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The Importance Of The Narrative

Whether you’re presenting to a small group of people or a large audience your presentation must have a narrative to effectively get your points across.

I went to undergrad at UCSD, which is not a place known for its Greek institutions and my father grew up in South America and had know idea what a fraternity was.

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So I went to college with no expectation that I would ever join a fraternity let alone aspire to become president one day. Yet being in a fraternity was one of the most transformative experiences I had in college and prepared me better for becoming an entrepreneur than any class that I took.

I didn’t pledge until the spring quarter of my freshman year and even then I only did it because of the free beer. I pledged what was then the best fraternity on our campus, Phi Delta Theta.

By sophomore year I got the inspiration to hold leadership positions in the fraternity. I started off by running some lower-level roles like community service. By the end of my sophomore year I had taken on the role of education for our new freshman pledges and by the first quarter of my junior year I led the pledge class entirely. I then led our “rush” initiative, which is basically “recruiting,” followed by becoming “social chairman,” which, yes, meant I threw great parties. I still do.

During this period of time I learned how to raise money, collect dues, recruit new members, plan & hold events with hundreds of people as well as deal with security and legal exposure. Having held all of the major operational functions of the fraternity I was ready for “real leadership.”

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I heard that Dean Holter was running for President and I knew he was too popular to beat so I set my sights on Vice Presidency. It’s pretty easy to be liked after you’ve just held a successful tenure as social chairman. So I came to our weekly chapter meeting where the election was to be held. I was up against Gregory Solomon, who joined later than I did, had less operational roles than I and who wasn’t in the uber popular crowd. Easy peasy.

I told the chapter the roles I had held and why I was ready to be Vice President. It was factual, short and designed to show that I had done all of the requisite jobs.

Gregory was into theater. He understood how to create emotional responses. I presented behind alectern. Gregory sat on a table in the middle of the circle and rolled up his sleeves. He spoke of broader themes, of better times of what his hopes were for the fraternity. He spoke on human terms. At a base level. He kicked my ass.

I was devastated. I had never lost anything like this that I had set out my ambitions of accomplishing. I was sure I’d win. It was humiliating. But I walked away with a big lesson that I carry to this day.

When you speak to crowds — whether 5 or 500 — you need to tell a story. Your speech needs to have a cohesive narrative to it. You need a thesis. You need to speak in human terms. You need emotion. You need to CONNECT.

Fast forward a year. I decided to run for President. Dean Holter had served out his term. I was to run against Rick Meyreles (who was as popular as Dean Holter) and Craig Hickox (who had just finished as social chairman). Dean called me and asked me not to run. He said I didn’t have a chance to win. He asked if I would run for Vice President. Then Gregory called me and asked the same.

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I thought — no fucking way. If I’m going to put in the effort I’m going to run the fraternity. I had the experience and leadership skills. It was go big or go home. I prepared this time. I prepared and practiced my speech. It was an emotional one. I talked in themes. I talked about how all of my peers kept saying, “The fraternity had changed, it’s not what it used to be when Dave Friend was a leader. When Robertson was president. When Stedman ran the pledge class. It was going down hill.”

Me:

“Of course we’re not going down hill. Don’t you see that when we were young those leaders thought the fraternity had changed from the days when their elders were running it? Don’t you get it? It’s now us. They are we. It’s time for us to step up and assume the mantle. It’s time for us to honor their traditions and make new ones.

There is a generation of young Phi’s who are looking up to us. This fraternity is as great as the day I joined it. Better. And my presidency will be about upholding all that our elders entrusted in us when they selected us to join Phi Delta Theta.”

The big question was which of the two of us would be in a run off since with 3 qualified candidates nobody would be able to secure the 50% + 1 required to win the candidacy outright.

Except that I did. I won in a landslide with no runoff required. I was no better than they were (in fact, Rick succeeded me as president). But by then I understood the power of the narrative to prove a point and persuade a crowd.

And I hope that this narrative will help reinforce the point for you. Whether you’re presenting to a small group of people or a large audience your presentation must have a narrative to effectively get your points across. 2 hours after you’ve left the room the people you met will already have forgotten much of the details. Yet if you’ve painted enough of a picture, if you’ve used enough analogies, if your story is cohesive and has themes then people will remember the general sense of the points you wanted to make.

So some quick guides although building a narrative is a very hard thing to teach (at least for me). I talked specifically about it in the context of raising VC / establishing credibility over on the Sales School blog where there’s a video & a transcript. They’re going t0 publish all 4 parts of my talk. Today is the only day I’ll be linking so if you’re interested make sure to check back there.

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Below are some separate thoughts.

1. Have a thesis from which to build your story — If you don’t start by knowing what the central point(s) you’re trying to make are then you can’t construct a storyline that supports them. For today’s post, for example, my thesis was that story telling and narrative are some of the most important tools you can use for persuasion in meetings, to connect with an audience and to ensure thatrecipientsretain the knowledge you present. My story was to tell the example of Gregory’s speech and my subsequent one. I hope that this story of loss, set back, reflection and ultimately triumph will help you remember the importance of the narrative.

2. Have supporting evidence -You can’t just tell a story in business. That’s for theater. You need facts that support your storyline. In any great argument you have the central thesis and then 3+ supportive facts that build the story out from the thesis. Think of it this way: assertion, proof point, proof point, proof point. If you want to make a second assertion you follow it up with more supporting evidence.

3. Use analogies -I love analogies because they stick in people’s brains and form a short hand for deeper knowledge.

These are all analogies designed to make broader points and help you remember the thesis.

4. Keep it human -Far too many presentations, keynote speeches, conference panels or blog posts seem wooden. We live in the era of authenticity. Be human. Don’t take that to mean you should take liberties in meetings and be buddy-buddy with people. Unless invited to, you should not. But don’t try to sound too smart. Don’t be too rigid. Show that you have creativity, humor, emotion, ability to build rapport and that you’d be fun to hang out with. In a business sort of way. People like to work with people they like. That’s a fact. Or at least an assertion.

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5. Reinforce the storyline at the end -I know that there’s a tired rule for presentations that says: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. So here’s my updated version of the same point. Give people a map up front that tells them the general content you’re going to cover. Then give them the content. Then summarize in a non-cheesy way at the end and draw it all together with your central thesis.

See what worked for getting Gregory to trounce me for Vice President and me in turn to win the Presidency was the same thing. We had good underlying products, we told a compelling and human story about why we were great products and then we wrapped up by reinforcing our key messages to drive retention just before the constituency had to vote on whether to back us or not.

Appendix:

I spoke recently at NYU at the SalesCrunch presentation day and Gregory Solomon was in the audience. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. What a delight to catch up. I was there to talk about how to give great presentations so what a wonderful way to open my presentation by telling the story above. If you have any interest at all the 8-minute YouTube of me telling my story about Gregory is here.

Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table

 

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Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.

About the author

I grew up in Northern California and was fortunate enough to have computers around my house and school from a young age. In fact, in high school in the mid-eighties I sold computer software and taught advanced computers.

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