Presenting is hard. Considering the nerves, the anxiety, the awkwardness, and the stares, no matter the venue, we all struggle with presenting.
The question is, "Why?"
A lot of our struggles stem from fear. After all, stage fright is one of the most common phobias known to man. Still—and I hate to be the one to say this—all the breathing exercises, positive self-talk, and power posing in the world won’t save you from a shallow, sweaty grave if your presentation itself is a bust.
Our real problem isn’t fear. It’s our messages: our flat, lifeless, no-flesh-just-bones messages. So what’s a presenter to do?
The answer lies in stories.
Stories are the heartbeat of powerful presentations. Stories capture the imagination, engage the emotions, and break through the mundane. They’re memorable, they connect, and, yes, stories even sell.
In fact, nailing down a powerful story will work wonders on your nerves. This is because, above all, stories bring your presentation to life. To do that, here are five things every presenter needs to focus on to tell the best story:
Stories are not self-justifying. They do not exist for their own sake. Stories exist to make abstract principles come alive.
This means every story must have a purpose, or what writer Geoffrey James calls the "takeaway." And with your purpose, singularity is key.
Start by asking yourself: "What am really trying to accomplish? What one principle is most central? If I were a communication wizard, what one idea would I magically implant in my listeners’ minds?"
The answer to those questions is your purpose. And your purpose is what your story will bring to life.
Once you’ve got a single purpose nailed down, don’t try to be clever or hide it. Be as obvious as possible. Tell your audience straight out:
"To illustrate this [insert purpose] let me tell you a story . . ." or "Here’s an example of [insert purpose] so you can see it in real life . . ."
Always write your purpose out. Even though you may not share it with your audience word for word (although you should), be sure to record it for yourself. After all, if you’re not clear yourself, your audience won’t stand a chance.
This might sound obvious, but the next step to crafting powerful stories is to make sure your stories are actually stories. Here’s what I mean:
I was running this lesson in my communications course recently, and as part of an activity one student presented a list of negative leadership traits from a previous manager. Her "story" went something like this:
Malcolm was the kind of boss everyone dreads. He was domineering. He yelled. He insulted. He didn’t listen. Worst of all, he told incredibly hurtful and inappropriate jokes.
You see the problem, right?
There’s no actual story.
I pointed this out and asked for a concrete example.
"Well," the student replied, "this might not sound kosher, but instead of calling me Crystal he thought it was funny to call me ‘Crystal Meth.’"
You can imagine the class’ reaction. Horror. Suddenly what was abstract came to life. It got real. And because it got real, her audience connected.
Asking yourself "What?" as in, "What actually happened?" forces you to tell an actual story.
Every story needs a beginning, middle, and an end.
Again, that sounds obvious, but it’s shocking how many of our stories are all middle. Instead of developing a narrative, we dump out a bag of ideas: "Here’s some stuff that happened."
The beginning. The place most people waste time is in the beginning. Don’t try and explain everything. Just get to the point. With beginnings that means introducing your characters, your setting, and your problem.
The middle. The middle of the story is where your problem takes over. The problem is the conflict, and conflicts are what drive stories. What started a mere "issue" in the beginning should grow into a "nightmare" in the middle.
Focus on the emotions this problem creates—especially negative emotions like fear, embarrassment, confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, and disappointment. Share your feelings, but even more importantly share your reality. Don’t just say, "I was afraid." Say, "My stomach turned and suddenly I could taste last night’s Thai creeping up the back of my throat."
Also, be sure your problem is something that the purpose behind your story overcomes, gives an answer to, or provides a cautionary tale about.
The ending. With endings, again, be brief. Tell your audience the aftermath or resolution in as few words as possible and always connect the ending back to your purpose. Show how your takeaway saved the day, rescued you from the problem, or even how without it, you were lost.
Characters are the lifeblood of any story. A good story—meaning an engaging, powerful, persuasive story—is built on two things:
Keep the descriptions of your characters to a minimum. Instead of telling your audience about your characters, show them who your characters are through what your characters do.
Characters are especially important when it comes to bringing data to life.
Take this stat for example, "On average, women make close to 27% less than men for doing the same job with the same level of experience."
Sounds shocking, right? But instead of simply presenting the number, powerful communicators present characters:
For six years, Heather Turner worked as the supervising administrator in one of Los Angeles’ toughest and most underfunded school districts. Over her tenure, Turner implemented a number of innovative and at the time controversial programs designed to improve student performance as well as hold ineffective teachers accountable.
By the end of her sixth year, Turner’s efforts had enticed nearly 100 new teachers from some of the country’s most prestigious universities. On top of that, student-on-student crime had dropped 35% and high school graduation rates had nearly doubled.
So imagine Turner’s shock when she discovered that to attract a viable pool of male candidates to succeed her, the school board was forced to in increase her salary by just under 30 thousand dollars.
Even more shocking, however, is the realization that Turner’s case is far from unusual. On average, female professionals make close to 27% less than their male counterparts for doing the same job with the same level of experience.
The difference is night and day.
On a side note, try not to be the "hero" of your story too often. Tell stories about your mistakes, your foibles, and your failures. These kinds of stories humanize you and build a relationship with the audience. They lead to identification. You can tell victory stories, but try to keep your mistakes to victories at about a three to one ratio.
Just like your characters, what makes stories come alive are the details: the grimy, real-life, sensory details. This means that with your setting, don’t just focus on geography; focus on experience. Describe how the "where" smells, looks, feels, sounds, and tastes.
The real power of a setting lies in its ability to set a mood and create an atmosphere. In this way, the setting of a story is often referred to as a silent character.
Here are a few of my favorite settings to get the ball rolling:
"Rex Colie’s life is a narrow box, so dark and confining he wonders how he got trapped inside, whether he’ll ever get out."
-From Matae Gold and David Ferrell’s LA Times piece, "Going for Broke"
"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims."
-From Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."
-From J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit
We all struggle with presenting. Not so much because of fear, but because of lifelessness.
All presentations are built around taking principles from your head and implanting them in your audience’s heart. Barring that, nothing else you say matters.
—Aaron Orendorff teaches communication and philosophy at the local college by day. By night he’s busy "saving the world from bad content" as a freelance copywriter and speech coach over at iconiContent.com.