit. Step two is to introduce them to your hero. Which they should enjoy, because if you do it properly it should stoke the fires of their pride.

A fairly common, but by no means excusable, mistake people make when they’re focussing on presentation storytelling is casting themselves as the hero. But you need to set that pesky ego aside and embrace the fact that you are not the hero of your presentations.

We mean it. The hero is not you. It’s not your company, your product or your solution. Your audience is always the hero, and they need to feel that love radiating out from every single slide. Check out this blog post to find out more about heroing your audience properly.

Step three: introduce a villain

Obviously, if your audience is the hero, you can heighten your emotional hits by giving them a monster to rally against. This is the villain of your presentation.

It doesn’t have to be a villain in the traditional storytelling sense of a nefarious shadowy figure of doom. It could be an unsustainable industry practice, a challenge that’s hyper-specific to your hero, a standardised solution that’s unfit for purpose or something as intangible as a hazy and uncertain future.

The direction you choose to move in to find your villain should be dictated by the nature of the solution you’re going to offer as a soothing balm to calm your hero’s woes. Find the strongest argument for using your product/brand/services and then build a baddie to mirror that remedy.

Step four: a midpoint twist

Get strategically twisty by choosing the perfect moment for an emotional peak, a terrifying low point and a resonant ending.

Step four usually comes about halfway through a presentation, but, as each unique story demands a unique structure, that’s not really set in stone. Somewhere along a narrative arc, though, almost every story includes a twist, a peak or an emotional low point. Often a story will include all three, roughly following what we call the Peak-End Rule.

The Peak-End Rule is a simple framework for audience cognitive bias, and it’s also fairly demoralising if you’re going to great lengths to perfect your copy. Because the truth is that nearly all of your lovely words will be forgotten immediately. Sorry – it’s just human nature.

Combat this forgettability by elevating the intensity of your emotional high points. This is the peak, and it’s absolutely crucial to get right, as it’s one of the few things the majority of people are actually going to remember once your presentation is finished.

Plumb the depths of your emotional troughs to offer an equally powerful contrasting low point. This is another kind of peak (or an anti-peak, if you will), and will also be remembered after the final slide closes.

This is an incredibly useful tool for plotting out the way our presentation storytelling is going to take shape, and it provides a simple framework to help you step into the shoes of your audience to isolate the moments of intensity in your deck. Once you’ve isolated the peak, move back a few slides and weave in some tension, and focus on using vivid and memorable language for the peak itself.

Step five: finish with a big fat CTA

Step five is the “end” of the Peak-End Rule, and it’s all about finishing strong. What tangible next steps can you outline on the final slide of your presentation? This is the crucial bit of info that’s going to float up to the top of your audience’s thought-scum long after they’ve departed the presentation space, so best practice is to make the message as instructional as possible.

Perhaps you want them to book a (virtual or physical) tour of your facilities. Why not finish with a few potential dates and times for that visit and get them to choose one there and then? Maybe you want them to immediately download your app and start playing around? Stick a QR code on the last slide for them to scan and get that actioned straight away.

The most likely outcome is that you want to keep lines of comms open, but that’s a pretty dull finish to this brilliant presentation. Find a creative way to get your CTA on the screen and they’ll be putty in your paws.

Final thoughts

Incorporating traditional storytelling techniques into your PowerPoint presentations can make them more compelling and effective. But it’s important to know and understand the components of what makes a story work.

Beginning with a hook, introducing the hero, and taking them on a journey are key elements of traditional storytelling that can be applied to presentation storytelling. Remember that your audience is the hero, not you or your company, and make sure they’re feeling that adoration through your whole presentation.

Using presentation storytelling properly will help you to win pitches, secure investment, successfully market, captivate conferences, build credibility and launch products. Or you could always just get one of our Storytellers to do it for you. Your call.

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