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Storytelling 101


Storytelling 101

The word “storytelling” can be both blatantly overused and frustratingly vague. But those things don’t also mean that it’s not a valuable addition to your presentation toolkit.


Storytelling is all about adding flow and structure to your presentations. It’s about adding context to information, and organizing your slides in a way that adds up to a larger point. Most of all, it’s about creating presentations that more effectively communicate your information, and doing it in less time. And in our experience, storytelling is one of the most effective yet misunderstood tools that a presenter can use.


So let’s dive into Storytelling 101, and learn more about what it is and how you can use it to enhance your presentations.


This is part of our series on Presentation Design 101, an exploration of the basic principles that make presentations unique and how you can use them to give better presentations.


Introduction to Presentation Storytelling

One of the reasons that PowerPoint became such a successful model for creating presentations is that using slides makes it easy for creators to organize their content. You have an Agenda slide, a Features slide, a Results slide, etc. It’s all very neat and clean, and makes it easy for people to swap slides or rebuild existing presentations for new audiences.


But there’s a problem with this approach. When you design each slide as its own self-contained idea, what you end up with is not a clear story with a defined arc. Instead, the result is a series of one-off slides, with no flow, transitions, or narrative.


When you think about it this way, it’s easy to see how and why most presentations don’t tell a story. It’s not because stories are hard to tell, but rather that the medium itself doesn’t encourage the sort of flow that a story requires.


With presentation storytelling, you think about the presentation as a whole, and not just the individual slides. You need to look at the order of your ideas, how the content on each slide fits with the others, as well as how each individual slide works on its own.


How do I get started with Presentation Storytelling?

While there are some specific techniques and frameworks you can apply to add storytelling to your presentations (we’ll cover those in a bit), the simplest way to approach it is to think about showing what will change as a result of your presentation.


At its most basic level, a story describes change. For example, here’s a very simple version of the Hero’s Journey:

  • A young girl lives in a village that is terrorized by a dragon

  • She leaves home to defeat the evil dragon

  • Along the way, she learns to fight

  • After slaying the dragon, she returns home and is greeted as a hero

example of presentation storytelling 1

Now let’s look at that same arc in professional setting:

  • A large brand dominates a market

  • A new competitor is formed and launches a product

  • They improve their offering and build a brand

  • Today, they are leaders in the market

example of presentation storytelling 2

In both examples, we see the same arc:

1) where things start,

2) where things are going,

3) how we’ll get there, and

4) what happens at the end.


At a high level, this is essentially what presentation storytelling means: organizing your content to tell a larger story than what’s on the individual slides.


What are some specific techniques I can use to improve my storytelling?

The big truth about presentations is that each one is unique. That means no framework, no matter how comprehensive or well-designed, is going to work for every story you want to tell. That said, there are some great techniques you can apply, and a few specific tactics that we’ve found to be useful tools for crafting stories.


Before we get into the specifics of frameworks and techniques, let's go over some best practices for writing presentations. Regardless of the technique you use, or the brilliance of your idea, these two tips are a great place to start for any presentation writer.


First, streamline your content. Even if you have a clear story, it can get lost in the mix if every slide is crammed with bullets and icons. There’s an idea in learning and development that says “slides are for sharing ideas, not teaching them.” Your goal on a given slide is not to try and force your audience to recall every line you added to the slide – instead, it’s to gently guide them to the big idea you want to convey. Focus on conveying your key message, and leave the rest for a follow up document.

example of techniques to improve storytelling 1

Second, write benefit-driven headlines. The traditional slide title is, to be honest, bad. If you’ve ever sat through a presentation that led with nothing but basic descriptions that just tell the audience what is on the slide, you’ll understand. Titles don’t convey a key message, they don’t highlight a takeaway, and they don’t help to advance your story.

example of techniques to improve storytelling 2

Instead, you can use your titles to highlight the benefit to the audience. Earlier in this post, we said that a story shows change. A benefit explains to the audience what will change as a result of choosing your brand. That means that using benefits is a simple way to add storytelling techniques to any piece of writing, even if you aren’t connecting a larger narrative.


Now let’s look at a few specific frameworks you can use to organize your content to tell a story.


Framework 1: SCQA

SCQA, or Situation, Complication, Question, Answer, is a framework that’s widely used in the consulting industry, and offers a clear, simple approach to structuring a story. Starting from your main idea, you can build out your presentation to follow this order, and the result will be a straightforward story that offers your audience an easy-to-understand outcome.


Here’s an example. Say you are trying to pitch investors on your new shopping app.


Situation: Shopping for groceries is essential

Complication: People have less time to go shopping

Question: What if we brought the groceries to them?

Answer: SHOPPR offers fast delivery for free


Using this framework, you’ve added context to your main idea, shown a benefit to choosing you, and framed your information as a story. Best of all, you can do it all without any boring slide titles.


Framework 2: The Reveal

A common form of narrative storytelling is to build up to the main point. Think of a great book or a favorite movie that leaves you on the edge of your seat until the last minute. In this framework, information is slowly shared across the entire work, and tension is built until the final moment.

  1. Today, we’re launching something totally new…

  2. A better way to buy groceries

  3. A smarter way to shop for supplies

  4. A faster way to find what your family needs

  5. It’s not just another app…

  6. It’s a shopping revolution in the palm of your hands

  7. SHOPPRR saves you 10% and 10 mins on every shopping trip


the buildup

Framework 3: The Backup

This style is more like a mystery that starts with the murder. You know what happened, but all the other details are a mystery to be unraveled slide by slide.

  1. SHOPPRR saves you 10% and 10 mins on every shopping trip

  2. It’s a better way to buy groceries

  3. It’s a smarter way to shop for supplies

  4. It’s a faster way to find what your family needs

  5. It’s a shopping revolution in the palm of your hands

the backup

You’ll notice that this approach uses the same headlines to tell two very different stories. By inverting the order, you can shift the emphasis to suit your unique story and style.


Framework 4: Macro/Micro/Atomic

With this technique, you organize your presentation through the lens of scale, and zoom in (or out) to get the full story. For example, here are two ways that you might frame up a topic:


Macro: Global context

Micro: Industry trends

Atomic: Enterprise trajectory


Macro: Corporate strategy

Micro: Product strategy

Atomic: Activation tactics


This simple framework helps you look at an issue from multiple perspectives, and your story is how you navigate through them.


Conclusion

Storytelling is simpler than it seems, and can elevate the quality of your presentations as well as your professional communications in general. With a few basic techniques and the willingness to let go of your expectations about what a story is or what a slide needs to sound like, you can become a storytelling pro in no time.


Learn more about the basics of presentations in our Presentation 101 series.


Looking for more information about storytelling and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.

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