Storytelling in the boardroom, part 1 – the power of storytelling

“Storytelling” is a hot topic in the presentation world. Whenever I tell people that I wrote a book on how to use PowerPoint in business, their number one reaction is: “I’ve got to get that book. I need to learn how to use storytelling better.”

But business managers are often discouraged to find few examples of storytelling in business presentations. Instead, they find examples of using stories for booming keynote addresses or rousing motivational speeches. But lessons from Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Jobs don’t translate easily to boardroom presentations.

So this series of blog articles explores storytelling for business managers and consultants presenting in the boardroom: what are stories, why are they so powerful, and how can you sprinkle some of that storytelling magic into your boardroom PowerPoint presentations?

The “storytelling effect”

Let’s begin with a story that will put this in perspective: In 1983, in an alley outside a grubby pub in Boston, Frank Johnson drew his fishing knife and faced the barroom bully Alan Caldwell. The much taller and muscled Caldwell lunged at Johnson and the four-inch knife blade punctured through the skin and muscle of Caldwell’s abdomen and ended his life.

At the ensuing murder trial, witnesses were interviewed and the blurry events of that night slowly came into focus: Johnson was speaking to a woman in the bar and Caldwell became upset, Johnson left the bar but came back later that night with the knife, Caldwell challenged Johnson to step outside, some witnesses saw Caldwell draw a razor but others denied this. The crucial question: Was it murder? Or self-defence?

The jury heard the evidence and finally arrived at a decision: 63% agreed it was murder.

But this was no ordinary trial. It was a mock trial staged by researchers, with a jury made up of university students, to learn the persuasive power of storytelling. The trial was repeated, but this time, the prosecuting attorneys presented their argument in a story format. And when the jury returned, 78% agreed it was murder. The storytelling format made the argument even more convincing.

The trial was repeated a third time. This time, the defence used a storytelling approach. And this time, when the jury returned, only 31% was convinced it was murder. The results were sobering: whichever lawyer used a storytelling approach, the jury was swayed toward agreeing with their evidence.

Stories are powerful: they can convict a man to prison or set him free. And what about you? Do you have ideas you want your audience to understand and agree with? Can a story be the difference between a successful and a failed recommendation?

Non-profits have also discovered the power of storytelling. In September 2007, the non-profit group MercyCorps wanted to know if storytelling would increase donations. The director sent a different email to two groups of supporters. In one email, it was a message from the director about the work they were doing and encouraging people to donate. The email started with this message about the organization’s work:

“It’s been a busy summer for our emergency response teams. Near-record monsoons in parts of Pakistan, Nepal and India. Torrential rains in central Sudan. Crop-killing floods in North Korea and a massive earthquake in Peru.”

In the second email, it was a story about a girl named Giselle and how her life was improved because of the group’s work. This email began:

“Young Giselle fled the violence sweeping the Democratic Republic of Conga twice last week. On Monday, her family hastily abandoned their farm when soldiers arrived.”

I will tell you that the first email generated one donation for every 3,000 emails. And what do you think was the result for the storytelling email? Twice as good? Five times as good? Go ahead, look away from this blog article and guess. How much more effective was the storytelling email?

The answer: one of every 142 emails was answered with a donation; twenty-three times more effective than the director’s message.

Call it the “storytelling effect”. Study after study by educators, lawyers, non-profit organizations, advertisers and others finds we are naturally drawn to stories. Stories are found to make ideas easier to understand, easier to agree with and easier to remember later.

Stories are persuasive and so it’s no wonder that in boardrooms and ballrooms across the world, speakers are thinking hard about how to combine storytelling with their PowerPoint presentations to persuade an audience.

5 must-have books for your bookshelf

If you want to learn more about how to use storytelling in your boardroom PowerPoint presentations, below are the five best books you should consider adding to your bookshelf.

None of these books is “the” book on storytelling. In fact if every presentation fit neatly into a template it would lead to a lot of boring imitations. Instead, consider the lessons from each of these books to help find your own unique storytelling voice in different situations.

1. Speaking PowerPoint, Bruce Gabrielle. My book focuses especially on how to use PowerPoint in the boardroom with colleagues or executives, and discusses a simple way to develop a storyline that holds your entire presentation together. My approach is most appropriate if you trying to lay out a course of action as a conversation starter, along with supporting evidence, but may be less appropriate for keynote-type addresses.

2. The Seven Slide Solution(TM), Paul Kelly. This book is especially suited for brief executive presentations to highlight a problem that needs to be addressed. Because it is limited to seven slides, it will help you kick off a strategic discussion, but you may not have enough slides to go deep on the analysis. Kelly gives very specific advice about how to design each PowerPoint slide using text, images and layout.

3. Advanced Presentations by Design, Andrew Abela. Dr. Abela recommends proceeding through your presentation by anticipating and answering objections, a variation of the technique of holding an audience’s attention and advancing the story by moving through a series of conflicts. This approach is most appropriate when your recommendations may be controversial.

4. Beyond Bullet Points, Cliff Atkinson. Cliff recommends structuring your business presentation as a three-act play. Atkinson’s book also gives very precise advice about how to design and sequence the introductory slides to grab the audience’s attention. I personally find many business presentations do not bend easily to the three-act play structure, so consider this one of many available formats.

5. Resonate, Nancy Duarte. Nancy recommends contrasting the current situation (what is) with a desired future (what could be), based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” structure which is common to many, but by no means all, stories. This model is especially suited to motivational speeches where you are advocating for significant changes but may be less appropriate for executive briefings.

But what exactly is “storytelling”? What are the elements of a good story? Can you use storytelling in a business meeting? Why do stories affect us this way? And, most importantly, what specific ways can we use storytelling in presentations, both in small boardroom discussions and in large keynote presentations? That’s the topic of our next blog article.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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5 Responses to Storytelling in the boardroom, part 1 – the power of storytelling

  1. Nancy Duarte says:

    Thanks for including Resonate in your list, Bruce.

  2. Nancy Duarte says:

    How kind of you Bruce! Looking forward to seeing your review.

  3. Pingback: PowerPoint or Whiteboard? Picking the Right Tool for the Job | BNET

  4. Pingback: Las historias mueven a la acción mejor que los datos y hechos « El Arte de Presentar

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