Storytelling in the boardroom, part 6 – 4 ways to structure your preso as a story

(Back to part 1). So far we’ve talked about how to use stories, or story elements, to introduce a presentation. But what about the rest of your presentation? Can you impose a story arc to hold your entire presentation together from beginning to end?

Some authors believe you can structure a presentation along a timeline with a beginning, middle and end. But in my experience, a true three-act play structure only works when you’re trying to introduce a vision for the future. Most boardroom presentations are not so grand: status updates, financial reports, marketing plan reviews and collaborative decision-making meetings. And the presenter is not always in a position to be making visionary recommendations for the future.

These daily presentations do not bend easily to story outlines. But you can still lift some of the elements of storytelling to make your entire presentation more cohesive and persuasive.

1. Classic Three-Act Play Structure

Motivational speakers use the classic three-act play structure. They start by talking about how things were in the past, then how things are today and then a vision for the future.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech follows this classic structure. He starts by talking about promises that were made to African-Americans when slavery was ended with “Five score years ago, a great American signed the Emancipation Proclamation”. He then moves into today: “But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free.” and outlines a number of promises that are still unfulfilled today. Finally, he moves into the most famous part of his speech, imagining a glorious future: “I say to you today, my friends,  I still have a dream.”

This structure, talking about your past and your current situation, then painting a vision for the future is appropriate when you are trying to introduce change and rally enthusiastic support. But it does not fit the everyday world of status updates, project plans and financial reports. Following are some other story structures that you might consider.

2. Case Study

There are times you can bend a presentation to fit a storyline if you think in terms of a case study – who is the case about, what is their problem, what is the solution. For instance, to present the new features of your product to the sales team, rather than presenting bullet points and product photos, you could create an imaginary character and walk them through their day, running into problems that get solved by the new product features.

For instance, I once conducted research to learn how university students choose a certain type of software. I realized their brand loyalty starts young and deepens over time. In my final presentation, I created a prototypical student, complete with a name and photograph, and talked about how the decisions they made in high school influenced the decisions they made in university and then into their professional lives. I supported the storyline with data but always going back to the prototypical student and transitioning through the presentation by aging the student.

If possible, give the main character a name and picture, to make them real to the audience. Enliven them with characteristics that are similar to the audience, such as their birthplace or favourite hobbies, to make it easier for the audience to relate to the character.

3. Cause-Effect Chain

Even if a pure case study doesn’t work, you may still be able to hold a presentation together by presenting information in a cause-effect order, the basic skeleton of the story format. Here’s how.

In my book, I teach business managers to break their deck into 3-4 sections based on a category. It can be any kind of category: price, place, product and promotion. Or North America, Europe, South America and Asia-Pacific. Or competitors, customers and channel. It doesn’t matter.

Then, say something specific about each category. What about competitors? What about the customer? What about the channel? Make a specific statement about each category.

For instance, say you can break your presentation into these three categories: 

  • Competition. We are losing share to small, web-savvy startups who compete on price and a slick user interface
  • Customers. Our customers are looking for lower-cost software alternatives available on the internet
  • Channel. More and more, customers are purchasing directly from the online vendors and bypassing intermediaries completely

Now, is there a cause-effect relationship to be found here? Perhaps you think customers looking for lower-cost alternatives are causing them to shop online, which is creating market demand for web-savvy startups. You could organize the deck as Customers – Channel – Competitors. Your overall narrative might sound like this:

We’ve always focused on the most profitable customers while price-sensitive customers either went without or purchased less than they needed. Now, rather than calling our channel partners, these price-sensitive customers are using search engines and going direct to the competition. This is attracting web-savvy competitors who are winning these forgotten customers with lower prices and an attractive online shopping experience.

Note that once you get this far, you may want to consider turning this into a case study approach with a hypothetical customer and talk about how her choices and shopping habits have changed over the past five years.

4. Theme or Extended Metaphor

When you open the presentation with a metaphor, you introduce a theme. This theme or metaphor could be revisited throughout your presentation as a thread that holds it all together.

For instance, in Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points he shows a presentation that opens with the inciting incident “We are facing an environment of unprecedented change” and uses a metaphor of a ship sailing through rocky waters. Even if you cannot adopt a story structure, you could continue that metaphor throughout your presentation, comparing the different challenges to pirates and sharks and hidden coral reefs. Different options could be compared to islands in the distance. Resources could be compared to the unpredictable wind. And so on.

Not all business presentations fit a storytelling format. For instance, in developing a marketing strategy, you may identify three trends you need to address to increase sales next year: new competitors, legislative changes, and not enough sales reps. But it’s difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to bend this to fit a storytelling format.

However, even in these cases, you can use storytelling to enliven key pieces of data. That’s the focus of our final 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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