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.1 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 “slideuments”2 are now the common mode of communication. 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.
This chapter will draw insights from the best story methods available today: mythology, literature, and cinema. Once you understand their power, you’ll see why great presentations move away from reports and closer to stories.
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 meet 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.”3 If nothing is at risk, then it’s not interesting.
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.
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, shown below. Field noticed that in successful movies, the second act was often twice the length of the first and third acts:
All stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a defining point in which the beginning turns into 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:
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.
Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, has worked in Hollywood for many years as a story analyst. When Vogler was at Disney, he began to apply Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey to his work. Campbell had travelled the world studying culture’s mythological stories and discovered an 18-part story structure they all had in common. Vogler pulled insights from Campbell’s work and simplified the steps for screenplay analysis to 12.
Campbell traditionally displayed The Hero’s Journey in a circle. In the chart on the next page, starting at the top of the wheel, move clockwise through each step. Vogler’s stages of The Hero’s Journey are as follows: (1) The journey begins with the introduction of the Heroes in the Ordinary World, where (2) they are presented with the Call to Adventure. (3) Their initial reluctance may lead to Refusal of the Call, but they (4) receive encouragement from a Mentor to (5) cross over the Threshold and gain entry into the Special World. (6) There, they encounter Tests, Allies, and Enemies. (7) They Approach the Inmost Cave where (8) they must endure an Ordeal. (9) The Reward is seized and (10) they are pursued as they follow The Road Back to the Ordinary World. (11) They are transformed by the experience of a Resurrection and (12) return triumphant with the Elixir—an item of great value that will benefit the Ordinary World.6
Heroes endure physical activities (outer journey), but also experience internal transformations to their hearts and minds at each stage. Then, the outermost ring uses Star Wars: Episode IV as an example, showing the outer journey in gray text and the inner journey in green.
An important insight emerges when The Hero’s Journey is represented in a circle: it creates a clear division between the ordinary world and the special world (signified by the gray dotted line). 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.
Presentations use insights from myths and movies in several ways:
If the audience is the hero in your story, then the objective during your presentation is to get them past the fourth step in the wheel. Your presentation takes them to the threshold, but it’s their choice whether to cross it or not.
At the heart of your presentation there’s an idea, and when you’re presenting you’ll ask the audience to adopt it and shepherd it into the world. It might involve recasting the shape of an organization, or explaining how your product fills a customer’s needs. It might involve helping students internalize certain subject matter or perform well on a test. Whatever it is, adopting this idea will require the audience to consciously step into something new.
You need to acknowledge that no change you request from your heroes will be made without a struggle. Making a change is not easy. Convincing people they should commit to change is probably the greatest challenge an organization can face. The time the hero meets the mentor is exactly the time that he or she
needs to make the decision to cross the threshold—and enter the special world. The parallel to making a presentation is lovely. Your ideas will help the audience commit to making a change. If you do a good job, they’ll voluntarily cross the threshold and enter the special world. But you can’t force them.
If the audience sees your presentation and then makes the decision to cross the threshold and adopt your perspective, they will start out on the rest of The Hero’s Journey (stages five through twelve) as soon as they leave. Since you’re their mentor, you should prepare them as well as you can for what to expect as they continue the journey, and equip them for success along the way. In movies, the stages of The Hero’s Journey usually take place in a chronological sequence. But in a presentation, you aren’t bound by the constraints of time and place. The presentation medium gives you the freedom to move around in any order you want as you address insights into how your audience can accomplish steps five through twelve.
Let’s remember that there is one indisputable attribute of a good story: there must be some kind of conflict or imbalance perceived by the audience that your presentation resolves. This sense of discord is what persuades them to care enough to take action. In a presentation, you create imbalance by consciously juxtaposing what is with what could be.
What is versus what could be. Drawing attention to that gap forces the audience to contend with the imbalance until a new balance is achieved.
The Presentation Form
Presentations should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Two clear turning points in a presentation’s structure guide the audience through the content and distinctively separate the beginning from the middle and the middle from the end. The first is the call to adventure—this should show the audience a gap between what is and what could be—jolting the audience from complacency. When effectively constructed—an imbalance is created—the audience will want your presentation to resolve this imbalance. The second turning point is the call to action, which identifies what the audience needs to do, or how they need to change. This second transition point signifies that you’re coming to the presentation’s conclusion.
