All types of writing, including presentations, fall somewhere in between two extreme poles: reports and stories. Reports inform, while stories entertain. The structural difference between a report and a story is that a report organizes facts by topic, while a story organizes scenes dramatically. Presentations fall in the middle, and contain both information and story, so they are called explanations. In many organizations the norm is to default to writing reports instead of telling stories. But a presentation isn’t a report.
Some people seem to think that using a presentation application, like PowerPoint, will magically turn their report into a presentation. It won’t. Reports are meant to be distributed. Presentations are designed to be presented. Documents all too often pose as presentations, and in many organizations these “slidedocs” are now the common mode of communications. It’s not that reports aren’t valuable; they just shouldn’t be projected on a screen so an audience can participate in a “read-along.”
The primary purpose of a report is to convey information, while stories are told to produce an experience. The middle area between the two is where explanatory presentations belong. A blend of the two is ideal for your presentation, so that facts and stories can be layered like a cake. Navigating back and forth between fact and story creates a pulse and builds interest. When report material is mixed with story material, information becomes more digestible. It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
Presenting dull, data-driven reports may be more comfortable and require less presentation time, but static reports don’t establish a connection between people and ideas. As soon as you know your task is to create a presentation rather than a report, shift your goal from simply transferring information to producing an experience. This will be the first step in shifting your mindset from the report end of the spectrum to the place where stories belong.
There are plenty of opportunities to use dramatic story structure in presentations. But how do you create a dramatic experience? Creating desire in the audience and then showing how your ideas fill that desire moves people to adopt your perspective. This is the heart of story.
Presentation Drama is Everything
Presentations have the potential to hold an audience’s interest just like a good movie. You might be thinking that it takes years to write a successful screenplay, and you have a real job to do. But isn’t part of your “real job” to communicate ideas well, help people understand objectives, and persuade them to change? Building your presentations with some of the attributes from myths and movies will help your ideas resonate with others.
In great stories you met a hero you can relate to. This hero is almost always likeable. He also has an intense desire or goal that is threatened in one way or another. As the story progresses, you root for him as he successfully confronts his trials and tribulations until he is finally transformed and the story is resolved. As Author Robert McKee explains in his book Story, “Something must be at stake that convinces the audience that a great deal will be lost if the hero doesn’t obtain his goal.” If nothing is at risk, then it’s not interesting.”
The pattern of your communications is similar. There’s a goal you must reach, but you have to overcome trials and resistance to succeed. However, when you realize your desire, you will gain remarkable results.
One reason presentations are so boring is that they lack recognizable story patterns. The following pages analyze two story models that are considered by the film industry to be basic for creating a good screenplay. When you apply them, they’ll help you develop your message and discover the potential for storytelling in your presentations. These forms work! Rather than relying on set formulas or rigid rules, they focus on structure and character transformation. Because they’re flexible, they don’t stifle creativity.
Once you’ve been shown these story forms from Hollywood, you’ll be introduced to a form that’s similar, but designed specifically to help presenters: The Presentation Form.
The most simplistic way to describe the structure of a story is situation, complication, and resolution. From mythic adventures to recollections shared around the dinner table, all stories follow this pattern.
Story Templates Create Structure
Screenwriters use tools to create a solid structure and story. Syd Field is considered the father of Hollywood’s story template. In his book Screenplay, Field uses concepts from the three-act structure first proposed by Aristotle to create the Syd Field Paradigm. Field noticed that in successful movies, the second act was often twice the length of the first and third acts:
ACT 1 sets the story up by introducing characters, creating relationships, and establishing the hero’s unfulfilled desire, which holds the plot in place.
ACT 2 presents dramatic action held together by confrontation. The main character encounters obstacles that keep him or her from achieving his or her desire (dramatic need).
ACT 3 resolves the story. Resolution doesn’t mean ending, but rather solution. Did the main character succeed or fail?
All stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a defining point in which the beginning turns in to the middle and middle into the end. Field calls these plot points. A plot point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that spins the story around in another direction. Each plot point sets up the story for a change.
A great presentation is similar to a screenplay in several ways:
It has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
It has an identifiable, inherent structure.
The first plot point is an incident that captures the audience’s intrigue and interest. In presentations, we’ll call this a turning point.
The beginning and end are much shorter than the middle.
This is a form, not a formula. It’s what a screenplay would look like if you could X-ray it and examine its structure. The movie Shawshank Redemption is shown in the diagram on the previous page with the acts and plot points annotated.
Field’s model makes sense as a template for scripting movies; however, it is only partially applicable to presentations. Next, we’ll examine an additional story form that will supply some of the missing pieces.