Professional Presentations & Storytelling


In much of the information you may have read to this point, you may have noticed comments about storytelling, about creating some sort of narrative in your presentation to make it more engaging and effective. To offer yet another example, executive presentation coach Peter Khoury has reverse-engineered the characteristics of great speakers for over fifteen years. Combining his findings with scientific research on leadership, he’s distilled this research into the following nine characteristics of effective public speakers:[1]

  1. confidence
  2. passion
  3. practice, don’t memorize
  4. speak in a natural voice
  5. authenticity
  6. keep it short and sweet
  7. connect with your audience
  8. paint a picture through storytelling
  9. repetition

What does storytelling mean?  How does storytelling, which we often think of as fiction, relate to professional presentations, which are decidedly factual, offering possibilities and probabilities based on reality?  Nancy Duarte, Harvard Business Review author of “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story,” offers the following visual which provides an overview of a presentation story intended to persuade.

A chart showing the stages of persuasive storytelling. The chart starts at the bottom, labelled What Is. The chart goes up to the top, labelled What Could Be, then back down. It goes up and down four times, ending at the top.

Persuasive story structure (Duarte, “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story,” 2012).

The Beginning

The story starts with “What is” – the current state. Describe this baseline state in a way that is recognizable to the audience. This allows you and the audience to get in sync. And with this base level of agreement, your audience will be more receptive to your proposed change.

The second step is to introduce “What could be.” The gap between what is and what could be adds tension and drama to your story and largely determines the significance of your presentation. If there’s no conflict, no proposed change, what’s the point of the presentation?

Let’s say you’re an analyst on the new product development team of a retailer known for exclusive, trend-forward “house” branded products. Your company’s reputation and revenue depends on consistent introduction of new consumer-product goods. Marketing and distribution are key strengths, but new-product performance is off, revenue is below expectations, and the company’s stock price recently fell 30 percent. Within your company, R&D (research & development) is strictly an insider’s game; any ideas or innovations that weren’t developed in-house are blocked. The problem is, you can’t innovate fast enough, or with enough market demand accuracy, to meet financial and stock market expectations. You and the other analysts on your team have been tracking innovation trends and successes and you think the answer is opening the R&D works to outside ideas and innovations. Here’s how you might lay out your presentation:

  • What Is: We missed our quarterly earnings numbers, largely due to a failure to meet our innovation success targets over the last six months.
  • What Could Be: Initial data suggests we could get back on track by modifying our R&D model to incorporate external innovations.

The Middle

The bulk of your the presentation is developing the contrast between what is and what could be in order to set up your proposed resolution of the conflict or challenge. The objective is also to establish the validity of your arguments, so your proposed call to action is perceived as a logical, ideally inevitable, conclusion of the conflict.

  • What Is: We currently bear the full cost and risk of developing new products and our innovation success rate – the percentage of new products that meet financial objectives – is running 25 percent below target.
  • What Could Be: Sourcing promising innovations from outside the company could reduce R&D costs and risk while also increasing our innovation success rate.
  • What Is: Our R&D process is taking so long that we’re missing trends and losing our market-leading brand reputation.
  • What Could Be: We could license or buy promising innovations for a fraction of the cost it would take to develop them from scratch and leverage our marketing and distribution strengths to claim shelf and market share.
  • What Is: Our below-plan performance and new product pipeline is costing us political capital with executive management, and we’re at risk of losing budget and/or layoffs.
  • What Could Be: Adopting an open innovation culture would allow us to create partnerships that leverage our strengths and drive revenue, regaining a position of value within the company.

The End

To craft a powerful close, heed Duarte’s advice and avoid a list of bullet point to-dos. Your objective here is to achieve resolution of the conflict introduced at the beginning, to issue a call to action that inspires your audience to support your vision of what could be, a state Duarte refers to as the “new bliss.”

Call to Action

To recover our position of a source of revenue and brand value, we need to start working to build a culture and networks that support open innovation and accelerate the development of new products, regardless of the source of the idea.

New Bliss

Our ability to drive value secures our position and reputations in the company, and in the marketplace, and pays off in employee stock value and profit sharing.

The new bliss articulates the proposed and desired future state, incorporating the WIIFM, what’s in it for me, that motivates your audience to buy into and work to support the required change.

Note that this structure is not necessarily a template for all presentations, but it’s a structure that can help you create a more effective presentation, depending on your purpose, audience, and context.

If you’re interested in hearing Nancy Duarte speak more fully about storytelling and presentations, you may want to view her TEDx talk on the subject.