Each presentation concludes with a vivid description of the new bliss that’s created when your audience adopts your proposed idea. But notice that the presentation form doesn’t stop at the end of the presentation. Presentations are meant to persuade, so there is also a subsequent action (or crossing the threshold) the audience is to do once they leave the presentation.
Let’s look at the form in more detail on the following pages.
The Hero’s Journey begins when “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder.”7 Your presentation may not offer “supernatural wonder,” but you are asking the audience to leave their comfort zone and venture to a new place that is closer to where you think they should be.
The beginning of your presentation is represented by the first flat line of the presentation form. This is where you describe the audience’s ordinary world and set the baseline of what is. You can use historical information about what has been, or the current state of what is, which often includes the problem you’re currently facing.
You should deliver a concise formulation of what everyone agrees is true. Accurately capturing the current reality and sentiments of the audience’s world demonstrates that you have experience and insights on their situation, and that you understand their perspective, context, and values.
Done effectively, this description of where your audience currently is will create a common bond between you and them, and will open them up to hear your unique perspective more readily. Audiences are grateful when their contribution, intelligence, and experience are acknowledged.
Additionally, describing their existing world gives you the opportunity to create a dramatic dichotomy between what is and what could be. Proposing what could be should throw the audience’s current reality out of balance. Without first setting up what is, the dramatic effect of your new idea will be lost.
The beginning doesn’t have to be long. It might be as simple as a short statement or phrase that sets the baseline of what is. While it can be longer, it should not take up more than ten percent of your total time. The audience will be anxious to know why they came and what you are proposing. So, although the beginning is important, it shouldn’t be long-winded.
The first turning point to occur in a presentation is the call to adventure, which triggers a significant shift in the content. The call to adventure asks the audience to jump into a situation that, unbeknownst to them, requires their attention and action. This moment sets the presentation in motion.
“A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Euripides8
The call to adventure should present your big idea of what could be in a way that’s clear and memorable. This is the first time the audience will see the glaring contrast between what is and what could be—and it’s imperative that the gap is clear.
The call to adventure in a presentation plays a role similar to the inciting incident in a movie. Story author Robert McKee says, “The inciting incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance.”9 That imbalance is what elicits the audience’s desire for a reality different from the current one. 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.
This turning point should be explicit, not muddled or vague. The remainder of the presentation should be about filling that gap and drawing the audience toward your unique perspective of what could be.
“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.” William Hazlitt10
The middle of a presentation is made up of various types of contrast. People are naturally drawn to contrast, because life is surrounded with it. Day and night. Male and female. Up and down. Good and evil. Love and hate.
Building highly contrasting elements into a presentation holds the audience’s attention. Audiences enjoy experiencing a dilemma and its resolution—even if that dilemma is caused by a viewpoint that’s opposed to their own. It keeps them interested.
The audience wants to know if your views are similar to or different from their views. While listening to a presenter, audience members catalog and classify what they hear. Having come into the room with their own knowledge, and biases, they are constantly evaluating
whether what you say fits within their life experiences, or falls outside of what they know.
It’s important to know your audience so that you can understand how your views are both similar to and different from theirs. There will usually be some disparities. A rather obvious business example would be that you want them to buy your product, and they don’t want to spend the money.
But differences aren’t a problem. The polarity between similar and dissimilar concepts creates a force that can be put to good use. In fact, both extremes are necessary in a presentation. They allow you to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar—and to cover several points of view. They create observable distinctions between your perspectives and your audience’s perspectives—this helps keep their attention. Though people are generally more comfortable with what’s familiar to them, conveying the opposite creates internal tension. Oppositional content is stimulating; familiar content is comforting. Together, these two types of content produce forward movement.
There are three distinct types of contrast you can build into a presentation:
Contrast is a motif woven throughout this entire book, and is at the heart of communication because people are attracted to things that stand out.
“As the polarized nature of magnetic fields can be used to generate electrical energy, polarity in a story seems to be an engine that generates tension and movement in the characters and a stirring of emotions in the audience.”
The second transition, the call to action, clearly defines what you’re asking the audience to do. Successful persuasion leads to action, and it is important to clearly state exactly how you want the audience to take action. This step in the presentation gives the audience discrete tasks that will help bring the ideas you convey in your presentation to fruition. Once this line is crossed, the audience needs to decide if they are with you or not—so make it clear what needs to be accomplished.
