By now you’ve probably heard countless times how important it is to use well-crafted stories in modern presentations. Why? We’re impatient in today’s distracting world. We no longer want to be lulled to sleep by complicated graphs and bullet points. We expect to be excited, challenged and to reflect on our own experiences. And you can do that many times with the use of stories.

Here’s how you can harness your own personal stories and use them to touch your audience the next time you present:

Make a List

Take a pen and paper, away from distractions, and start listing personal milestones or significant stories from your life. They should include a journey where you or those around you were changed by the experience. The birth of a child, early job experiences, overcoming adversity, a risk that failed or succeeded — are all classic examples. Don’t try to edit them or polish them, just get them down on paper.

Look for the Archetype

Once you have your list, look for the following four archetypal story elements within each story:

Here is an example of how a director of a telecommunication company approached creating hot desks and a paperless environment in a culture that opposed any form of open and shared space.

  1. What was happening before your story began, so we can experience the difference from ‘what was to what is?’ The organization was no longer being creative and individuals were getting into a silo way of thinking. In addition, the business wanted to decrease its environmental footprint by becoming as close to paperless as was possible.
  2. What was going to be better if everything had gone as planned? Employees were going to be able to work anywhere within the building. There would be brighter open areas where people could socialize and share ideas.
  3. What got in the way to obstruct or possibly prevent the outcome? Individuals did not want to change and, after an extensive staff survey, the biggest concern was that people were upset at not being able to have photos of loved ones on their desks.
  4. How did you resolve that conflict to arrive at your better way? After bringing a design team to consult and listen to all the concerns and ideas, a massive wall was created for everyone to place pictures of their friends and family and special events. The wall was an incredible success and is now copied in many other businesses.

The obstruction or challenge in your story is often key. It is a moment of drama where the journey could fail. If this area is capitalized on, the outcome can seem all the more rewarding.

Steve Jobs used this technique to great effect during the launch of the first ever iPhone in 2007. As part of his ‘story’ he told his audience about the challenges and issues with smart phones as they stood then. They had ‘plastic little keypads’ that were ‘not so smart and not so easy to use.’ He was creating a problem that to all of us in 2007 didn’t really exist, but as soon as he brought our attention to it, it suddenly mattered. The pay off was therefore much greater when we finally saw the iPhone.

So when you look at your own stories search for the moment where it could have failed. It will make your success all the more sweet. And remember a complete failure has the gift of what was learned.

The Google Stories campaign is another great example of this. Andrew Willis’s Skate Park is particularly good. Here are the 4 archetypal elements in the story:

  1. He has a love of skateboarding and as a child always dreamed of opening his own park.
  2. His better worldview was based on him winning a competition to realize that dream.
  3. What gets in the way is that he has no budget and very little time.
  4. His resolution is achieved through his own passion and continued hard work. His better way is what he has passed on to the next generation.

Final Touches

What take-aways do you want your audience to have from your story? Focus on the aspects of the story that will be relevant to them. In reflecting on their own lives and comparing similar experiences, audience members are likely to trust and bond with you. It becomes a shared experience.

Apple is a brilliant example of a business that constantly pulls on our emotions with examples of what their functional and well-designed technology will do for our human relationships. Their universally praised ‘Misunderstood’ holiday ad recently won the 2014 Creative Arts Emmy for Most Outstanding Commercial. It’s a deceptively simple concept that relies on our own assumptions of a moody teenager, and turns it on its head.

Getting your audience to think one way before taking them to a different place is part of great storytelling.

Our life stories are often relevant to a business presentation. Think of great speakers you have seen in the past and especially within a business context. You will often remember the anecdote used at the time many months after the data has disappeared.

We are all made up of stories and so are the companies we work for. The risks we take, the places we visit, the loves and the losses. Look back over your life – whether it happens to be a short or long one – and craft your own stories.


About the Author

David Bliss is Co-founder and Head of Training at Edison Red – a global Presentation, Storytelling and Design training consultancy based in London. Over the past 10 years David has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands. He lives in London with his wife Jennifer and their three young sons Milo, Felix and Oscar.

Follow the conversation with David on LinkedIn and Twitter.