Story should take center stage in our presentations

Story should take center stage in our presentations

Most of the time on this blog, I write about subjects that are distinct from the work I happen to be doing at the given moment. In other words, clients I am consulting with, the board meetings I attend, the travel I do, or the speeches I make find their way only occasionally into weekly posts.  

There is good reason for this divergence. In essence, I enjoy operating in two discrete domains, and I often feel that it is beneficial for me to do so. My daily work is about the “nuts and bolts” of running a consulting, writing, and public speaking business, and strategizing for the future. In contrast to these hands-on activities, the perspective of the blog is deeper and more philosophical in nature. It encompasses my reflection on more profound matters, or my reactions to current world phenomena (most recently, the trend toward polarization of society, for example).

Of course, I do make some exceptions to this general rule. As regular readers have seen, a particularly interesting audience interaction in Peru, or an incident with a client in Switzerland, for example, do at times provide fodder for a post. In addition, there are some moments when the issues in my everyday world do converge with the themes of my reflection, concepts that I had been planning to communicate about in blog posts. This is one of those times.

In the last entry, I wrote a bit about my belief that all of us—whether entrepreneurs seeking funds or middle managers in a large industrial group—should integrate significant doses of personal storytelling whenever we seek to convince an audience. In addition, I cited briefly two of my current clients—one startup and one of the world’s largest companies. Both are fascinating cases, and each in its own way is aiding me in my reflection about using narrative for influence, irrespective of the organizational context.

My working with these enterprises had already triggered a desire to take up this theme again, and perhaps even to write something new about storytelling. Then, about two weeks ago, a reader sent me a link to an article on the INSEAD Knowledge blog. The piece was called: “What’s the Story of Your Start-up?”

Seeing this blog post got me thinking again about this central theme of my work and my writing for more than 20 years: the numerous advantages of narrative-based discourse in persuading one’s listeners. And, as fate would have it, I was indeed working intently with three different clients on precisely this type of initiative.

For more than two decades, I have been trying—mostly with success—to convince my clients and colleagues that storytelling should take center stage in their presentations and other interactions. In the case of start-ups raising capital, telling a pertinent and engaging story is particularly crucial. The tale of any new venture is about a journey toward solving a problem in the world. There is a plot, a collection of characters, and in nearly every case, significant struggles and obstacles to overcome. And, as the INSEAD post states: “Whether the world sits up and listens to the start-up could depend on its narrative.” 

All this thinking made me realize that we have witnessed a significant change in the way the world of business thinks about storytelling. Twenty years ago, when I would tell people that I worked with entrepreneurs on making story-based presentations about their companies, many seemed to think that this was an unusual activity for a consultant. Today, in contrast, many businesses are conscious of the power of storytelling, and they are not adverse to trying to use it as a way to inspire their listeners. 

Despite this change in attitude, though, most presenters still do things in the wrong order. They begin by constructing a slide deck with all their relevant data. Then, they think about throwing in a story or two to liven things up a bit.

These people would be far more effective at engaging an audience and getting results if they began by putting their business narrative at the center of their discourse. In other words, first learn to tell the story, and then put in some relevant data that supports it.

As these matters are firmly entrenched in both my work and thinking these days, my plan is to continue along this line in the coming weeks.


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