Presenting and Teaching

Presenting Tip #7: Find the Story

26 Nov 2018  

There is a pretty simple way to put an audience to sleep: Just present a collection of random facts and charts. You might start with a page showing sales over the past several years, then move on to margin trends, then a look at sales by region and product line. People might be engaged for the first couple pages, but they will soon drift off; they will reach for their phone or start reviewing their list of things to do.

In most cases, this is not a great outcome. If your audience isn’t paying attention, you aren’t likely to sell your recommendation or enhance your personal brand.

When doing a presentation, you want people to pay attention as you go through what is often a pretty complicated situation. To hold their interest, you have to go beyond presenting data; you have to connect the dots and tell them a story.

The Power of Stories

People have been telling stories for thousands of years. Long before we had computers and smart phones, people told stories to transmit information, values and history.

Stories naturally engage the mind. As Chris Anderson from TED explained in his book, “You just let the speaker take you on a journey, one step at a time. Thanks to our long history around campfires, our minds are really good at tracking along.”

A good business presentation will tap into this insight. The discussion will begin in a logical spot and then move forward.

We all tell stories. We tell our friends about our trip to France and our parents about our latest project at work. Every day, we practice telling stories.

All too often, however, when we create a business presentation we forget to do this.

Finding the Story – Two Techniques

Crafting the story isn’t easy. Businesses are complicated; there is a lot of data to process and make sense of. In most cases, you will need to step back and ask yourself, “What exactly is going on here?”

I recommend two techniques to find the story: story boards and speak, then write.

Story boards are particularly effective; this is what I use when creating a presentation. To create a story board, you simply take a piece of paper and draw two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, giving you nine boxes. Each box represents a page in your presentation. You then start writing rough headlines. Where does the story begin? That goes in the first box. Then what? And then?

It might look like this:

-Box 1: Results this year have been excellent

-Box 2: The strong results are due to trial of new product

-Box 3: Our marketing campaign is responsible for the trial rates

-Box 4: However, the campaign is coming to an end

-Box 5: This will slow down product trial and adoption

-Box 6: This raises a key question: Should we extend the campaign?

-Box 7: Extending the campaign would be costly

-Box 8:


Eventually, the story will emerge. It takes time. You need to move things around, change the headlines and perhaps add some information.

When working on the story-board, it is important to use a pencil and just write a few words in each box; you want to be very willing to get rid of a page if it doesn’t seem to work. If you spend three hours creating a really complex and nifty chart, you will be very reluctant to cut it from the presentation, even if it doesn’t quite fit into the story. You’ll think, “But this is such a great chart!”

Some people use post-it notes to story board instead of a piece of paper, and this works fine. Writing on a white-board is another useful approach.

A second technique for finding the story is to speak, then write. With this technique, you tell someone the story of your business and record it. The insight here is that we all can speak easily but we have trouble writing. If you ask someone what they did last weekend, they can usually tell you. If you ask them for a 750-word essay, they will hesitate.

When you tell someone the story, you will naturally touch on the key points. These then become your pages.


It is important to wait on creating the pages in your presentation until the story is clear and tight. By doing so, each page will fit in a logical fashion. More important, you will know the role of each page so you can design it to support that.

With a clear story, a presentation will naturally unfold. It will be easy for your audience to understand and easy for you to deliver in a compelling fashion.


For more advice on creating strong presentations, pick up a copy of my new book How to Wash a Chicken or visit the website.

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