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Early Stage Market · 2 December '19

Storytelling in presentations

I had the opportunity to attend an event recently that debated key issues such as tech in disaster zones and of AI vs ethics. Apart from tackling highly fascinating and complex issues, the event also reminded me of why storytelling is so crucial to influential speeches and presentations.

The Beginning

The introductory speech, or the keynote, is the key moment at any event. It’s the moment when you win or lose the audience. It’s either the glue or the repellent. Luckily, at this event, it was the former.

To illustrate the importance of tech in emerging markets, the event host told a personal story about her work in Indonesia during the Boxing Day Tsunami. She talked about the challenge to identify the personal details of those injured and displaced which consequently made it near impossible to get vital aid to them. The argument was that with some form of database or communications technology, the work would have been significantly more effective – and arguably could have saved more lives.

Only ten minutes into the conference – she had me. I knew I had to be there. It was clear that I was going to learn something that day about the critical role that tech plays for disaster zone relief.

As in all good stories, the introduction is critical but it’s only one of three parts. The other two being the middle and the closing parts.

The Middle

The middle part is arguably the hardest to get right as it’s 80% of the presentation when you have to keep people engaged and interested for a longer period of time. This is where you might see people checking their phones or start talking to the person next to them. Your job, as a presenter, is to bring them back into the story.

The event had some good examples of how this can be achieved. One presenter asked the audience indirect questions and repeated powerful stats. These techniques have the effect of actively engaging the audience; telling us that we are part of the presentation, not inactive recipients of a monologue.

There was also some don’ts. One person shamelessly plugged his book in the first minute which instantly is a turn-off. Conferences aren’t the place to self-promote the book you’ve just written or the company you’ve just started. This goes against the golden rule of “don’t tell the audience what you want to tell them – tell them what they need to hear.’

In one other unfortunate instance – a presenter made such an obvious point but labelled it a ‘groundbreaking idea’, completely misjudging the level of knowledge in the room.

The art of the content

There was also a wide range of dos and don’ts around presentation content. Slides should never take centre stage: this is for the presenter – the storyteller – to occupy. Too much text, too many fancy words and miniature font size all detract from the presenter. Simplicity is key. Few words, emotional statements, key facts, video and images are there to create the perfect balance with the narrator. They enhance the presentation as opposed to overtaking it.

The conclusion

The same way as the opening part of a presentation is designed to draw us in and captivate us from the very beginning, the end of the presentation serves an equally important function: to leave us thinking. No presentation should end like a damp squib, leaving us indifferent to what has just been presented. It needs to leave us with an action, a message that we pass on, raising more questions in our mind. The last part of a presentation is a door opener; an invitation for us to explore further.

Even today, several days after the event, I still wonder what would have happened to some of the victims at Banda Aceh if there was a more effective way to reach them. Perhaps more importantly, I now know the organisations I can support to help them achieve their mission.