What's in a story?
Turns out that the answer is far more intricate than you might have thought.
Since the beginning of time, storytelling has been key to Human Memory. Before writing, stories were passed down through oral traditions. Long before we expressed our history through names, dates, and numbers, stories were what kept culture alive.
The reason behind this is that stories, though highly subjective, contain a critical element that makes us remember more than hard facts and cold stats will ever do: stories have emotion. And emotion is what makes our memory stick.
This principle, simple at its basis, spans across all aspects of our lives in a far more complex way. Consciously, or unconsciously, directly, or indirectly, we all wield the influence of stories when we communicate – especially when we want to generate an impact. Or build a connection.
The same principle stands when it comes to your work. If you have ever tried to pitch a case, sway your colleague's (or leaders') point of view, or simply present a result to a stakeholder or client, you know that keeping your audience engaged is no mean task. In one way or another, you might have tried to embed it with different techniques to make your presentation more appealing, convincing, and/or inspiring.
This is storytelling at its finest. Storytelling is a tool, and when combined with solid knowledge, it can become a powerful one – far from being something exclusively used in fairy tales.
For some, storytelling might come more naturally than for others, but like any tool, it can be learned and harnessed to help drive your case.
This is particularly important when it comes to Executive Presentations. If you're presenting to leaders, you might soon find out that the shortest and to-the-point a presentation is, the better. More importantly, leaders' attention might be easily – and naturally – driven elsewhere, to other priorities.
So, how can you ensure that the message is landing?
There are a few tips and tricks that might come in handy.
You may have heard of the concept of a 'story arch': all stories have an introduction, a conflict, and a solution. The story arch may be difficult to apply down to earth, however, one way you can bring it to life is by answering the five W questions:
Try to always dedicate a short bit to context setting, even if you believe your audience is familiarised with what is going on. Usually, one or two short sentences will do, but it depends on how much your audience knows already. For this section, you will usually answer the following questions:
- What happened?
- Why is this Executive Presentation happening?
If you are driving a case for an idea or solution to something, then it means that there is a gap or problem you have detected that needs to be covered. Try answering:
- Why is there a challenge?
- What issues have you identified and wish to discuss today?
- What issues does your audience have related to / because of the above?
Thinking of who is impacted is critical. One of the biggest keys to storytelling is ensuring that what you are discussing is relevant to your audience. Think of answers to the following questions:
- Who is affected / impacted by the topic you are discussing?
- Is your current audience part of the group that is being affected? If not, why do they care? How can you make this explicit?
Here's the golden ticket! This is your big idea, the update you need to provide or the solution you need to present – basically, this is the centre of your Executive Presentation. Try answering the following:
- How are you proposing to solve the gap / issue presented above?
- What's your big idea, update, or solution? Remember to keep it as short and sweet as possible!
Finally, all solutions and ideas presented will naturally be followed by a: 'So, what’s next?'. Think of the following:
- What is the timeline to action the proposed solution?
- What are the immediate next steps?
- Are there any tangible actions / takeaways that your audience can get out of your presentation?
When preparing for an Executive Presentation, try answering at least one of the questions per each of the W’s above.
Once you have your answers, the story arch of your presentation can be easily built. Typically, the introduction will be about context setting, so the 'What' can fit easily in here. The conflict would showcase the 'Why' and the 'Who', acknowledging what needs to be remediated or the gap you detected and wish to bring to light. The solution is usually the key part: this is your idea, your proposal on how to solve the conflict you presented earlier, and when it can be actioned.
These questions will give you control over the story you want to tell; they will give you a purpose and direct your presentation's structure to match. While they might not be explicit in your presentation, they are the backbone that will give your Executive Presentation impact.
Some extra tips and tricks to have under your sleeve
It is important to note that these five questions on their own might not be enough: there is more than answering the five W questions. This is why there are a few tips and tricks that might help you build your presentation:
- Think of a central idea and a hook that is relevant to your audience.
- Apply the 80/20 rule. Less is more.
- Pace the conversation.
- Keep visual anchors.
- Gauge the temperature of the audience.
I didn’t have the time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.
Storytelling is an art as much as it is a tool, and as such it can be applied in different ways. It takes time to learn the technique of storytelling. Applying the principles above might help you get started in the right direction; however, you may find that your approach differs, and that is fine.
At the end of the day, do not forget that this is your story to tell. Now go tell it.
Author of the article: Mercedes Hernandez Mincheff