How to make your presentations sing in the ears

Everyone loves a good story. In fact, we are hardwired to be receptive to them. We empathise with protagonists, we boo the villains and we need to know how it ends. This is engagement and it is precisely what you need when you are presenting your ideas. People need to care about your core characters and nothing does this better than a familiar threat. This is the basis of good narrative.

Now, PR companies use this device to promote their brands, they mould their brand into a narrative entity that we can care about then take us through its trials and tribulations. But, how can you use it to build a dialogue with your audience when you only have a 20-30-40 minute presentation, whether it be a boardroom or an auditorium.

I want to show you how a story structure can be used to evoke greater involvement in your presentations, how to frame your facts and proposals in a hero’s journey. Many great speakers employ this model and often you will not even notice it beyond the fact that they managed to keep you gripped throughout their presentation. Now, it should be noted that even with the best story, some storytellers fail to keep you on the edge of your seat. Stories alone will not save you and you should incorporate other elements to breathe life into your journey, good communication is everything but it can also be rare. You must feel your story, and actively interact with your audience. Some may note that I use the words presentation, story, speech and journey interchangeably, you should apply the word that best suits your aims.

1. Set the scene:

You need to start at a familiar point. This can be the market environment, a situation or the present state of the company. Whatever it is it must be familiar to the people you are addressing. You cannot take your audience directly into unknown territory. This part should illicit nodding recognition. If this reaction comes with emotional involvement, all the better. Frustration, challenges and woes are strong emotions that can be harnessed and if your presentation is about offering a solution, it will evoke a stronger sense of optimism. You can start with humour, this also garners strong empathy. The key is the shift in emotions throughout the presentation. 

“We have faced some unprecedented challenges in the market over the last few years and there is little sign of them easing in the coming years…”

It is rare that people feel that they are in an easy market, even when they are, these feelings only occur to them retrospectively.

These observations can be underpinned with some figures if you have time but the strongest data is recognition. 

2. Introduce your protagonist:

This is the thing that you want your audience to empathise with. This can be a person, your company or product, but it must be an entity. It is going to face some challenges and it needs to develop; the hero’s journey. Your aim here is to evoke a sense of the common goal, for your audience to care whether it fails or flies.

“The Bongo platform is flexible, intuitive and makes managing online gaming profiles a cinch, it allows gamers to meet and arrange team games and standardise their profiles across a number of platforms…”

Hurrah! The hero is handsome and brave and someone/something we all want to know or identify with.

Of course, the reason that we love the protagonist may be simply that it signs our paycheck each month and that’s okay, it’s a start.

3. Introduce a threat:

This is where things heat up, your protagonist is not an omnipotent warrior, it must earn its victory. The threat needs to be tangible, a clear and present danger. Maybe you are losing market share, maybe you are facing an increase of bullying in your school. Maybe the competition has rolled up its sleeves.

“Bloggs presence in this market is wholly dependant on continued competitiveness and market share.”  

4. The battle:

This is where you make your proposal. This is your solution to the threat that you introduced before. This is the main act, this is what you have been working toward. It could be your marketing strategy, updates to your platform that would see off the competition. 

The protagonist must do battle with the forces of evil and if you want to heighten the pathos, it should lose in its first combat. The audience should by now be invested in the protagonist, they care and are willing it to win. This could be a previous strategy that was less than successful or an alternative plan that did not hold up to scrutiny.

Have you ever watched a film or read a book where the protagonist is evil but you still want them to win. Think Dexter or Tom Ripley, each vile murderers and yet you found yourself rooting for them. This is a sign that the first three stages have been effective. I am not suggesting that your protagonist will be evil or have malintent but if well-crafted, narrative can get you cheering for a psychopath then your objective should be childsplay (Hmmm, psychopathic doll, remind me to change that metaphor). 

You really should explore alternative solutions one of these could provide the failed battle I mentioned to heighten the pathos, this should be done for two reasons. Firstly to show that you have considered them seriously and secondly to demonstrate that they are less viable than your solution. Someone in the room is probably thinking about it and you need to demonstrate that you have examined its flaws. 

5. Climax:

This is where the hero earns his happily ever after and in stories we will see this but in your presentation this may not have happened yet. This is what you have been driving toward, the world of possibilities. The purpose of your presentation is the proposition of change, the hero’s journey necessitates that the hero develops and evolves and this must be true in your protagonist’s case. This will often not be nearly as dramatically as I have described but hey! I am a storyteller. 

Curiosity and empathy is at the core of good communication, it is clickbait’s stock-in-trade. We click on top tens to see if someone or something we care about is included, we want to know what happened to the boy who was born with his brother in his head, we need to know why Hollywood won’t employ Cameron Diaz anymore. We know it’s a trick but we click anyway. This is how strong the instinct is. You have worked hard to bring your project to life and it deserves to be listened to, not just heard. Employing narratives will not enable you to sell oil to the Arabs but it may make them listen to your ideas on anaerobic digestion (My personal favourite renewable energy!). Human progress has relied on its innovation and creativity but without good communication, these ideas would not have spread and evolved.     

I have endeavoured to be as general as possible in these articles so they can be applied to a wide range of situations while offering examples that will give you an idea of how to apply them. There is no one size fits all but elements of the principles in these articles can be employed in almost every situation or audience size across a wide range of industries. Do not assume that because your target audience is for example economists, educators or software developers that this interest detaches them from their basic human propensity for accessible interaction. I have worked with people from a variety of industries who need to present to a range of different audiences. I am not a marketing guru but I have made a study of people and I know what moves them. This is not something I have collated from a whole bunch of how-to posts, this is something I have always done naturally, all my life. several years ago I tried to understand how I manage to get my ideas across so effectively so I studied myself and others so I can pass it on. I recently watched an accomplished speaker use an opening gambit that I use and teach, in fact she used the whole narrative model and she was easily one of the strongest speakers of the whole convention. These things work. If you really value your work, you need to get it out there where it can live and follow its own hero’s journey.

I hope you find these articles useful. I know that sometimes it may not be apparent how they can be applied to your particular field but I haven’t found one that cannot benefit from it…yet. Don’t hesitate to message me if you need clarification on how it could apply to yours. 

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