Storytelling in the boardroom, part 3 – three secrets for better stories

In my last blog, I discussed the four benefits of using storytelling: clearer message, increased trust, more word of mouth and increased agreement. But what, exactly, is a “story”? And how do you make your story compelling?

There are various definitions of a “story” but in simplest terms, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Something happens, which causes something else to happen, which causes yet something else to happen.

But arranging your PowerPoint deck into a cause-effect chain is more of a story skeleton than a true story that can inspire a storylistening trance. When you are crafting a story, there are three main secrets of effective storytelling.

1. Have a hero the audience can relate to

All stories need someone the audience can relate to: a hero. Just adding a human element to your story moves it further away from logic alone and further toward storytelling. When you find yourself about to talk about SOMETHING, like market segments or international markets, instead try to talk about SOMEONE, like students, mobile professionals or software developers in China.

More tips for creating great heros: 

  • Make it easy for the audience to relate to the hero and project themselves into the story and see the world through the hero’s eyes. Mention values, personal traits or demographics that are similar to the audience.
  • The speaker may be the hero, such as telling your audience about a customer you met or bad product experience you had. In that case, don’t just TELL the audience what happened, but RE-EXPERIENCE the event including the feelings. Transport yourself back in time and you will transport the audience with you, where they can see the world through your eyes.
  • You may decide to make the audience the hero in your presentation. In that case, you will be trying to build a vision of what the world could look like. This approach fits best for motivational speeches or visionary speeches by the company leaders, but may work less well if the audience is more pragmatic and wants to review current status and discuss short-term plans.

Finding the hero is perhaps the hardest part of using storytelling in boardroom presentations, where discussions focus on issues and abstractions like “strategies”, “market segments”, “competitive threats”, “business metrics” and “financial performance.” Many of these presentations simply do not have a hero and cannot be told as a story.

Still, start by trying to identify the hero by asking “who” are we talking about, rather than “what” are we talking about. Finding the hero is the anchor point for moving from a logical argument to a storyteller approach. However, even if you can’t find the hero, there are still many ways to use storytelling, which we will cover in the rest of this blog series.

2. Conflict

A hero needs a goal. And when the hero faces challenges reaching their goal, it’s called “conflict”. Stories where everything goes according to plan are boring. Stories where the hero has to climb mountains, fight dragons and face his childhood enemy to rescue the princess are interesting. So when you tell stories, enliven them by saying what the hero is trying to achieve and what is standing in his way.

More tips on crafting story conflict: 

  • The best way to increase interest in your story is to focus on increasing the conflict, according to screenwriting expert Robert McKee. A story about a smart person getting his Ph.D. is not interesting because they face no hurdles. But a story about a homeless man with a heroin addiction pursuing a Ph.D. is interesting. He faces many challenges to completing his goal.
  • Even better, the hero should face some risk in pursuing the goal; that is, they stand to LOSE something if they fail. Perhaps the homeless man is hiding from the mafia. To pursue his Ph.D. he must come out of hiding and risk his life to pursue his goal.
  • Be explicit not only about what the hero is trying to accomplish, but why. This internal motivation — love, greed, fear, revenge — makes the hero easier to relate to because the audience has had similar motivations, or admires persons with those motivations.

Boardroom meetings are often about goals and challenges, so they are a natural fit for storytelling. But pay attention to highlighting the conflicts and risks if you want the audience to be a bit more attentive, and sprinkle conflict and motivation into all stories you use during your presentation.

3. Use pictures and picture words

The most important thing is to use pictures or picture words, to help the audience visualize the setting and become immersed in the story. People become transported into the idea through the hero’s eyes. When people experience the story internally, it becomes theirs and change happens effortlessly.

In one landmark study of the storylistening trance, researchers visited storytelling festivals and interviewed people in the audience who appeared to be (and later confirmed they were) in a storylistening trance. The one thing that most agreed on: stories they could visualize were the most engaging.

More tips on helping your audience visualize the story: 

  • Provide specific dates and locations, if possible, to help create an internal context. Did this story happen in 2010 or 1867? In downtown Seattle or rural India?
  • Use picture words, like “students” instead of “customers”, “computer” instead of “PC”, “men and women” instead of “voters”.
  • Use action words like “jump”, “chase”, “run”. These also generate mental images.
  • Encourage your audience to become immersed by saying things like “just imagine” and “let me paint you a picture”. Consider using pictures on your PowerPoint slides, or actual props, if the concept is too unfamiliar for the audience to imagine
  • If you use pictures on your PowerPoint slides, choose images that immerse the audience into the scene rather than images that put the audience outside looking into the scene. For instance, if you talk about football, show a picture from the viewpoint of the player — on the field facing an opposing player or inside the huddle — rather than a picture taken from the stands.
  • Add irrelevant details to your descriptions. For instance, instead of saying “mobile phone” say “pink mobile phone”. It may not be relevant, but adding irrelevant detail makes the story more realistic. One 1974 study found people remember 50% more when unnecessary details are added to a sentence.

Not every presentation can be told as a story, and especially in a business meeting. Boardroom discussions tend to revolve around abstractions like “strategies”, “market segments”, “market share” and “competitive threats”. Executives care about metrics and fact-based data, which often don’t strictly lend themselves to stories. So although these tips are based on what makes a great screenplay, not all the tips translate to a boardroom presentation.

Still, there are at least four ways to use storytelling, or the persuasive elements of storytelling, in a business presentation:

  1. Attention: to grab the audience’s attention and make it easier for your audience to understand and agree with your argument
  2. Interest: to create interest and desire to hear your message
  3. Structure: to structure the overall presentation
  4. Enliven: to enliven key points of the presentation

We now cover each in detail, starting with using storytelling to open your boardroom presentation.

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.

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