Storytelling in presentations

Angelina Gan asked me if my storytelling approach is based on Peter Orton’s (wonderful!) presentation on using storytelling in business, so I thought I’d share how I started telling stories and what my favorite resources are.

I don’t know exactly why I started telling stories instead of listing bullet points. Maybe it was because of the never-ending march of bullet-ridden presentations. Maybe it was because I kept skimming through business books that were all numbers or pithy sayings without anecdotes to make those statements come alive. Maybe it was because I watched terrific presentations highlighted on the Presentation Zen blog. Maybe it was because of the books I read about telling success stories to deepen your relationships with people, influencing change through story-telling, and telling effective stories. Whatever it was, I started collecting stories and sharing my own.

I’d taken up writing flash fiction (really short stories, typically 55 words long) in 2005, and that turned out to be surprisingly useful. Reading other people’s flash fiction stories taught me that you could tell a story with conflict and character development in a paragraph or two, and that it was fun keeping an eye out for story material. I had originally gotten interested in flash fiction because it felt like a code optimization challenge, and because the stories were short enough for me to write during lunch or a subway ride, on pieces of paper or even on my cellphone. I never felt particularly literary (and in fact had gotten Ds in my English classes in university for lack of effort), but finding and telling stories (or in this case, making them up!) turned out to be a lot of fun.

So when I came across the business applications of storytelling–from social networking to influencing technology adoption–and I saw how it dovetailed with my passions, I jumped right into it. I started collecting stories. For example, I started my master’s research by collecting stories about how people used Dogear (an enterprise social bookmarking system by IBM) so that I could figure out how people were using it in their work and how they could use it even more effectively. I collected stories to help me not only convince people to try out new tools but also give them models to follow and people they could relate to. I also told stories about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and that helped me get to know a lot of people as well. Besides, I love “catching other people doing well”–telling other people’s success stories, especially when they don’t realize they’re doing well.

The results? People act on what I share. They make my stories their own. Not only that, people also tell me that they enjoy my presentations and that my enthusiasm is contagious. Giving presentations – telling stories, having conversations – has become a lot more fun.

How do I find stories? I keep an eye out for things that happen in real life, like this conversation I had with J-. There’s a seed of a story in there, and by telling part of the story, I make it easier to remember later on. I also enjoy reading people’s blogs, because they tell stories from their experiences as well. I read a lot – it certainly helps to have a public library within walking distance. Whenever I come across a particularly good story in any of these sources, I write it down, I bookmark it, I add it to my notes. When I work on presentations, I’ve got a general idea of relevant stories that I’ve come across, and then I use my notes to look up the details.

For example, I was preparing a presentation about University Relations and the Net generation. I didn’t want it to be a boring list of bullet points or advice. I could’ve rehashed the presentation I gave at the Technical Leadership Exchange, but I wanted to make the most of my opportunity to speak with a group that could really make the most of Web 2.0. I remembered that some months ago, I had come across a terrific internal blog post about how a demonstration of IBM’s internal social tools got an audience of university students really interested. I had bookmarked it as a story about Web 2.0 and recruiting, knowing that it would be useful someday. Well, that someday had come! I checked my bookmarks, went back to the blog post, refreshed my memory, and added it to my presentation. I’m sure that the story will make my point more effectively than a list of bullet points.

How can you get started with storytelling? Keep an eye out for story material. Develop a system for filing those stories so that you can find them again when you need them. Tell stories. I’ve linked to some of my favorite books in this post – check them out for more tips. Storytelling is effective and fun. Enjoy!

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