Do you remember when you first became aware of climate change? For me, it was 2006. My friends started driving Toyota Priuses. My parents began to buy LED lightbulbs. I started composting my uneaten food.
I couldn’t pinpoint why there was a dramatic shift towards environmental consciousness at the time. However, I recently realized it coincided with Al Gore’s climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, released on May 24, 2006.
Look no further than Gore’s talk to see the potential power of presentations. It had an immediate and tangible impact. Studies show that after the movie’s release, the number of people attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41% to 50%. In the year after the movie, there was a 50% increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets in the areas where the movie was played.
Now, Gore’s talk was not the first time global warming was talked about. However, the presentation in An Inconvenient Truth captured the attention of the public because Gore did one thing masterfully: he wove in all of those heavy, scientific details about how humans are affecting the earth with emotional, arresting stories. Gore used storytelling to hook people onto a subject that had previously failed to capture their attention.
Storytelling Presentation Skills Matter
No matter what industry you work in, there’s a good chance that if you’re giving a presentation you have the same goal that Al Gore had: you want your audience to leave understanding and supporting the ideas you just delivered.
Storytelling in presentations is a powerful way to grab attention, hold attention, and to change beliefs because it works in the same way that it does in our favorite books and movies:
- Stories build suspense by introducing a hero, a challenge, a journey, and finally, a resolution that delivers the hero into an improved reality. (Didn’t we all read all 7 books in the Harry Potter series because we had to see Harry and his cohorts overcome the evil of Voldemort?)
- Stories cause chemical, physical, and emotional responses in listeners. When stories make people feel things like trust or kindness, the brain releases oxytocin, which motivates cooperation by enhancing empathy. This means that stories make people more likely to adopt new ideas and act based on those ideas.
In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte gives several examples of presenters that mastered storytelling to sway their audiences.
First, tech giant Cisco Systems used to deliver fact-heavy presentations promoting their products. However, when they stopped listing features and started telling stories, they became much more effective and successful. For instance, by telling the story of a small, struggling, local business owner who grew his company and managed it more effectively using Cisco, the company was able to humanize information about technology and make their benefits more relatable.
Next, Pastor John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian was masterfully able to move congregation members to believe in the message “people can bring the Kingdom of Heaven to this Earth by showing love” by going beyond simply delivering relevant lines from Scripture, and telling a story about his little sister, who loved a ragged doll so wholeheartedly she was able to convince everyone in her life that the doll was beautiful and valuable.
While these two presenters were very different from one another, they had one thing in common: like Gore in his movie, they both used stories to make their presentation resonate with the audience.
How to Use Storytelling in Presentations to Influence Your Audience
You might be wondering how to craft an inspiring story when your most important content consists of data, insights, and numbers. If you want to build your storytelling presentation skills, you should keep the following rules in mind:
1. Gripping Stories Have a Hero
The most beloved stories in history tell the story of a hero and his journey. See: Odysseus in the Odyssey, Simba in The Lion King, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and Harry Potter in his series et cetera. The hero’s journey is a beloved storytelling device. It has a recognizable and easily digestible structure. As marketing and storytelling expert Robert Rose explains, “the hero’s journey is a ‘monomyth’ — which is a pattern that many believe can be found in almost every narrative around the world” and that “storytelling across time shares a fundamental structure and can be summarized into this journey.” Duarte elaborates in Resonate.
There is a moment in every story where the character overcomes reluctance to change, leaves the ordinary world, and crosses the threshold into an adventure in a special world. In the special world, the hero gains skills and insights – and then brings them back to the ordinary world as the story resolves.
While you might think that the hero’s journey is just the stuff of books and movies, it actually is an effective device used in a range of media, including advertisements and presentations. For example:
The Budweiser Lost Dog Commercial
In 2015, Budweiser delivered one of its most effective Super Bowl commercials ever. It features an adorable yellow lab puppy who runs away from his owner’s truck, gets lost, and then must find his way back home with the help of his Clydesdale horse “buds.”
Amy Purdy “Living Beyond Limits” Ted Talk
In her Ted Talk, pro snowboarder Amy Purdy talks about losing both of her legs to bacterial meningitis. Then, she re-learned to snowboard. Eventually, she medaled in the Paralympics. It’s the quintessential example of the hero’s journey.
When you build your presentation’s story, position your audience as the hero. They are the ones who must cross the threshold and into an adventure. You are the one to dare and encourage them to slay the dragons that plague them and their business. Finally, your ideas and the content of your presentation can guide them through their quest to reach a better resolution.
In his presentation, Al Gore made it pretty plain. WE were the people that needed to step up and curb human-related climate change. We had the power to change the course of what was happening.
2. Use Contrast to Build Tension for Suspenseful Presentation Storytelling
Effective use of contrast keeps people guessing at what’s next. In Resonate, Duarte describes the what is vs what could be framework. First, you paint a picture of the hero’s reality. Then, you can explain what the future could be if listeners adopt your ideas.
Gore does this particularly well in An Inconvenient Truth. There are some pretty stark contrasts between what the Earth is like now and what it could be like if global warming is unchecked. He discusses the possibility of more damaging hurricanes in the future. He mentions the potential deadly spread of infectious disease and describes future predator/prey disruptions. (There’s a chance that pine beetles could kill all of our pine trees – and no one wants to see Christmas trees disappear!) One of the things that moved me most in An Inconvenient Truth was imagining what kind of world I would live in if I didn’t adopt more eco-friendly practices like Al Gore suggested.
