You can probably recall the last story you heard, but you likely don’t remember the last presentation you sat through.
A big part of this is because you physically react to story: your heart races, your eyes dilate, you get a chill down your spine, you laugh, you clap, you lean forward, you jump back. Your brain just wants to take more in, because your brain loves a great story. But your brain doesn’t always love a presentation because most presentations aren’t based on story principles. It’s totally possible though, to use story techniques in presentations to make them more compelling if you know a little bit about how stories work.
Great Stories are All About Transformation
The most important thing to remember about storytelling is it’s all about transformation. The typical story does this through a three-act story structure. You’re probably familiar with this format—the protagonist is identified as likable, then they go through all of these difficult times, and finally, they emerge transformed.
How to Apply Story Structure to a Presentation
Here’s the key: When you give a presentation, you’re making your audience the hero of your presentation and asking them to go through a transformation. Whoa, that sounds hard, right? So, before you present, you need to ask yourself in regard to your audience, “who are they when they walk in the room and who do I want them to be when they leave the room?”
Once you’ve identified this transformation, you’ve created your audience’s story arc; everything you input into your presentation needs to support that arc and that transformation.
In really great speeches, the speaker builds tension and releases it, and builds tension and releases it again.
In order to achieve this tension and release, you must get to a place of shared understanding by stating what everyone knows to be true. If you’re giving a presentation to the rest of your sales or marketing team, this could be as simple as saying: “Uh oh, we’re not performing well this quarter.” You build your credibility here because you understand “what is.”
Next, you want to introduce “what could be.” This is the first time your audience will have reached a heightened sense of cathartic tension as you’re asking today’s realities to be different.
The end of your talk needs to end with a new bliss; this is your picture of the world with your idea adopted. Remember—people will always remember the last thing you said more than what was in the beginning or middle.
This is a conceptual model and can sometimes be hard to understand, but the structure has been used by famous orators, politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, and many more over time. Take a look at a few of the examples below and see how it plays out in some of the world’s most famous speeches.
Story Structure Examples in Famous Speeches
Margaret Thatcher – Former British Prime Minister, Britain Awake speech
In 1976 Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech to warn British officials of the rising threat of Russia, whose leaders, she said, were “bent on world dominance.” This speech prompted the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper, Red Star, to call her “The Iron Lady.”
Thatcher moves back and forth between “what is” and “what could be,” arguing that the audience should move from accepting the current defense spending cuts and towards upending the status quo, saying: “What has this Government been doing with our defenses? Under the last defense review, the Government said it would cut defense spending by £4,700 million over the next nine years. Then they said they would cut a further £110 million. It now seems that we will see further cuts.”
At the end of the speech, comes the new bliss. She raises the conversation once again to the nobility of Britain and the role the nation has played in securing the world’s future: “We are under no illusions about the limits of British influence. We are often told how this country that once ruled a quarter of the world is today just a group of offshore islands. Well, we in the Conservative Party believe that Britain is still …”
“…The Conservative Party must now sound the warning. There are moments in our history when we have to make a fundamental choice. This is one such moment—a moment when our choice will determine the life or death of our kind of society,—and the future of our children. Let’s ensure that our children will have cause to rejoice that we did not forsake their freedom.”
Jawaharlal Nehru – Former Prime Minister of India, A Tryst with Destiny speech
Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian politician, the political heir of Mohandas Ghani, and the Prime Minister of Independent India. He was a charismatic leader who pushed for complete independence from the British Empire. After India suffered during a hundred years of non-violent struggle against the British Empire, Nehru delivered a speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947, the eve of India being freed from British rule.
The speech, Tryst with Destiny, is one of the greatest speeches of all time. It is beloved in India, similar to how Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech is beloved in the United States.
Above is the shape of his speech. You’ll notice he starts off with “what is” and moves back and forth between “what is” and “what could be” in almost perfect frequency. The speech ends high and to the right by describing the new bliss. He created a perfect cadence of contrast.
Richard Feynman – American Physicist, Gravity lecture
Educators use this presentation form as well. Richard Feynman was a well-known physics professor at Caltech University. Students would come and audit his class who weren’t even taking physics because he was such a powerful communicator.
Feynman’s lectures are a magnificent example of contrast and structure. Some academic topics simply can’t contrast between “what is” and “what could be” until they lay the foundation of “what is” over several lectures. In his lecture on the Law of Gravity, Feynman masterfully incorporated contrast by moving back and forth between fact (mathematics) and context (history) in nearly perfect timing. Technically, this sparkline should be one flat “what is” line. So we’ll pretend we’ve zoomed in on that line to look more closely at the contrast between fact and context.
While I’ve used great world leaders and minds to illustrate my point, you don’t have to be a genius to nail this idea of what is versus what could be. Once you get started, you might actually find this concept comes more naturally than you would have imagined.
You can use a structure such as this to drive many desired outcomes, as the way you associate pieces of information with one another influences their meaning and determines how your audience receives them. Skillful arrangement of information builds emotional appeal that can greatly increase the impact of your presentation.
Illustrated by Brittany Postler