How to tell stories in presentations

12 November 2015 By Northern Lights

How to tell stories in presentations image


I am helping an organisation with their internal communications and we are trying to make their employee event more relevant and engaging for those attending.

We are involving more employees and building in some interaction, but inevitably a number of leaders still want to talk from a lectern and use PowerPoint to support their talk. So for the time being, we’ve discussed making their presentations more interesting by telling stories to explain key points.

And they are struggling. So this blog is to help our client, but hopefully it will help many others too!

  1. Why is storytelling important?

When did you last go out with family or friends? What caught your imagination and made you come home and tell your partner or mention something to a colleague the next morning? Was it a story? One that you related to or you thought made a really interesting point – dramatic, funny or emotional?

Nick Morgan writes on Forbes that our brains typically can only remember seven things at a time – plus or minus two (this is a rather good blog on storytelling for advanced presenters).

But tell a story and you hold your audience, they will understand the point you are making, remember it – and hopefully discuss and share it with a colleague later.

  1. What kind of stories?

Another client of ours has had to make significant changes to some of their production lines and this has had a big impact on planning and shift patterns.

Now, you could explain what future shift patterns are going to be in terms of “Our A, B and D lines are all half full so these are going to have single shifts. Line C is really busy so we are going to put three shifts on this one, whereas the rest of the plant is …..”

At this point you just know your audience will be switching off and thinking about what they are going to cook for supper, the football game on Saturday or why their teenage daughter is so stroppy.

Instead, imagine starting with a story about your customer. “You all know our biggest customer is based in Dubai. Well you will have noticed that your petrol prices have dropped in the last year and that’s because oil prices around the world are at their lowest in years. So the economy in Dubai has slowed down and there isn’t the same demand for our customer’s products as a year ago. They have been very apologetic but had to stop the main order. Our sales team have been busy and they have managed to get two short term orders from France to fill this gap – well done and thanks to our sales team. It’s good news for our production – and your jobs – but this is why we are changing all our shifts.”

In this story, there is a connection to the audience – your petrol prices have fallen. That creates a visual image in people’s minds, something to hook the following details onto.

You have also brought the customer to life – they are humans just like our production teams. And they are affected by economic swings too – you are creating empathy. And the story then explains how the shop floor is being affected and why. This gives a reason for changes and difficult times but in most businesses, we all want to help our customers if we can. It’s motivating. So you don’t mind being messed around quite so much.

  1. What does a good story look like?

If you want to see the masters put storytelling in practice, browse a few TED talks.

I was asked to moderate an event last year where we showed Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk on why there are so few women at the top (she is chief operating officer at Facebook), so I spent some time watching this talk and analysing what she does. She gives quite a few facts and is making a few key points through it – but the whole speech is built on storytelling to explain each point.

Sheryl Sandberg video

It is worth watching this – but don’t be daunted. This talk was to promote her book, Lean In, and she will have spent months developing the stories with a team of speech writers and PR people. Few of us have the luxury of this time or support team!

  1. Build up a bank of stories

Storytelling is hard when you start doing it, but keep going. One day you will suddenly realise that your presentation is 90% stories and you can walk the stage, look the audience in the eye and enjoy it.

The great thing about telling stories is you don’t have to remember much except the first line of the story to get you going – the rest is all there in your head as if you were telling your friends over coffee.

The best thing is start jotting down good stories at the back of a notebook. These are useful for team meetings, explaining points to colleagues or the bigger presentations. They might be a customer telling you about their new products, a manager explaining how her team has solved a tricky problem or a story from your investors that gives their perspective of your business for the future.

I worked with one chief exec several years ago as a video was being made of the company for their employees around the world. When we played his video back, I stopped it after two minutes and said ‘this is the point when I fell asleep’. His colleagues were horrified but actually, he could see it for himself. We then started explaining their very complicated manufacturing process in China in terms of the products that we all use every day – they produce clever metal parts that stop our laptops from over-heating. He loved it and quickly got the hang of talking about his business in a whole new way. A few weeks later I got an email from one of their execs who said there had been several comments from the leadership team about how he was far more interesting at their board meetings.

storytelling 2

So storytelling is not just for presentations. It is an absolutely key skill for any leader and is the way to motivate colleagues and inspire your teams to do extraordinary things.

More tips on giving presentations in these blogs too

Good luck if you are doing a presentation and give us a call if you would like help with your next one.


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Written by Northern Lights

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