Storytelling in formal presentations: mixing the rational with the personal

Storytelling in formal presentations: mixing the rational with the personal

After my last post, concerning the growing polarization in politics and in society at large, I fully intended to continue along the same line for a few more weeks. There is quite a lot I would like to address, including some of the ways that technology—big data and social media in particular—may be contributing to the phenomenon of societal polarization.

While I still plan to write about all this soon, today’s post will be a departure from such themes. In fact, this is one of those times when my current activity provides immediate fodder for a blog entry. In this case, it stems from two recent encounters with clients, each of which caused me to revisit the power of storytelling, and how we can all use it to influence our worlds.

The two incidents took place in diametrically opposed contexts—one in a young company trying to disrupt a traditional market, and the other in one of the world’s long-time industrial giants.

The first of these matters involves some intensive work I have been doing with a US-based startup. The company, which is progressing well in its marketplace, is nonetheless running out of cash to finance its continuing development. Consequently, they are eager to do their second round of funding, either with private individuals or with a venture capital firm. In the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to be present for three of their conference calls with potential investors.

Watching the group’s principals explain their firm and its goals to the interested parties reminded me once again how much we tend to overuse rational discourse and logic in our efforts to persuade an audience. The group’s “slide deck”—as people seem wont to call  PowerPoint presentations these days—is informative, neatly done, and easy to follow. In fact, it has even won them prizes at several “pitch” competitions.

On all of the calls with investors I was able to see, the founder and two of the original employees made a coherent and persuasive case for this company’s ability to grow, and to become a significant player in its target marketplace. As such, the issue that I have with the presenters has little to do with the deck itself, or with their ability to present their case. Rather, it is about their failure to personalize their execution.

When I state that we overuse rational argument, though, I feel the need to express this notion with some caution. In the past, my favorable bias toward storytelling has caused some people to think that I advocate using story to replace logic and argumentation. This is certainly not the case. It is clear to me that rational argument and storytelling should complement each other. When I criticize our reliance on rhetoric and formal argumentation in making our points, I simply mean that it would be highly beneficial to blend some form of personal narrative into the mix.

Why have I come to feel so strongly about integrating story-based discourse into presentations? Quite simply, because it is something I have seen work over and over again with entrepreneurs I have coached or taught.

Here is what I have been telling all types of entrepreneurs, in a wide variety of venues, for more than twenty years: In essence, when you are looking for people to fund your young, high-risk venture, you are mostly asking them to believe in you. As such, an astute investor will not only want to understand your business concept, but also to “meet” you. Telling some of your emblematic stories of identity affords you an opportunity to show some aspects of who you are, what you stand for, what motivates you, why you do things the way you do, and why you have the energy and enthusiasm to lead a project to fruition.

In the next few weeks, before returning to my discussion of the polarization of our societies, I plan to delve a bit further into today’s concept—why we should think to use narrative discourse far more often in our formal presentations. Also, I will write something about the second client encounter I referenced at the outset of this entry: an unusual and enlightening meeting with a team from General Electric in Switzerland.


Image: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass