Storytelling in the boardroom, part 7 – using stories to bring your slides to life

We’ve now covered three ways to use storytelling in a boardroom presentation: to introduce the presentation, to increase interest and to structure the entire presentation. We now cover how to use storytelling throughout your presentation, to bring a list of dry facts to life.

1. Turn a fact into a quote

Let’s say you want to make a point on your slide that customer loyalty is low and there are a lot of customers thinking about switching to the competitor. Rather than make that a bullet point, put a picture or silhouette of your prototypical customer with a speech balloon that says “I like your company, but the other company is offering me a discount to give them a try. I’m probably going to call them next time I have a problem.”

I’ve seen this technique used very effectively. In one example, a presenter was showing us the three benefits of cloud computing. But rather than just listing the benefits as text, she showed three photographs of customers with each talking about the benefit. I use this technique all the time.


2. Statistics

Most business slides are filled with charts and graphs. But data lacks the ability to create mental images, which is critical for the storytelling effect. People can relate to things if they can imagine what they look like.

For instance, in Made to Stick, the authors talk about scientists who had computed some mathematical formula so accurately, it was as accurate as “throwing a rock from the sun to the earth and getting within one-third mile of the target every time”. Does this statistic stick? Can you realistically visualize throwing a rock from the sun to the earth? Can you visualize how close one-third mile is? Are you able to get impressed by this level of accuracy?

But how about something more concrete: It’s as accurate as hitting a golf ball the length of a football field and getting a hole-in-one every time.

Both of these statistics state the same level of accuracy. But you can visualize one while you cannot visualize the other. It’s the same thing with your statistics. If you say “25% of our customers are dissatisfied” that’s just a statistic. It’s hard to visualize all of your customers and then divide them into two faceless groups. But it’s more compelling to explain your graph using language that’s easy to visualize, like “The average sales rep has 20 customers. This graph indicates that five of those customers can’t wait to do business with another company.”

3. Customer anecdotes and quotes

I conduct market research for a living and talk to customers about what they like, what they don’t like and how they make decisions. So I’m full of customers quotes and stories when I finish a project and sit down to write the final report.

Consider using customer quotes and anecdotes to make your points come to life. You can argue with a fact but you can’t argue when you hear it in the customer’s own voice.

4. Add people pictures

We relate to people. Some brain scientists argue that there are actually three parts of the brain: the part that recognizes text, the part that recognizes pictures and the part that recognizes people. Eye-tracking studies show that when we look at a picture, we are drawn to pictures of faces. In fact, our gaze is momentarily frozen on the eyes of people in pictures.

That’s why, whenever your slides talk about people, think about adding pictures of those people to the slide. I like to add silhouettes to represent the heroes in my presentations, rather than photographs. It’s easy to find photographs on the internet but they are often protected by copyright. But you can easily make silhouettes by finding a photograph online and then tracing it with PowerPoint’s drawing tool. Then you can add interesting gradient fills, drop shadows and other finishing touches. You can re-use this image on other slides to remind the audience you’re talking about the hero, not something abstract.

 5. Bleed immersive images off the slide edge

When you use pictures, try to find pictures that put your audience right inside the action. For instance, if you’re showing a picture of a business meeting, show it from the point of view of one of the participants, rather than someone watching from the back of the room. Help your audience see the world through the hero’s eyes.

There are many places online where you can find free high-quality images to use in your slides.

6. Real examples

One of the best presentations I ever saw involved someone who evaluated our product website by showing actual screenshots and demonstrating what the customer experience was like. It wasn’t pretty. They started by saying “Okay, I’m looking for an answer to a licensing question”. Then they showed us how they selected links to click on, which lead to another page loaded with links. After five or six clicks, they were back at the page they started. The message was clear: our website was a disaster.

Rather than simply summarizing the main points, consider having the audience experience a situation with you and then sum up the points. For instance, if you want to illustrate how slick a competitor’s mobile phone is, or how terrible your customer service is, don’t just list the details in bullet points but show a picture or play the customer service recording.

7. Video and audio

Some of the most memorable presentations I’ve seen have included video, especially of customers speaking. Executives love to hear things directly in the customer’s own words. Now that mobile phone have built-in cameras, and camcorders are affordable, you should think about capturing more video for your presentations.

For instance, if you’re going to a trade show, bring a camcorder to capture the competitor’s booth. Going on a customer visit? Ask if you can interview the customer on film. Record customers shopping in your store to illustrate how them make decisions.

I conduct market research for a living and try to capture customer comments on video. You can also capture their thoughts as audio and insert it into your presentation. The one tip to keep in mind when you play audio or video: tell the audience what to pay attention to. For instance, point to the person at the end of the table and say “notice how this man keeps interrupting to disagree when the speaker complains about our product.”

Closing thoughts

I’m not a believer in giving “formulas” for writing presentations as stories. The last thing we want is to attend presentations that are predictable and look like carbon copies of each other.

Still, stories are powerful and you will want to develop your own style. I personally find that business presentations do not bend easily to fit a storytelling structure. This series of blog posts is an attempt to provide some practical applications you can experiment with.

There have been several books written on storytelling and I encourage you to sample them all. There is no single book which really captures storytelling for business presentations. However, each book on its own is a great starting place for helping you develop your own unique style. 

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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