Supercompetent Speaking: Using Stories in Presentations

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

My latest column for Training magazine focused on using stories in presentations. You can read the full article below or see the original version at

Supercompetent Speaking: Using Stories in Presentations

Combining stories with data can bring a presentation to life, change attitudes, and even alter opinions.
Article |   Tue, 09/13/2011 – 01:00

Human beings are uniquely social animals, and we’re bound by our traditions of verbal communication. No matter how sophisticated we may be today, no matter how technology may be changing things, human societies started out as small, tight-knit groups where information was exchanged in intimate settings through the medium of stories. A story is simply a narrative that connects experiences and events in a believable way; and when you get right down to it, that’s still how we learn and transmit the vast majority of our information and cultural heritage.

Stories help us process, visualize, and remember facts and raw data, giving complex information meaning. This makes them an invaluable part of any professional presentation, since all the bullet points and graphs might otherwise overwhelm the listener. Furthermore, because we all love to hear stories, they help us connect with people. A good story gets the point across by harnessing your audience’s expectations and, perhaps more importantly, their emotions. When you can get someone emotionally involved in your presentation, the facts become very persuasive.

Combining stories with data can bring a presentation to life, change attitudes, and even alter opinions. This being the case, it’s to your benefit to take advantage of stories when you speak to an audience. Here are a few things to consider:

1. In addition to harvesting your personal experience, you can collect stories from every medium you encounter, as long as you modify them appropriately to your needs. Radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, books, friends, family, mythology, and even fiction can provide you with useable stories. Wherever you find them, be sure to give credit where it’s due. Your stories can be humorous, inspiring, or personal; they can even be parables, a type of story used effectively in the Bible.

2. A good story puts information into perspective; it doesn’t replace it.

3. You should use stories sparingly to maximize their impact. They also should be spare themselves, leaving out any unnecessary detail. In most cases, a single story should be no more than two to three minutes long.

4. Any stories you use must be carefully crafted to emphasize the key points of your message; they should never be aimless or contextually inappropriate. Each story’s lesson must be obvious, easily grasped, and relevant to the listener at some level. So map each story out first. Create a script with these factors in mind:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do you want them to feel?
  • Who are the story’s key characters?
  • What’s the plotline?
  • What are the key points?
  • What is the happy ending?

5. Once you’ve developed a draft for a story, hone it to perfection. Do your best to make it a creative, enjoyable experience, building in the appropriate pacing and humor when possible. Use simple language and credible dialog to paint a vivid word portrait that the audience can see without much effort.

6. Practice each story repeatedly until you can deliver it with exquisite timing, in a natural manner that reaches out to engage your audience at an emotional level. Put feeling into the telling, using your voice, tone, body language, facial expressions, and eye contact to give it more impact. Then test the story with real people before you ever step up to the podium. Recruit co-workers, friends, and family to listen, and ask them to grade your efforts honestly so you know where you need to improve.

7. Develop a varied repertoire of stories, so you have plenty to choose from, even on the fly, and get comfortable telling all of them.

Storytelling isn’t a quaint way to impart information; it’s necessary and smart, because even in this high-tech era, people are fixated on stories. Therefore, you should incorporate then into every presentation, to make it easier for your audience to take your message away with them. If you can do that, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have changed their lives a little.

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor


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