Presentations that Tell a Story

Christopher Witt —  December 12, 2012

In an earlier post (Speech Vs. Narrative in a Speech or Presentation), I asserted that presentations have a narrative, not a story.

Lisa Marshall rightly pointed out in her response that some presentations do tell a story. And she’s quite right.

Making your entire business or technical presentation one long story can be very effective.

The story structure that works best is also the simplest one. It has two variations.

    1. If you’re reporting on something that has already occurred (e.g., a discovery that has been made, an innovation that has been developed, an initiative that has been implemented), you can frame your story as “A Journey from Point 1 to Point 2 and How We Got There.”
    2. If you’re recommending a future course of action (e.g., a research project to be undertaken, an innovation  to be developed, an initiative to be implemented), you simply change the verb tense: “A Journey from Point 1 to Point 2 and How We Can Get There.”

This way of structuring a story — from Point 1 to Point 2 and how we got (or can get) there — has three acts, which I’ll explain in a future post. For now I’d like to address the most common sets of contrasting pairs.

At its most basic form, Point 1 is always a problem of some sort, and Point 2 is always its solution. (That’s why so many presentations use the problem-solution format.) But there are other, more specific contrasting pairs, which might include:

  • From 1) ignorance to 2) knowledge or insight
    Some problems are caused by a lack of knowledge or by a misconception, and they can only be solved by learning more (through research, study, or experimentation). How, for example, can you slow the transmission of HIV, when you don’t even know its cause?
    “Let me tell you how we made this discovery.”
  • From 1) stagnation or decline to 2) renewal or rebirth
    Some problems come about because people or organizations keep doing what they’ve always done. But they may do it with less energy, enthusiasm, or efficiency. Or conditions and circumstances may have changed. What worked in the past may not work now. Something needed to change in order to move get them back on track.
    “Let me tell you how we turned this company (or department, campaign, or program) around.”
  • From 1) failure to 2) success
    Some problems seem unsolvable. Nothing works until… Think of how many failures Edison and his team had to overcome to develop a workable incandescent light bulb.
    “Let me tell you how we succeeded when all else failed.”
  • From 1) dysfunction to 2) performance
    At the heart of some problems may be an organizational culture, a way of relating, a communication pattern, or a team dynamic that keeps people from functioning well. For example, a commission that investigaged the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster placed most of the blame not on the failed sealant rings (the o-rings), but on a systemic lack of communication between officials and engineers at NASA.
    “Let me tell you how we cut down on the time we spend in meetings while improving their effectiveness.”

Do you have any other examples of contrasting pairs?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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  1. Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #97 - December 13, 2012

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