Story Vs. Narrative in a Presentation or Speech

Christopher Witt —  December 4, 2012

Does a Presentation Tell a Story or Have a NarrativeI’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.

Agree? Disagree?

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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.

3 responses to Story Vs. Narrative in a Presentation or Speech

  1. Hey Chris,

    I often work with PhD level researchers doing basic science and from my perspective their presentations do tell stories. Each scientists takes a series of actions (experiments) to achieve a better understanding of the problem. If the work is good, the audience and the scientist have learned something significant about the problem. The scientists does overcome obstacles or challenges in doing the work. Often it is creating the design of the experiments or the overall design of the sequence of experiments that ultimately lead to the conclusions.

    When a scientist presents he or she is sharing both the conclusions about the problem, but also (different from a scientific paper) she presents the process of discovery–why they chose to perform those particular experiments.

    So for the scientists, I believe that their presentations are stories. However, that is not to say that ALL presentations are stories. I agree with you there are some presentations that do not meet the criteria. For example, a presentation that I might deliver on public speaking or networking does not meet the criteria.

    I think whether or not a presentation meets the criteria of story depends on the content and most often hinges on if a problem or obstacle is being discussed as a series of questions and answers.

    • Lisa,

      I quite agree. A presentation CAN have a story, although many presentations do not. I think that organizing a presentation in the form of a story, the way you have your clients do, is a great way to go. (I also try to get my clients to adopt this approach, with more or less success.)

      In your example, the presentation does have the main elements of a story: 1) a character (the researcher / presenter), 2) a series of actions taken to overcome obstacles and to achieve a desired goal, and 3) a theme (a unifying idea).

      Thanks for you insights.

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