Beyond Gore’s presentation, many of the most successful speeches have harnessed the power of contrast. For example:
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Dr. King starts his speech by explaining that America is racially divided and unjust. He then goes on to explain what the future could look like (his “dream”) if everyone were willing to devote themselves to the cause of Civil Rights alongside him.
Viola Davis’ 2015 Emmys Speech
When Viola Davis thanked the Television Academy for her 2015 Emmy, she did a masterful job delivering a powerful, short speech. She leaned heavily on contrast to describe the lack of opportunities for women of Color in America versus what could actually happen if writers, directors, and performers focus on creating roles and exposure for them.
The reason that contrast is such an effective method for storytelling in presentations is that it creates a dramatic dichotomy. This dichotomy holds attention and spurs action. By pointing out the gap between what is and what could be, you create a sense of suspense. Listeners wait to hear how they will be able to bridge that gap. For example, in his movie, Al Gore posed that much of New York City (among many other places) could be underwater in the future if we don’t change our habits. I live in New York City! His proposition encouraged me to keep listening to figure out how I could alter what I was doing to ensure that my house didn’t, someday, end up under water.
In Resonate, Duarte explains that the imbalance between what is and what could be “elicits the audience’s desire for a reality different than the current one.” She recommends that you should “pose an intriguing insight that your audience will want the presentation to address. It should stir them up enough (positively or negatively) so that they want to listen intently as you explain what is at stake and what it takes to resolve the gap.”
Ultimately, if you do a good enough job showing how your ideas bridge the gap between the present and the future, audience members will leave believing that they should adopt your ideas to move forward. Gore did a good enough job of it that I left his movie and bought LED light bulbs.
3. Use Personal Storytelling to Generate Empathy in Presentations
So, while you’re not the hero of the story you are telling in a presentation – you are the mentor to that hero. Thus, it’s important for you to incorporate personal stories or anecdotes about your own experience in order to create common ground with the people listening to you. Common ground creates empathy, and this makes people more likely to listen to – and take action after – your presentation.
Storytelling expert and creative writing professor Robert McKee insists that empathy is the most important part of all stories. He explains, “The irreducible step is to connect on an empathetic level… it can’t be just charming. It can’t just be sympathetic. It’s not a matter of likeability. The audience must connect on some subconscious level that this story is about me.”
This means that your stories should help listeners feel things about themselves. Not about you.
Use your own stories to become relatable to your audience. You want them to empathize with you because they’ll trust you and be more likely to want to adopt your ideas.
Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth presentation didn’t just contain scary information about where the world was heading. It also contained LOTS of personal stories that could help people like me (nobody) empathize with Al Gore (former VP of the US). Some powerful personal stories Gore told include anecdotes about his grade school teachers and sad tales about friends he lost to cancer.
To figure out what personal information you have in your arsenal that might be relevant to a presentation audience, it’s important to get to know them first. There are several ways you can get to know your audience:
- Split them into sub-segments: Split your audience into sub-segments (by profession, geographic location, age, etc.). Then focus on speaking to the group who you are most likely to relate to and win over.
- Send out audience surveys: You can send out surveys to audience members long before your presentation to get a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
- Build personas: To get to the heart of your audience members, do some research. Ask yourself in-depth questions about them, like: What do they value? How do they spend their free time? What are they afraid of? What are their ultimate goals?
Once you’ve collected helpful information from your audience, look at that information. See where it overlaps with your experiences. Do you have a story about a similar fear, value or goal? Weave that story into the narrative to show that you’re not just blowing smoke. You can relate to where they’re coming from. Gore wanted this story to resonate with everyone so he kept his general and relatable to everyone. He spoke about being in school as a child, losing someone he loved, and wanting his home to be safe. Because he picked topics a lot of people could relate to, he successfully built an emotional connection with a wide audience.
There are more great examples of storytelling in presentations and advertisements in the past that included personal, relatable stories in order to persuade. For example:
Sarah Parcak – “My Own Twist of Fate” TEDx Talk
Space archaeologist Sarah Parcak delivered a TEDx Talk to Yale students about finding your career path. She relayed stories about her own time spent at Yale in order to make her advice relatable and trustworthy.
“Mean Joe Greene” Coca-Cola Super Bowl Ad
In 1979, Coca-Cola hit a homerun with their Super Bowl Ad, “Mean Joe Greene.” The ad showed a young football fan winning over the famously unfriendly football player by giving him a Coca-Cola. The ad won multiple awards and became a fan favorite. It was smart because it related a story about football fans in a context where the company knew many football fans would be watching.
The Importance of Storytelling Presentation Skills
Storytelling in presentations isn’t just a way to keep audience members entertained, although it does do that quite effectively. However, storytelling is also a useful device for creating an empathetic audience that trusts you. It is also a way to keep listeners engaged in what you are saying, and it is a motivating factor for action. By combining hard-to-process, dense, and somewhat scary facts with stories in his famous presentation, Al Gore was able to influence not only the people who saw his movie, but also politics and culture – worldwide. By developing your storytelling presentation skills so that presentations feel more like dramatic experiences than merely recited reports, you may just find that you are more able to effectively convince people that your ideas are worth adopting.
Illustrated by Brittany Postler