The Science of Storytelling: What Neuroscience Says About Better Presentations


If you’ve been reading our blog recently, or just doing some research on your own, you know that we think storytelling is a key part of a great presentation. Maybe you still think it sounds a little fanciful, or you don’t really believe that it makes that much of a difference. But it turns out that science is on our side!


On an episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, host Matt Abrahams spoke with neuroscientist and TV star David Eagleman for an insightful discussion on why stories are so effective, and how you can use them to improve your own presentations and writing.


Here are a few of our favorite storytelling tips from the podcast, along with some thoughts on how you can apply these techniques to your own presentations.


“Stories are crafted to plug into what matters to the brain.”

The reason that storytelling is such an effective technique for presentations (and communications in general) is that it is appealing to what our brains want. That’s likely because we evolved to consider information in context rather than as an isolated piece of data. When we eat something we like, we associate that item with a feeling of positive emotions, and as a result, that experience becomes a story in our minds. “I was sad. I ate some cake. I am happy.” Stories show change over time and put information into context, which is useful for quickly and efficiently making decisions about novel situations.


On the other hand, if you try and convince someone to choose your product using “logic” and “facts,” you’ll be working against the mind’s natural order. That means you have to work twice as hard to bring them around to your point of view. This is one of the biggest hangups we see when it comes to storytelling. But when you start to understand why a compelling story is more effective than a bulleted list of product differentiators, you’ll see why storytelling is such a game changer for presentations.


“Storytelling has perfected structures to make people feel like there’s something that needs to be resolved.”

Our brains love a problem to solve. That’s why things like cliffhangers are so tantalizing – we crave closure.


So instead of just coming out and saying “buy our product because it’s cheap/efficient/etc,” a storytelling approach to presentation writing will help you find ways to build up the tension until your audience can’t wait one slide longer to hear your big idea.


You can do this by teasing information, building narrative tension, and driving all your visual and written storytelling towards one key idea that drives your entire presentation.


“Make sure you are finding ways to capture people’s emotions. You need to [find what] connects to them, that makes them feel something.”

Effective communications are all about making people feel something. No matter how logically sound your case is, it’s far less likely to succeed than a story that truly captures the imagination (and emotions) of your audience.


This is a great example of why it’s so important to understand and appeal to your specific audience. If you know what is important to them, what excites them, you are positioned to craft a story that is directly relevant to their needs and wants. And when those things are activated, so are their emotions.


So focus your storytelling on things that are relevant to your audience, and look for ways to make your presentation about them, not you. Because at the end of the slides, what’s really important is not what you can do, but what you can do for your audience.


“What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?”

“Don’t put words on slides unless you really need them. Everyone puts these bulleted lists on PowerPoint, and that’s the worst thing you can possibly do, and the reason is it's very difficult for an audience member to listen to you and read what’s written at the same time.”


This question and answer is a long quote, but it’s important. Now, before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear: we aren’t advocating against bulleted lists. And the reason is that every presentation is different. If you are standing on a stage or in front of a room, bullets aren’t your best bet. But if you’re delivering a hybrid presentation, one that’s delivered live and also left behind for stakeholders to read later, then you’ll want a bit more information on your slides.


But despite that caveat, we think it’s important to highlight this idea because it points to one of the best pieces of presentation advice we have: make every word matter. When you write out a slide, you should look at every single word and then ask yourself, “does this really need to be here”? Every unnecessary word means more clutter in the audience's mind, more time spent talking at them instead of with them, and less information they will retain.


Think about a movie you’ve seen that was 30 minutes too long, and how much more enjoyable and memorable it would have been if it were tighter. That same principle applies to your presentation.


That leads us to the last quote...


“If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a 5-7 word presentation slide title, what would it be?”


“Leverage storytelling, and don’t use jargon.”


This is strong, widely-applicable advice that you can use on any professional communication. Storytelling isn’t a gimmick or a specialized tool, it’s the way we have communicated throughout human history. And it’s how you have communicated your whole life. We use stories when we think to ourselves, when we talk to our friends and families, and (hopefully) when we communicate in our jobs. It is, quite simply, the core of human communication.


To build on that, jargon is the opposite of effective communication. It’s exclusive, meaning that it pushes away anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with the terms, and it’s frequently seen as a way to attempt to sound smart without really saying anything at all. To put it another way, jargon is a great way to use 10 words and say absolutely nothing. That’s not storytelling, that’s just wrong.


The Takeaway

Storytelling isn’t a fad, gimmick, or trick. It’s simply taking a step back from the overblown promises and sentences stuffed with jargon that fill so many presentations, and focusing on the core principles of effective communication. So if you want to make your next presentation your best, remember and use these three key ideas:


Make it matter to people through storytelling: stories are a great way to help people get your point, because stories are a great way to connect with your audience emotionally. Remember, your presentation isn’t about you, or even your product/service, it’s about your audience. So put them first.


Use language that connects with people: even people in the most specialized jobs are still just people. They think and feel and talk just like the rest of us. So don’t change everything about how you write or communicate just because you think that’s the language that will impress them: write with passion, speak with purpose, and leave jargon behind.


Communicate with feeling, not just lists: you might think there are some parts of your presentation where storytelling doesn’t apply, like bulleted lists of features. You’d be wrong. Even if you need to communicate something specific, you can still find ways to wrap it into a larger narrative and appeal to your audience's emotions.


Want to learn more about presentation storytelling? Listen to the podcast that inspired this post, then check out the rest of our storytelling blog posts for actionable advice on adding using storytelling techniques in your next presentation.


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