The point of the story is …

I think it happened when we were developing material for our first presentation skills programme.  Somewhere amongst the research or perhaps through interaction with colleagues, we began using the expression ‘competing for brain time’. This concept of competing for both attention and retention of information, has without doubt become even more relevant today … to the extent that we now seem to have our own internal trash can that we can that we drag and drop information into.  We only retain what we flag at the time as really important or useful.

When we stand up to present information or persuade others to follow a specific course of action, like it or not we are just a small part of a deluge of information our audience will experience, in any given day.  We are competing for brain-time more than ever.

Naturally we would like to think that our message is important and needs to be retained (especially if you happen to be the boss!).  The harsh reality is very little is actually retained.  The pressure is on to find creative ways to get our message to stick, each time we present.  Many of us overlook one of the most powerful techniques available … something we all grew  up with … right from the age when our parents read us bedtime stories.

Everyone loves a great story

We are surrounded by storytelling through books, movies,  personal interaction … even blogs!  Life is one big story that unfolds around us … except perhaps in many of the presentations we attend.  Somehow the word ‘presentation’ has become synonymous with sterile information punctuated with bullet points.  Powerpoint doesn’t help. The typical slide templates on offer, generally have a text layout that to my mind resembles a legal document. Bold headings are followed by rows of bullet points and then indented bullet points! …  1.0 blah blah blah … 1.1 blah blah blah … 1.1.1 blah blah blah.

By weaving a story, or a series of stories into your presentation, it’s almost impossible to come across as being too formal or clinical.  Storytelling demands an animated, conversational style.  There’s a warmth to storytelling that melts the corporate facade and makes us more human in the eyes of the audience. Tell a story that your audience can picture themselves in and you won’t need to be as persuasive or sell them your message … they’ll sell themselves.

Storytelling puts us at risk …

Suddenly it’s not a presentation as we know it … it doesn’t fit the mould (read ‘rut’) created to ensure we are business-like and professional.  Watch great presenters like Ben Zander and Stephen Jobs in action. Both have built their professional status by putting themselves at risk and telling great stories to sell ideas and to sell products.  Actually these are the obvious names … try logging on to Ted.com and watch someone less well known, like Caroline Cassey.

I recently came across a video clip of Eamon Kelly, known in Ireland as the  “the seanchai” (a traditional Gaelic word for  storyteller / historian). In the 1950s and 60s, Eamon Kelly brought a tradition of storytelling to the masses, both in his published works and for years in Galway where he ran a one-man show telling stories to enthusiastic, receptive crowds. Born in 1914, the man himself died in 2001, having traveled the world, been nominated for a Tony award on Broadway and shared countless hours of stories with his Irish audience back home.  Here’s an example of Eamon’s magical style.

In reality, the risk of storytelling in presentations, is simply telling the right story … a story that will indelibly etch your message into the minds of your audience.  You can create significant impact with stories that at first appear to be far removed from your presentation topic.  As you reach the punchline of your story … simply add the words – ‘and the point of the story is …’ (try doing that with Eamon’s story!)

Paul

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