July 31, 2018 / Esther Choy

It was the day before their big presentation and the R&D managers had a problem. Their team had compiled a 62-page study on the company’s new product (not counting the appendices!).

From this study, they had built a PowerPoint deck with 41 slides and teeny-tiny text. Would the managers be able to cover everything they wanted to in the 20 minutes allotted to them? Everyone had worked overtime on this project. They felt like anything less than a meticulously detailed presentation wouldn’t do the impressive discovery justice.

So, they whittled the deck down to 35 slides and plunged ahead.

After the presentation, the audience filed out of the conference room, gripping their handouts and whispering to each other: “Did you learn anything?” “No, nothing!”

Many of my clients have had experiences like this R&D team’s. They’ve worked hard on their projects, so therefore they feel compelled to share “everything.” Even when they know they should be highly selective with what their presentation covers, they have a hard time deciding what to leave out.

The problem is, in too many presentations, people pay too much attention to what they want to say instead of what their audience needs and wants to hear. Here’s how to overcome this and give a storytelling presentation that truly connects.

1. Target your real audience, not everybody in every chair.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, there are five categories of audiences (and those listed below are adapted from that article). It might be rare for all five of them to be in the same meeting at once; nevertheless, few gatherings are entirely homogeneous, so it’s important to decide which of these is your real audience. Because each group will need a different level of detail, your ability to connect depends on properly assessing their needs.

    • Intelligent outsiders: Even though this group does not share your area of expertise, they are nonetheless highly educated in other areas. A “dumbed down” presentation may frustrate or even offend them. So don’t water the content down, but do explain sections that might not be clear to those outside your field. Don’t skip the nuances, but do cut every unnecessary detail.
    • High-level cross-functional colleagues: This group is composed of your colleagues from marketing, operations, finance, accounting, sales, human resources, and other departments who are familiar with your topic but want to refine their understanding. Ultimately, they want to know what your topic will mean for their department, so spell that out for them.
    • The Boss: Your direct manager has to understand and stand by your work. Your work and her understanding of it can both affect her career. As Jim Stikeleather says in Harvard Business Review, the boss wants to understand “intricacies and interrelationships with access to detail,” and she wants her understanding to be “actionable.”
    • The Head Cheese(s): These are your manager’s managers, the busiest executives. Think: why should they care. Think: what they should do about it.
    • Fellow Experts: These audience members know just as much about your topic as you do, if not more. Give them the level of detail they crave. After all, they will most likely want to explore your methodologies and results, or even critique them.

2. Write down what you know about your audience.

Once you’ve identified your target audience, take out a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. Into column 1, put everything you know about your audience. Who are they? What do they love and loathe? What are their most pressing challenges? Into column 2, put everything you don’t know. This helps you avoid assumptions about your audience. My book, Let The Story Do The Work, includes more detail to help you analyze your audience, but I’ve found this simple exercise to be an effective way to get started.

3. Make your stories universal, especially at the beginning.

To set the right tone with your audience, to establish trust and credibility, and to increase your persuasiveness, you have to come across as likeable. Psychologist Robert Cialdini’s research on social influence shows that not only do we tend to like those we perceive as being like us, but we’re also more likely to form a stronger connection with them and find their ideas persuasive.

When a speaker begins a presentation with a story the audience can relate to, the audience perceives the speaker as “just like me.” Immediately, a stronger connection begins to form. To give a storytelling presentation that really connects, begin with a story that’s universal enough to make the audience think about how it harmonizes with their own story. This could be the experience of having a great teacher, completing a physically challenging goal like a marathon, attending a school reunion or getting lost when traveling in a new city.

I will often tell audiences the story of my experience taking statistics. I resented the fact that it was one of my required courses but eventually came to appreciate the wide application of statistics. What inspired my transformation? The stories this professor told us. His stories convinced me of the importance of statistical tools. I share this statistics class story with my audiences not only because it shows the difference stories can make, but also because most people in my audience will be able to relate. Chances are, we’ve all had at least one course we’ve resented being forced to take. But chances are also good that many audience members have ended up pleasantly surprised by one of the classes they most dreaded.

4. Never underestimate the power of curiosity.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University found that curiosity could dramatically change people’s behavior for the better. Among other things, they discovered that posting a trivia question next to an elevator and telling people the answer was in the stairwell could actually get more people to use the stairs!

The researchers were surprised at how powerfully curiosity could drive change. “Evidently, people really have a need for closure when something has piqued their curiosity,” says the lead researcher, Evan Polman. “They want the information that fills the curiosity gap, and they will go to great lengths to get it.”

A storytelling presentation should take advantage of this curiosity gap. I tell my clients that a good presentation must play on the audience’s natural curiosity by sequencing fact and emotion. It’s crucial to structure your storytelling presentation in a way that arouses curiosity to get people thinking, guessing and figuring the information out along with you. In this way, rather than dumping data, you can actually keep people hungry for the data you want to present.

5. Assess and improve.

The Q&A session is my favorite part of any presentation. Why? Because effective communication yields an external sign of the audience’s interest: they will ask questions. A question means your audience wants to know more.

After a storytelling presentation, assess the kinds of questions your audience has asked. If they are clarifying questions, that may indicate a part of the presentation that was a little “muddy.” But if they are questions that ask for more information, you can take it as a sure sign that you’ve intrigued, delighted and truly connected with your audience.



Want to give a powerful storytelling presentation? Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s new book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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