Once Upon a Time: How to Tell a Story in Your Next Presentation

"Long ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

“Once upon a time there was a wicked witch...”

“I remember the summer I spent at my uncle's farm...”

You've probably heard you should use stories in your presentations to engage the audience, capture their attention and stir their emotions. But unless you happen to be a natural storyteller, you might be wondering how to do this in a way that doesn't seem silly or frivolous. Use the following as a guide to be sure your stories add value and impact:

Consider the purpose of the story. Is it to entertain? Motivate? Build rapport? If you are clear about why you are using a story you will be able to choose a suitable one and determine how best to tell it.

Choose the right story.  It should be suitable for the occasion, the audience, and the impression you want to make. Assume the story will be remembered, so choose wisely. Don’t choose anything that sounds like gossip, griping, bragging, or humble-bragging. Watch out for a story that puts someone in a potentially embarrassing position. Be careful not to tell a story that could seriously undermine your credibility. It's a thin line between self-effacing humor and a huge put-down.

Have a hook at the beginning. You can say why you are telling the story. You can foreshadow the lesson learned. You can quickly set the stage. This part of your story should be carefully planned out so that you can begin the story smoothly without fumbling for dates or names. The goal is to move right into the situation.

Set up the problem. Luggage lost. Missed flight. Customer upset. Wolf at the door. Without a problem you don't really have a story (although you might have a decent anecdote.) If it's going to be a real story, it needs to have a real problem, and let that problem sink in a moment. Give it a second to breathe. Make the audience think, what am I gonna do now?

Bring the story to life. Name names. My cat Fluffy. Our best customer, Bill. My colleagues Sandy and Jen. It makes the story more believable, and also easier to follow. Now, maybe your story is a cautionary tale, or contains bad news or bad behavior. In those cases you won't want to name names, but you could substitute a made-up name just for clarity. (I always try to select a name that is unlikely to belong to an audience member to protect the innocent.)

Act it out. Use dialog—the exact words the character says. Use a character voice. Get louder or softer. Act it out with your body language. She turned around slowly, glared at me with her hands on her hips and loudly said, "Don’t you ever, ever try that again, young man!"

Build the action...and the suspense. Remember Goldilocks and the three bears? She didn't try the porridge once, she didn't try it twice, she tried it three times. There is a real cadence when you try three times, or take three actions that don't work before you hit on the winner. Don't drag it out, but do show enough of the struggle to build your case.

Build to the climax. Finally, the porridge was just right. At last, I understood what Coach had told me all those times I failed. It took six years, but we finally won the business. You might slow down your rate of speech a little here. Pause. Savor the moment. Smile if it is a happy ending, or allow sadness if necessary. Let it be known that the end is near.

Provide the lesson or closure. If there is any tidying up to do, here is where you do it. Remember Cinderella? Fitting into the glass slipper was the climax of the story, but a few details had to be worked out before the ending, then they could live happily ever after. Or, “so that is why every time I face a big challenge, I think of Coach Jones.”

Rehearse in front of a live audience. Take a page from entertainers and test your material on a small group or someone you trust. Get their reaction even as you practice your delivery. Get some candid feedback; is the story good? Did you tell it well? Was there enough suspense? Did it make the point you wanted it to make? Only when you get raves should you feel ready for prime time.

So what do you think? Can you tell stories? Can you use story structure in your presentations? I think you can, and by adhering to these practices you may well find you have a terrific new skill to engage and captivate your next audience.