The hardest part about preparing a presentation — besides grappling with your fear of presenting — is the moment you ask yourself, “Where do I even begin?”
The art of presentations has changed over the decades, and new discoveries in neuroscience prove that narratives are key to communicating your concepts effectively— leaving bulleted lists in the past. (RIP, bullets.) While we may miss your ease of use, audiences everywhere will be delighted to see you go. But honestly — did you ever meet a bulleted list you actually liked? Didn’t think so.
With new presentation trends hinging on minimalist style, fewer concepts per deck and fewer slides overall, how do you create an effective presentation that translates your concepts with impact? Before you open up a template or think about which font to use, the first step to creating an effective presentation is figuring out how you’re going to tell your story. (Pssst: You can view the second and third steps once you're finished.)
Settle in as we tell the tale about how "story" can be the key to a successful presentation.
Your Brain on Story
Our brains have grown and evolved over thousands of years, but one fact remains the same: Emotion, not data, rules.
Keeping it simple, we have a three-part brain. Our oldest brain, known as our Reptilian brain, controls basic living functions like breathing, digesting, and our survival instinct. Our Limbic system controls our emotional responses, while our “newest” brain, the Neocortex, controls rational thought. You may assume that the newest brain — the one that controls rational thought — would be the most powerful part of our brains, but alas, it’s the first two, the Reptilian and Limbic systems, that are the hardest workers of our brain collective.
From a business perspective, this was supported in a Journal of Advertising Research study back in 2002 which concluded that “emotions are twice as important than facts in the process by which people make buying decisions.” This is important to you because, as a presenter, you are essentially “selling” your ideas to an audience of “buyers.” Your goal is to get them to feel something from your presentation, remember it, and take action. The quickest, most efficient, and best way to engage the emotions of others? By telling stories that elicit emotional responses.
In his book, Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains: “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’” The long and short of things is: telling stories is the best way to help people retain information and feel compelled to act on that information.
So, how do you craft a good presentation follows the "best practice" rules for emotional storytelling? Let’s dig in.
Structuring Your Story
If you’ve never studied storytelling before, this could seem hard to wrap your head around tried-and-true formulas for success. And while we could go deep into the classic Hero's Journey or Three Act Structure that movies and novels follow, there are plenty of other places that cover that if you’re interested in learning more (Google is your friend).
But, we’re going to skip all that and get right to the heart of the matter: What you need to know is how to tell a solid story with your presentation. This can be done in four simple steps, which we’ve outlined below. We’re going to be using a single example throughout this process in order to make it easy to understand.
The Setup: You work in sales and have been tasked to report on Q2 results and establish a plan for the rest of the year.
Step 1: Describe the Current Reality. In movies and novels, writers “set the stage” by showing you the hero’s current reality. In your case, maybe your team missed Q2 goals by 20% (uh oh!) because you were understaffed and the quality of work suffered. So now, you want to get everyone on the same page and describe in detail what life was like being understaffed.
Maybe your team didn’t have time to do the research they needed to on new clients. Thus, they made fewer calls because they were overloaded with meetings, and the calls they did make weren’t focused and felt rushed. Thus, they couldn’t properly vet their pipelines because they were spread too thin. Thus, they were constantly afraid of missing their sales goal, which put them in a mindset of desperation — which potential prospects picked up on and were turned off by.
Describing these details gets your audience in your shoes. It primes them for what’s coming next, which is …
Step 2: Set the Goal. Showing where you want to be immediately after describing the current reality creates a stark contrast and creates a knowledge gap for your audience. In this scenario, the goal might be “blow past our projections next quarter and hit our stretch goals without hiring any new staff.” If you can pull this off, your boss will think you’re a genius, promote you to VP and give you a huge bonus (at least we’d hope so).
This aforementioned knowledge gap is an important part of the story arc, to get people to come along with you on this ride. They’re strapped in, ready to go and need to know how you’re going to get there. In other words, you’ve got ‘em hooked.
Step 3: Lay Out The Plan. This is where you lay out your master plan, or how you’re going to get from where you are now to where you want to be. This is the dangerous place where it’s easy to fall victim to bulleted lists — but instead, keep in mind these tips:
- Simple is better: keep it one concept, tactic, or idea per slide.
- Bigger fonts, less text.
- Use images strategically and to convey a message.
- Lots of white space is easier on the eyes.
In our example scenario, you might have a slide that focuses on the overall strategy (say, move from high volume, low quality prospects to fewer, high-ticket clients), and dedicate one slide per tactic to how you’ll get there (reduce call quotas, increase time spent per call, create package deals, use video calling for more face-to-face interaction, etc.)
Step 4: Motivate your audience to action. Now, your audience knows how and why you fell short, has bought into your vision for the future, and understands how you’ll get there with your expert strategic planning. What happens next? You get them personally engaged in the plan by explaining what your vision of the future looks like (again) — this time with an emotional hook that directly benefits them.
In other words, the last step is to motivate your audience to action. How will your team be rewarded by getting on board with your plan? We’re not just talking about bonuses and commissions, but the personal impact that will be made on their day-to-day lives. In this scenario, your team may be rewarded with less stress and more clarity; better conversations and connections; a chance to serve at a higher level; higher quality referrals; and so on and so forth.
All of these things translate to the rest of their lives too, of course. Less stress means happier employees overall. Clarity means more creative thinking. Better conversations with prospects means better solutions. You get the picture. Dedicate one slide for each "positive effect" these new initiatives will have on your team.
Your audience will leave feeling invigorated, valued and optimistic about the future. Now if that's not a successful presentation, what is?