5 presentation tips: How to be a stronger storyteller

Better storytelling skills can take your presentations to the next level. Here’s how to build this difficult skill
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Storytelling tips for leaders

Good storytelling often makes the difference between an effective presentation and one that falls flat.  But many people struggle to incorporate storytelling into presentations in a way that both seems natural and has the desired effect. How can you build this skill?

Though storytelling can be a difficult skill to master, it’s well worth the effort, says presentation coach Tim Wackel, who has trained executives at many Fortune 500 companies on how and when to add stories to presentations. “It’s an underutilized skill,” he says. “Everybody, whether it’s an audience of eighth graders or executives, likes a good story. Children don’t say, ‘Mommy, put me to bed and read me some data.’”

[ Want more advice? See our article: Presentation tips: 6 secrets of master presenters. ]

Audiences retain emotions and stories better than facts and figures.

Storytelling isn’t just a better way to connect with your audience: It will also improve their retention of your presentation. “The data shows that all audiences retain emotions and stories better than facts and figures,” Wackel says.

When is the best time to incorporate stories into your presentation? “I think stories can be used anytime you want to make a more dramatic point,” he says. “If you have something complicated to explain, I’d rather hear a story.”

In one effective presentation Wackel recalls, the speaker explained the $700 billion bank bailout this way: "If you were alive when Jesus walked the Earth, and you were still alive today, and you spent $1 million every day from then till now, you still wouldn’t have spent that sum."

A good story can tie concepts together at the end of a presentation, he adds. But there’s one time when you should always strongly consider a story, and that’s at the very beginning of your talk. “The most important part of the presentation is the first 90 seconds,” Wackel says. In those first few moments, you will either grab your audience’s attention, or fail to do so and face a struggle to get it back.

So don’t waste those first few moments on a lengthy introduction of yourself, or on pleasantries about the holidays or the weather. Instead, dive right into a story. One executive Wackel worked with started his presentation to a potential client this way: “When I was a little boy in third grade, I was the teacher’s pet. I remember it was wonderful until this kid from Argentina moved in, Alfonso, and he became the teacher’s pet instead. She still liked me and cared for me, but I had lost love and attention. The reason I’m here today is that our research shows the same thing is happening to you with your customers. You’re losing their love and attention, and if you don’t get it back, it will cost you.”

Consider Wackel’s tips for becoming a strong storyteller:

1. Don’t focus on yourself

Yes, at least some of the stories you tell may be about your own experiences. Even so, you should always focus on what the audience needs to hear, not necessarily what you want to tell. Keep your stories brief and on point. “A story that’s all about me could be interesting and might be relevant, but it won’t captivate you for very long,” Wackel says.

2. Look for stories all around you

If you have a lot of data and charts and graphs, try and see the story these figures are telling.

How do you find good stories? It’s about being attuned to them, Wackel says. For example, if you have a lot of data and charts and graphs, try and see the story these figures are telling. “Once you get your head around this, you start to see things differently,” he says. “It’s like when you buy a red car and you suddenly see all the red cars on the road. You start seeing stories everywhere.”

3. Write the first draft with a pen and paper

Why? Because drafting a presentation straight into software such as PowerPoint tends to make you focus on the slides and figures and graphs you’ve prepared, rather than the point you need to make and the story or stories you need to tell, Wackel says.

[ Put yourself out there. Read How allowing myself to be vulnerable made me a better leader. ]

4. Get feedback on the story

“Don’t tell your story in a vacuum,” Wackel says. “Rehearse it in front of other people. Tell it to your boss or colleagues. Get some other people to be a sounding board. If you tell a story that’s inappropriate for your audience, you’re in trouble.”

Not only that, he says, some of the most effective presentations come from sharing a story with others and letting them help you shape it. “You might tell the story and say, ‘It’s not completely right.’ The second person hears it a little differently and bends it a little bit. The third person bends it a little bit more, and it comes back as great, funny, or scary, and very successful.”

5. Rehearse on video

Now that there are video cameras on every smartphone, Wackel says, “there’s no excuse not to video yourself and get better.” You can learn a lot about how to be a good storyteller, but you won’t really get good at it until you practice and then review your own work. You’ll be able to tell when you watch your own presentation what will work and what won’t, he adds. “Everyone knows what a good presentation looks like.”

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Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.


thanks for sharing!