Whether a presentation is political, corporate, or academic, the audience consists of four distinct types of people capable of taking action:
People have different temperaments, but all the audience members will have a tendency to prefer one type of action over another. Offering each audience member at least one action that suits their temperament lets them choose the action that makes them most comfortable. When they see ways to help that are appropriate to their type, it builds momentum and speeds the way to results. Virtually everybody in your audience will be able to effectively perform one of the four types of actions. A truly passionate revolutionary who supports the ideas you present could very possibly perform all four.
You can ask the audience to take more than one action per category—but make sure to identify actions that are simple, straightforward, and easily executed. The audience should be able to mentally connect their actions with a positive outcome for themselves, or for the greater good. Present all the necessary actions and make sure the most critical tasks for success are highlighted.
Many presentations end with the call to action; however, ending a presentation with a long to-do list for the audience is not inspirational. Neither is asking the audience to act on small, seemingly trivial tasks. So it’s important to follow up the call to action with a vivid picture of the potential reward.
Notice that the presentation ends on a higher plane in the presentation form than where it began. The ending should fill the audience with a heightened sense of what could be and make them feel willing to be transformed—to either understand something in a new way or to change their actions. The goal of persuasion is to transform the audience. If you skillfully define their future reward, you will convince them they should be on board with your idea.
The ending has two parts: repeating the most important points and delivering inspirational remarks encompassing what the world will look like when your idea is adopted.
The principle of recency states that audiences remember the last content they heard in a presentation more vividly than the points made in the beginning or middle. So you should create an ending that describes an inspirational, blissful world—a world that has adopted your idea. What will the audience members’ lives look like? What will humanity look like? What will the planet look like?
In order to get the most out of the audience, describe the possible future outcomes with wonder and awe. Show the audience that the reward will be worth their efforts. The presentation should conclude with the assertion that your idea is not only possible but that it is the right—and better—choice to make.
“Getting the audience to cheer, rise, and vocalize in response to a dramatic, rousing conclusion creates positive emotional contagion, produces a strong emotional takeaway, and fuels the call to action by the business leader. The ending of a great narrative is the first thing the audience remembers.” Peter Guber12
Let’s say you pulled off an incredible presentation. You used the principles in the presentation form with grace and ease to convey your ideas and the audience made a commitment to transform. Sounds like a huge victory—but it’s not over yet.
The human ability to accept new insights creates room for people to become something different. As indicated by the final dashed line at the end of the presentation form, the audience starts becoming something different from what they were at the beginning of the presentation.
But when you are done delivering your presentation, the adoption of your idea is still inconclusive. The audience will determine the outcome. Some presentations end with the audience leaving full of support, some don’t. Your idea could end as a comedy or tragedy—the two forms of dramatic resolution proposed in Greek literature. If they don’t adopt your idea, it could end as a tragedy. Tragedy is the downfall of a once admirable hero—a good person whose demise comes as a result of some personal error or mistake. Or it could resolve as a comedy. Comedy doesn’t mean it’s funny; it’s defined as a rise in the fortune of a sympathetic hero. The hallmark of comedy isn’t laughter, it’s the satisfaction felt when a deserving person succeeds.
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Elliot13
The analytical tool used throughout this book to represent presentations graphically is the sparkline. Viewing a presentation’s contour helps you clearly see the contrasts. The line moves between what is (the lower position) and what could be (the higher position) to show contrasts in content. It changes colors to show contrasts in emotion and delivery. Every presentation has a unique sparkline. No two are alike, because no two presentations are alike.
Using a tool like the presentation form to achieve great results isn’t new. Movies and myths all have a form, and they all yield beautiful and unique results.
Similarly, presentations that follow the Presentation Form will all be unique. The presentation form isn’t a formula, because it has enormous flexibility; rigid adherence to it could become predictable. So, it’s equally important to embrace its versatility.
Above is an annotation of how to read the sparklines in the book. The case study on the following pages will show the first use of the presentation form applied as a sparkline. Videos of all the presentations analyzed are available online along with additional annotations to the transcripts.
Tryst with Destiny
Jawaharlal Nehru was an Indian politician, political heir of Mohandas Gandhi, and India’s first 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.
Review what you’ve learned so far. Each question has one right answer.
Stories have been told for thousands of years in order to transfer cultural lore and values. When a great story is told, we lean forward, and our hearts race as the story unfolds. Can that same power be leveraged for a presentation? Yes. The timeless structure of a story can contain information that persuades, entertains, and informs. Story serves as a perfect device to help an audience recall the main point and be moved to action. Once a presentation is put into a story form, it has structure, creates an imbalance the audience wants to see resolved, and identifies a clear gap that the audience can fill.