7 Strategies From Ghost Stories That Can Liven Up Your Presentations

Keep your audience’s attention with these strategies that are more campfire and less PowerPoint.

7 Strategies From Ghost Stories That Can Liven Up Your Presentations
[Photo: Flickr user jackoscage]

There are few things more boring than sitting in a conference room listening to someone read bullet points off a slide. This is communication, perhaps, but a pale shade of what communication can be.


By contrast, consider the ghost story. Done right, a ghost story can entertain and educate, and “inspire a pleasing terror,” as ghost story writer M.R. James recommended in his early-20th-century musings on the topic. The good ghost-story teller has the audience rapt. Here are elements you can borrow to re-create that feeling in a business presentation.

The Story Is Key

“It has to be interesting,” says Elena Gormley, a writer, whose first post-college job was as a ghost tour guide in Savannah, Georgia. “There’s not a whole lot of ghost stories about haunted appliances.” Instead, you want universal human themes: love, loss, and primarily unfinished business. Indeed, all ghost stories are about unfinished business–haunting matters that keep the ghosts from their rest. If you don’t have a good story about your product or program and some unfinished matter it is addressing, go back to the drawing board until you do.

Meet The Audience Members Where They Are

“The setting should be fairly familiar, and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day,” writes James. The key to a good ghost story is that the terror happened to normal people who were going about their normal business just like you. If it’s too fantastical, no one cares. So get to know your audience and touch on how your message is important to people like them.

Watch Your Tone

Presenters often rush to cover all the material on their slides. A good ghost story, on the other hand, “needs some deliberateness in the telling,” writes James. Gormley reports that “with ghost stories, you play with volume and you play with distance.” Feel free to slow down, let some silences linger, and trust that your voice can do a lot. “You want the audience to be in the palm of your hand so you can move them around,” says Gormley.

Set The Scene

You create the pictures the audience sees. Ghost stories need sinister settings, such as an old church, an abandoned house, a lonely road (where you only think you’re alone). Your story may be placed elsewhere, but use a minute at the beginning to describe the scenario, and then . . .

Set The Hook

“You punch in with something a little more sinister,” says Gormley. Into this everyday world, you introduce something inexplicable, a problem, a big question planted in the audience’s mind.


Manage The Crescendo

In ghost stories, some people refer to this as the “gradual descent,” but it’s really all about suspense. The big question has to come up again and again–ideally three times–“diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror,” writes James. Build to the conclusion where the audience has an epiphany. The only solution to the problem is the one you are proposing. But then . . .

Don’t Wrap It All Up

Most presentations are forgettable. A good ghost story stays in the mind. The reason is that a wise storyteller will “allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery,” writes James. Or as Gormley puts it, “You want to have something sinister kind of lingering.” Leave the audience with a few questions to ponder, and they’ll still be mulling over what you said later on.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at