I’m often confused when people talk about a presentation’s “story.” As in, “I’m not sure that this presentation tells a good story.” (This kind of comment typically comes from my clients who are engineers working on an oral proposal. I assume they’ve been told at some point that their presentation has to have a story.)
Here’s what confuses me. A story involves, at the very least, 1) a character (or cast of characters), 2) a plot (a series of events, through which the main character encounters and overcomes—or learns to live with—an obstacle), and 3) a theme (a unifying sense of purpose or meaning). And most presentations lack one or more of those elements. So as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t make sense to talk about a presentation’s story. To be nit-picky, a presenter may tell a story–should tell a story–but a presentation doesn’t.
I prefer to talk about a presentation’s narrative.
Story and narrative are often used interchangeably, mind you. And most references treat the two words as synonyms. A story is a narrative. A narrative is a story. But I like to make a (perhaps arbitrary) distinction.
Here’s the difference between a story and a narrative, as I use the terms in reference to a speech or presentation.
A story is an account of a person (real or imagined) undergoing or undertaking a series of actions in order to achieve something he or she desires. As a result, that person may learn a lesson about him- or herself or about life in general, but the storyteller and the people hearing the story do learn a lesson. The point of telling a story is both to entertain and to share information, insight, or a life lesson.
A narrative is, in the words of Anne Fadiman, editor of The American Scholar, “a way of ordering events and thoughts in a coherent sequence that makes them interesting to listen to.”
A story is an optional, though highly recommended element of a presentation. The narrative is the presentation’s design or overall structure. It gives meaning, focus, and purpose (coherence) to the information you’re presenting. And it makes that information interesting to your audience. A narrative is essential.