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Presentation Skills: Connect with your audience through stories


A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a business school here in the United States. The presenter was a German researcher who had been invited to speak about the German economy. The audience consisted of approximately 30 students from the International Business Program and a few professors. People were excited and ready to gain new insights on one of the largest economies in the world.


The presenter started his talk and dove right into the topic. He moved from one PPT slide to the next. Each slide contained a lot of interesting data: charts, graphs, statistics, study results, and more. He explained everything in detail and shared a ton of relevant information. It was clear that he was an expert on the topic.

charts and graphs

And yet, as I looked around the room about 15 minutes into the presentation, I noticed that the audience was struggling to pay attention. Some students were looking at their phones. Some had closed their eyes. Some were trying to hold back yawns (even the professors). Many had stopped listening altogether. It was clear: most would remember very little from the talk.


That’s when I thought: I wish someone had coached this German researcher on how to present to a US audience!


Data versus stories


German speakers share data. Americans share stories. Now, I know that that’s a generalization. Not every presenter in the US uses stories. It does, however, describe a cultural tendency I have observed over many years of working on both sides of the Atlantic.

Neon story sign
Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Personal stories are part of many talks and presentations, whether it’s an interview on US radio or TV, a sales presentation, or a TED Talk on stage.


US audiences love stories: Stories that make them chuckle, laugh, and cry. Stories that give life to dry data and spark their imagination. Stories they can personally relate to.


Storytelling has become an important part of presenting and sharing data – in business, in academia, and in other professional settings. Why? Because people remember stories better than just data. Read on to learn why that is the case and how to get started with storytelling.


The science behind the story


Different studies show that the combination of data, pictures, and stories is much more powerful than just data alone. People have a hard time remembering statistics and charts. They have a much easier time remembering stories. According to Stanford business school professor Jennifer Aaker, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.


brain scans

Stories trigger both the left and the right side of your brain. In their book on Business Storytelling, Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus explain the following: The left side of your brain is logical, analytic, and verbal. The right side is conceptual, intuitive, and visual. Stories ignite our right side. “And when you tell stories that are supported by precise data and visuals, it appeals to both the creative and logical sides of the brain.” (2021, p. 10)


Storytelling is a learnable skill


You may now think: I don’t know how to tell a story during a presentation. It’s hard enough for me to talk about what’s on my slides.


You’re right. Telling a story in a professional situation can be hard. Here are three main challenges many people experience:


  • Worries about their language skills: My English is not good enough! Telling a story may feel scary if English is not your native tongue.

  • Lack of cross-cultural knowledge: How do I know what the audience can relate to? How do I know what they find entertaining or funny? Picking a story requires knowledge of your audience and their culture.

  • Cultural inhibitions: It feels weird! It’s childish! It may feel inappropriate or even silly to you to tell a story in a serious professional setting, due to your own cultural upbringing. You are not used to it. It’s out of your comfort zone.


Here's the good news: You can overcome these challenges and learn how to tell a story that supports your data, even if you’re not a native speaker. Storytelling is a learnable skill.


Seven tips to get you started


Developing this skill and the courage to put it into action will take a little bit of time and practice. I recommend working with a coach who can give you guidance on how to get comfortable and confident with it. As a first step, though, I have listed seven tips to get you started:


presentation
  1. Research your audience. Not every story is right for every audience. Is your story suitable for your professional situation? Is your story culturally appropriate? Can your listeners connect with this story? Your audience is an important stakeholder in your story.

  2. Make your story relevant to your content. Don’t just tell a story about your cat if it has absolutely nothing to do with your topic. That’s a distraction. People will remember the cat story, but they will not remember the content of your presentation. Use your story to personify the data or facts you’re presenting. Tie them together.

  3. The point of your story must be clear. You can even say: The point of this story is… or The reason I’m telling you this story is… Use it to support your goal.

  4. Your story must be lively. Include enough details to spark imagination (but not so much detail that your audience will get bored). It’s a good idea to do a practice run and share it with a few people to get some feedback.

  5. Tell your story in an animated tone of voice. If you speak in a monotonous tone of voice, your story will not be effective. Read my blog on pronunciation to learn more about the importance of how you speak. By the way, if you speak with enthusiasm and confidence, your listeners will happily forgive a few grammar mistakes – they might not even notice them. So, working on your tone and rhythm is especially important if your first language is not English.

  6. Keep it simple. Don't use complicated sentence structures and difficult vocabulary. Tell your story in a conversational style with everyday words. That’s easier for you as the speaker and easier for your listeners.

  7. Use stories at various points in your presentation: You can start off with a story to capture your audience’s attention. You can break up a more technical section with a story. A story can also be a strong and memorable ending. There are many ways to use a good story.


Where can I find stories?


Here are three story sources:


  • Your own life: A story can be a personal experience or learning. It can even include you as a protagonist. If you are not comfortable with that, you can anonymize your personal experience and use a fictional name or persona.

  • Someone else’s experience: It can also be an experience someone else told you about or something you read. If the story is about other people, make sure to keep it anonymous, unless the person you are mentioning is ok with being part of the story.

  • Your imagination: Finally, your story can also be completely fictional. You can create an imaginary scenario and start with: Imagine…

To be continued sign
Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

My own storytelling journey


When I gave my first presentations in the US, I utilized a data-focused approach. It’s what I was used to from Austria, where I lectured for many years. I did not include anything personal or anything that, in my opinion, might distract from the facts. I could tell that my presentations were met with polite interest, but I knew something was missing.


I started to watch what others around me did. I noticed how Americans included humor and personal experiences. At first, I found it strange, even childish, when someone started a professional presentation with a funny story or something personal. At some point, I realized that the stories did what the data alone could not do: create a connection with the audience.


We all want to connect with our audience when we speak, whether the audience consists of three people in a conference room, 30 people in a classroom, or 300 people in an auditorium. We want for the audience to remember us and the content we share with them.


If you want to learn how to connect with your audience and be remembered, contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!






References:

Kurnoff, J. & Lazarus, L. (2021). Everyday Business Storytelling. Create, simplify, and adapt a visual narrative for any audience. Wiley.


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