If you’ve been following our research and our blog, you know that, here at Quantified, we’re big believers in the power of storytelling. We know that storytelling language and structure make communication significantly more memorable, and we know they have a distinct neurological and chemical effect on our audience’s brains.
But what does it take to actually incorporate storytelling into your next big communication event? After all, it’s one thing to tell stories in a TED Talk or a commencement speech or a wedding toast, but a team meeting? A financial presentation?
Believe it or not, storytelling devices have a place in just about any communication setting, and they’ll give every message a boost.
To get you started, here are three storytelling strategies to practice in your next presentation:
1. The Classic Narrative Structure
If you ever took a creative writing class in school, it’s likely one of the first things you learned was the classic narrative structure. Its key components are the setting and characters, tension and conflict (or rising action), climax, resolution, and new normal.
Every great story has all of these pieces, and your next presentation should, too.
Here at Quantified, one of our favorite examples of narrative structure in leadership communication is the way Tim Cook explained Apple’s 2016 privacy conflict with the FBI to Time Magazine:
“I think the attack itself happened midweek, […] and we didn’t hear anything for a few days. I think it was Saturday before we were contacted. We have a desk, if you will, set up to take requests from government. […] The call came into that desk, and they presented us with a warrant […] for all information that we had about that phone, and so we passed that information, which for us was a cloud backup on the phone, and some other metadata, if you will, that we would have about the phone. […] Some time passed, quite a bit of time, over a month I believe, and they came back and said we want to get some additional information. And we said well, here’s what we would suggest. […] So we were helping. We were consulting in addition to passing the information that we had on the phone, which was all the information that we had. Some more time passed, and they started talking to us about how they might sue, or they may put a claim in. But they never told us whether they were going to do it or not. By then it’s seventy-five days or so from the attack.”
Cook starts by setting the scene—the lone government phone—and then builds the tension as Apple fields call after call from the FBI. And this is only the beginning of the interview. If you read on, he builds that tension all the way up to the climax—the FBI’s lawsuit—and then takes us through the resolution of how Apple decided to handle the matter and what that would mean moving forward. Rather than simply reiterating Apple’s perspective, Cook turns the incident into a full-blown narrative the audience can watch unfold on the page in front of them.
So how does this narrative arc work in your next communication?
You might be able to structure the whole talk as a narrative. For example, your overview of last quarter’s financial performance might start out with a picture of what the end of the previous quarter looked like, then a discussion of the goals the company was trying to achieve and the challenges and obstacles it faced. The climactic moment would be the make-or-break event that more or less solidified the quarter’s financial performance, and the resolution and new normal would be an overview of how the company is reacting to the numbers and how it plans to either come back from a bad quarter or continue steady growth after a good one.
Or, you might sprinkle several mini narratives throughout your presentation. If you’re filling in your team on recent corporate social responsibility efforts, you might include stories highlighting individual employee’s or team’s participation in each initiative.
When the content of a presentation feels dry on the surface, it can be too easy to fall back on rote recitation of facts, and that’s a sure way make your audience to disengage. Your annual investor day may not be the next Hollywood blockbuster, but your message is much more likely to be heard if you frame it with the classic narrative arc in mind.
2. A Relatable Hero
Every great story has a hero the audience can root for. She is flawed, relatable, and doggedly pursuing her objective. In that financial presentation, your hero might be the team that developed the new product that put your numbers over the top—or that persisted against all odds and still fell short of the goal. In your corporate social responsibility report, the hero might be the employee who had a vision to make a difference in the community. In a sales call that follows the “what if” method, the hero is the prospective buyer—the customer persona brought to life.
We see this technique used all the time in political communication, when a candidate or leader illustrates a point by sharing one person’s individual experience. For example, in his 2015 State of the Union Address, former president Barack Obama made Rebekah and Ben Erler the heroes of his story about the United States’ rebound from the 2008 financial crisis:
Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way. They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
“If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.” As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction ” and home for dinner every night. “It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times. America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. They represent the millions who have worked hard, and scrimped, and sacrificed, and retooled.
While Obama could have simply said, “Americans work hard, and we pushed through the financial crisis,” the fact that he framed it as a short story with a clear hero (the Erler family) made it much easier for the audience to relate to and internalize his message.
The key is that, without a hero at the center of the story, all the conflict, climax, and resolution in the world is going to fall flat. Audiences want someone they can root for at the center of their story—someone they can support and in whom they can be emotionally invested.
So next time you’re preparing for a critical communication event, consider what kind of hero—an individual or a team—will move your particular audience.
3. Vibrant Language
Finally, let’s look at some of the linguistic keys to great storytelling. When it comes to weaving storytelling language into your message, think colorful, sensory, and figurative language. The kind that helps create a vivid picture and an emotional connection for your audience. Even if a full-blown story doesn’t fit within the parameters of your presentation‚ vibrant language will make your message more emotionally engaging, memorable, and relatable.
Start with figurative language. What metaphors might bring your sales report to life a little bit? Was last quarter like rowing a leaky canoe upstream with just one paddle? Or was it smooth sailing, with the wind at your back? (Bonus points if your metaphors relate to your business’s products and services.)
Then, weave in imagery. As you’re setting the scene and introducing your hero, how can you bring them to life for your audience? What did the meeting room look, feel, and even smell like when the hero pitched the community project that sent your company’s reputation through the roof?
And add a little emotion. Don’t be afraid to use some charged language. If your team attempted to achieve something, isn’t it more powerful to say they fought for it, or they strove for it, or they worked like hell to make it happen?
While it’s important not to let your storytelling language obscure what’s at the core of your message, when you can punch up your facts with a little color and emotion, your audience will be more likely to relate to, engage with, and recall what you’re telling them.
Now it’s your turn. As you’re preparing for your next presentation—whether you’re pitching an idea to your boss one-on-one or addressing hundreds at a conference, consider how you can use these strategies to turn your message into a story.