“Storytelling” has become everyone’s favorite buzzword. Brainstorm falling flat? Time to dial up the storytelling. Need a deck that will really impress the C-suite? Just tell them it’s all about storytelling.
Don’t get me wrong—I love storytelling. I could talk about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey for hours. The problem is that good storytelling requires a specific set of tactics that are often overlooked.
As someone who tells stories both as a marketing strategist and as a creative writer, I’m here to explain how you can apply classic storytelling principles in your next meeting, presentation, or project.
I'm guilty of coming into meetings a little hot sometimes. I get excited and dive right into the heart of the agenda, which can be jarring. It’s important to take a moment to set the scene: you need some exposition, or background information, to establish parameters and help people orient themselves. As Jim likes to say: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them.”
Part and Sum strategist Rachael used these headlines to set the stage in our recent presentation about iOS 14's data privacy update.
So, before launching into the purpose of the mission or the next steps, describe the lay of the land. Who are the key players? What are the known challenges? What was the situation in the past, and what changed? What’s been accomplished (or attempted) so far? This gets everyone focused and aligned before you move on to the real action.
I love language, but I have to be careful with how grandiloquent, verbose, and oblique I can get in pursuit of truths that reveal themselves to be vital to the shared ambitions of my astute and imaginative team. I mean, just look at the sentence before this!
When it comes to writing, keep your language direct and descriptive, and remember that you don’t always need words to make a point. Can you get an idea across with an image, chart, or wireframe? Breaking up chunks of text with other media helps hold people’s attention, and can add important emotional impact. I once saw a room of executives moved to silence by a recording of a customer explaining how difficult it was to use their product. That short audio clip did more than a long paragraph ever could.
Here, Rachael used icons and a screenshot to convey the extent of iOS 14’s changes. “I tried writing it out, but there was just so much information,” she says. “With the images, you get it at a glance.”
Endings are hard. You need a satisfying resolution or a tantalizing question that leaves the audience wanting more. Sometimes you need to resolve part of the story and shape the rest into a cliffhanger. Likewise, a good presentation should always end with a clear perspective, action items, and something that motivates your audience to continue on the journey.
We like to end on a positive—and practical—note.When structuring a presentation, identify your desired outcome at the start and build toward it as you go. By the end, everyone should leave the room feeling confident in the throughline of what they’ve done and what’s coming next, and how that will impact the rest of the work.