Storytelling in the boardroom, part 5 – increase interest with the Inciting Incident

In the last blog post, we discussed the first way to incorporate storytelling into your boardroom presentation by using a story to grab the audience’s attention and attune them to your message. We now talk about how to use storytelling to increase interest in your presentation.

Robert McKee is an author and workshop leader on the art of screenwriting. In his book “Story” McKee emphasizes the importance of conflict to create interest. In particular, he talks about the Inciting Incident – the thing that puts the hero’s world out of balance and starts him on the story’s path: life was good, then the enemy attacked, now we are at war. McKee emphasizes that, if your story lacks urgency, the number one thing you can do to improve it is to heighten the conflict.

Your presentation should also have an Inciting Incident: why is this presentation necessary, what is at stake if we don’t address it?

Without the Inciting Incident, there’s little urgency for the audience to act. If you feel the presentation lacks urgency, focus on strengthening the Inciting Incident. The bigger the conflict, the hungrier the audience is to hear your recommendation.

In Moving Mountains, author Henry Boettinger suggests several ways to frame the Inciting Incident. The following list is inspired by that book’s list. Experiment with several of these approaches to find one that feels right for you and will resonate best with the many stakeholders you need to persuade.

Nostalgia. Tell a story about the past and appeal to the audience’s pride for a glorious future.            

“Seven years ago, the Jones brothers opened their first mobile phone manufacturing plant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Since then we’ve been selling mobile phones and have succeeded because of superior handset design. Now it’s time to write the next chapter of our company’s history.”

Gathering Storm. Recite a list of bad news items and bring them together, like gathering storm clouds, to create a sense of anxiety and impending doom.   

“Sales are flat or declining in all regions, competitors are coming out with new handsets every month, our margins are being flattened by powerful channel partners. We need to do something different.”

Unpleasant Future. Talk with certainty about an unpleasant future if nothing is done.          

“One thing is certain: we will continue to see steady and accelerating market share losses for the next five years unless we invest in breaking open new markets.”

Crossroads. Argue that you have reached a fork in the road and you must make a decision. This works best if you can refer to a real transition that is happening.

“Handset sales are flat or declining in all markets. We just acquired Cosmic Mobile and our newly merged company must decide how to make the most of our combined strengths. We have two choices…”

Failure. Refer to decisions in the past that haven’t worked out. Avoid blaming anyone in the room because people have a way of rejecting ideas that threaten their egos.

“We invested in a new line of handsets last year but sales have not taken off the way we expected. We need to learn from our mistakes and try something new.”

New Development. Talk about how something in the environment has changed which creates an opportunity that wasn’t possible in the past.

“Most phones have 3G wireless access, which wasn’t available even three years ago! We’ve always been a handset company. But why can’t our handsets come with access to online software downloads like games, ring tones and business applications?”

Evolution. Talk about how the world is changing and you must keep up.   

“Five years ago we had three competitors. Today, we have nine. Five years ago email on the phone was a novelty. Today’s it’s a commodity. The industry has changed and so we must also change to stay ahead.”

Dare. Appeal to people’s pride by challenging them to meet a difficult-to-attain goal. It could include a competitor’s taunt or a comparison to a company’s past achievements.

“Our competitors say we’re behind the times. Are we going to let them steal our share? Or are we going to fight?”

Pay Your Dues. Show how some rule has been broken and now you are obligated to make amends.

“Handset sales are flat or declining in all regions and our shareholders are rightly upset. Their expectation is steady growth. We need to present them with a new plan that will achieve what we promised them.”

Adventure. Create a desire to take on a risky new strategy by talking about the potential treasures, and also the dangers, versus the status quo.   

“The mobile handset market is mature. We can settle in for steady three percent growth per year. Or, we can break out of the pack and invest in handsets with a completely new form factor. It’s tough to predict what form factors will catch on so we’ll have to be willing to experiment and have more failures than successes, but if get it right, it will mean strong and steady growth and pulling ahead of the competition.”

The Great Dream. Paint a picture of a utopian future that is bold and visionary and builds a strong desire to get there by any means possible! This works best when expressed by a high-ranking officer and appeals to basic human emotions. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an example.

“I imagine a future where our handsets stand for pride of workmanship and rewards for a job well done. I imagine college graduates, filled with hopes and dreams and ambition, picking our phone because it says I’ve arrived. I’ve worked hard, I’ve overcome every challenge, and I’ve arrived.”

New Information. You tell people that what they thought was true is not true, or you just learned some new information that changes everything.

“We’ve believed that a good price, good form factor and widespread distribution are all that’s needed to be successful. Well, we were wrong. Every mobile handset maker has that. We need something more.”

This is not an exhaustive list, but a useful starting point as you think about how to approach your Inciting Incident. There are many ways to introduce an Inciting Incident and you should pay attention to other speakers to learn their methods for introducing a problem that makes the audience starved for the answer.

In the next blog post, we talk about how to structure your entire presentation in the form of a story. 

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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2 Responses to Storytelling in the boardroom, part 5 – increase interest with the Inciting Incident

  1. tara says:

    Hi Bruce,

    Great post though the Dave Paradi link is not working.
    Your book arrived last week and am enjoying it:)

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