What the best presenters do differently

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, villagers came from far and wide to hear from Abraham Lincoln, then a prairie lawyer with a gift for storytelling. Lincoln did not have the advantage of modern technology. He stood on a tree stump instead of a TED stage, and PowerPoint wouldn’t be invented for 130 years. And yet, Lincoln “could simultaneously educate, entertain, and move his audience,” writes Goodwin.

While the tools of communication have changed since Lincoln regaled crowds with his storytelling techniques, the human brain hasn’t. Our minds are wired for history. We think narratively and love to consume content as a story.

Understanding the difference between presentation and storytelling is critical to a leader’s ability to engage an audience and move them to action. Unfortunately, presentation software often gets in the way. Slides should be designed to complement a story, not replace the storyteller.

Here are five storytelling strategies to help you stand out the next time you give a presentation.

Presenters open PowerPoint. Storytellers construct a narrative.

If you want to engage your audience, you have to tell a story. But for most people preparing presentations, storytelling is not a priority.

Most “presenters” do what seems logical: they start by opening the slideshow. But most presentation programs aren’t storytelling tools. These are digital delivery mechanisms. PowerPoint’s default template asks for a title and text.

A bulleted list is not a story. A story is a series of connected events told through words and/or pictures. A story has a theme, attention-grabbing moments, heroes and villains, and a satisfying conclusion. Well-designed slides can’t make up for a poorly structured story.

Award-winning filmmakers read or write the story before taking a camera. They watch the film unfold by sketching or drawing each scene on storyboards. Similarly, effective presenters think through their content well before opening PowerPoint.

Before you sit down to create your slides, try this three-step process. First, write down your idea as if you were telling someone a story. Since you don’t write or speak naturally in bulleted form, avoid them. Instead, use complete sentences with nouns, verbs, and transitions between paragraphs and ideas. Second, visualize each of your main concepts in “storyboarding”: sketch out ideas on a whiteboard or a blank sheet of paper. Finally, gather the elements that will bring your story to life: videos, animations, graphics or photos.

Presenters use text. Storytellers love pictures.

While serving as commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield became a social media sensation by picking up a guitar and singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while floating in zero gravity. Back on Earth, his famous TED Talk has garnered over 11 million views.

Hadfield’s presentation, “What I Learned Going Blind in Space,” was an amazing display of visual storytelling. His PowerPoint presentation contained 35 slides, with no text. Instead, Hadfield relied on images, images, animations and videos to introduce audiences to a world few will ever experience.

Researchers found that your audience will remember about 10% of content if they just hear information. But the “picture superiority effect” means that if they hear information and see a photo, they will retain 65%.

Florence Nightingale understood the superiority of the image more than a century before the invention of PowerPoint. Nightingale was a statistician and mathematician. She was also an empathetic nurse who was shocked to find that more British soldiers were dying from unsanitary conditions in hospitals than from battle wounds. When Nightingale applied for funding from the UK authorities to improve conditions, she translated the dry data into a color-coded graph. Nightingale knew that humans were more affected by stories and images than by data and text alone.

If you want to engage an audience, create a presentation that prioritizes images to complement the story you’re telling. A combination of pictures and words enhances learning far more than words alone.

Presenters dump data. Storytellers humanize it.

As Nightingale discovered, the human brain was not designed to make sense of large numbers. Data is abstract until it is put into context that people can understand. And people can understand people.

I once met a group of executives from a major medical equipment company who were preparing to launch a new brain scan machine at a prestigious conference. They sent me hundreds of pages of clinical data to prove that the technology could identify a patient’s condition faster and more accurately than any existing device.

“Where are the people? ” I asked.

Although the data provided evidence for the effectiveness of the technology, it told nothing. Only humans could do that.

After a few hours of brainstorming with the management team, we decided to put faces to the data. We built a presentation around two typical patients – David and Susan – who would benefit from the technology if they entered a hospital with symptoms of a possible stroke or heart attack.

At the same conference the following year, the executive who gave the presentation was walking down a hallway when a doctor stopped him and said, “You’re David and Susan’s guy. Excellent presentation. The participant had not remembered all the data, but the story left an impression.

The next time you have big data sets to present, add a face to the stats.

Presenters are predictable. Storytellers surprise the audience.

Most PowerPoint presentations are boring because they’re predictable. We know what comes next – another slide of bullet points, followed by another and another. A good story, however, has the element of surprise.

When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPod, he told the public that the music player could store 1,000 songs. While other music players on the market might make the same claim, Jobs explained that none of the competitors could fit in your pocket. And with the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Jobs reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the smallest MP3 player on the market. “A thousand songs in your pocket” has become one of the most iconic slogans in the product’s history.

Although many people considered Steve Jobs to be one of the most outstanding business presenters of our time, the Apple co-founder knew the real secret to winning over an audience: crafting a presentation that complements a well-crafted story.

The human brain pays attention to novelty – twists and unexpected events. Our brain straightens out when we sense something that breaks a pattern.

There is no limit to your creativity. While you don’t need to pull products out of your pocket to grab the public’s attention, plan to surprise people with something they aren’t expecting.

The presenters practice in silence. The storytellers repeat aloud.

Most business presentations are forgettable because speakers forget they are performing, not presenting. A great presentation informs, inspires, engages and entertains. In other words, it’s part of the performance and needs to be repeated as such.

Most professionals silently skim through their slides to prepare for a presentation. The storytellers repeat out loud. They practice their vocal delivery, adding perfectly timed pauses and varying the pace of their speech. If they plan to stand in front of a group, they will stand during the rehearsal. If they have to be seated in a Zoom call, they’ll take their seats on rehearsal and deliver each slide as if they’re giving the real thing.

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When you see yourself as a storyteller, the presentation your audience sees will change. Don’t let presentation software get in the way of giving your audience information they’ll pay attention to and remember.

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