Focus on storytelling.

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Presentation is defined in the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary both in terms of “showing” and “talking”. The former refers to the way something is shown to people; the latter refers to a talk giving information about something. In short, a presentation uses images and words to deliver content, pretty much like a story.

A presenter needs to be a scriptwriter, a designer and an actor. He needs to prepare a good story, to enhance it with interesting images and deliver it in a way that captivates his audience.Alexei Kapterev (i)

Although presentations are associated with professional environments, i.e., professional conferences or meetings, they sound suspiciously similar to what a teacher has to face in class almost on a daily basis.

In this first part of this series, we are going to consider the presenter as a storyteller.

We can all think of a time in our lives when we were told a story, either privately or professionally, that had a great impact on us. We may remember the content, we may remember the speaker, we may remember the way the story was narrated, we may remember the way the audience reacted to the experience or, all of the above. The indisputable fact is, however, that it made a lasting impression.

On the other hand, we may also remember a presentation that made an impression on us for all the wrong reasons. The content was uninteresting, the speaker was flat, the narration was poor, the audience was restless, or, all of the above.

What made the first instance a success and the second instance a failure? We can always blame the presenter. We may be tempted to say that some presenters are naturally blessed while some others are seriously challenged. Although presentation skills may come naturally to some people, it is my belief that they can be taught. The following things need our attention:

Attention to Story. 

The theme, the plot, the style, the characters, the development and the audience are key to constructing a story. A theme that is familiar to the audience, a plot that is intriguing yet easy to follow, a narrative style that is suitable to the occasion, a choice of characters that the listeners can relate to, the development of a story line that is unpredictable and the careful consideration of the participants are factors that can all guarantee success.

Similarly, in a presentation, the speaker needs to consider what he is going to talk about, how much his audience knows about the topic, how much information is required, how many examples the audience is going to need, how much comic relief the audience will need to follow the presentation, what ways can be used to involve the participants and what style would be the most appropriate, i.e., formal or informal.

 Attention to Audience. 

A good storyteller relates to his audience. The story is all about them. He adds information if they are unfamiliar with the theme; he sticks to the basic facts if the theme is known to them. In addition, the storyteller relies on the development of his story to keep the audience interested. He needs to make it credible, yet not predictable. He keeps it short enough to keep everybody alert, yet not too short so that it is considered a waste of the listeners’ time. He keeps it simple enough for everybody to follow, yet not too simplistic so that the audience gets insulted. Finally, every story has a moral. It is the punch line that the storyteller would like his listeners to remember.

Similarly, in a presentation, the speaker needs to consider how much his audience already knows about the topic, i.e., by asking questions before or at the beginning of his talk, how he is going to develop his arguments so that there is an element of surprise, how much information needs to be included in an oral presentation to drive his points home, how many examples are necessary to support the main points, what the conclusion that he would like the participants to remember is, i.e., why he is giving this presentation.

 Attention to planning. 

Filmmakers, the most successful storytellers of our time, use a storyboard to design their product. One reason for this is that they want to make certain they have the right combination of images and speech. The script is the starting point and the storyboard is the testing ground. They adapt either the script or the storyboard to achieve the desired effect. They constantly check the structure of their work and use transition effects to guide their audience through the different stages.

Similarly, in a presentation, the speaker needs to consider the structure of the presentation as well as the right balance of verbal and non-verbal signals he is going to use. The presentation needs to have a clearly identifiable structure for the audience to follow as well as a clear aim. The audience needs to know exactly where they are at all times and make the necessary transitions at the same time as the speaker. Visuals have a greater impact than words and stay in the mind longer. However, certain aspects of a presentation need only be presented verbally. Careful planning will ensure there is a balance between the two and that neither leads to overload.

 Attention to interest. 

A good storyteller uses dramatic effects to help his listeners recall familiar or relevant feelings, smells, and images so they appreciate the story better. He emphasizes those necessary for the particular stage of the story and uses body language for dramatic effect. The whole time he is building towards a climax.

Similarly, in a presentation, the speaker needs to keep his audience interested. This may be regardless of the topic discussed and its inherent qualities. The speaker will need to make the topic relevant to the audience by helping them recall or relate situations where they had similar experiences. These may be verbal or non-verbal, i.e., feelings, smells or mental images. Furthermore, he will need to include different means of delivering information, again verbal and non-verbal, as well as ways of checking how much has been assimilated. Building the presentation towards a conclusion that matters is fundamental to the success of the effort. The more unexpected and unpredictable the latter is, the greater the audience response is going to be.

 Attention to Involvement. 

A good storyteller interacts with his audience. In addition to varying the tone of his voice and the pace of delivery, he uses pauses for dramatic effect and asks his audience rhetorical or non-rhetorical questions. He builds on their responses and expectations to enhance the essence of what he is going to mention. Furthermore, he uses twists and turns to keep his listeners engaged.

Similarly, in a presentation the speaker needs to talk to the audience.  He needs to use his body, voice and pace of delivery as tools to enhance the presentation experience. He also needs to concentrate on his listeners. He needs to ask questions and encourage responses. He needs to build on them for reasons of clarification and emphasis. Finally, he needs to “mislead” his audience in order to stress his own points. The more unforeseen the points made seem or feel, the greater the storytelling impact will be.

[i] Presentation Secrets, (published by John Wiley & Sons, 2011).