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  • Writer's pictureMary Knox Miller

Storytelling In Presentations

The key to successful presentations? Make your audience feel something. It's not about words and numbers - it's about people.

When I tell people stories can be incorporated into every facet of communications, I get confused expressions - especially when bringing up presentations. Heads pull back and faces scrunch as if to say, "You're crazy!" But humans have been telling stories for millennia. Before the written word, stories were the vehicle to pass on information. Think about it. Do you remember any facts or figures from the presentations you heard last week? Were you more focused on the buzzes of your phone than the person standing in front of you or streaming through the computer? Yeah, I thought so. Now think about speakers that captivated you. Moments when time stood still. What was it that held your attention? Chances are the presenter grounded their narrative in a relatable experience. As they're reliving their story of ups and downs, your reliving yours. Suddenly, you're connecting on an emotional level rather than just passively listening to information. At the end, I bet they inspired you with a vision of what could be. This is starting to sound a lot like Storytelling 101, right?

Takeaway: Know your audience and connect the core of your message to a relatable experience. Then, paint a picture of what could be and end with a call to action.

Now, does this mean you're going to tell me about a childhood pet during your next pitch? If you're promoting a product or service related to family pets, you betcha. Or maybe you're a life coach helping people process grief. I was six when our beloved basset hound Tigger passed away, but it may as well have been yesterday. Why? Because universal emotions whiz past data and cut straight to the heart. But let's say you're a lawyer, dentist, or virtual assistant. Stories about little Max probably will likely go in one ear and out the other because pets have nothing to do with your message.

Still with me? Let's talk nuts + bolts of process.

Stories in slide decks

One stream of my work at Harvard Business School is helping colleagues rethink their presentations. I'm often handed slides filled with pie charts, graphs, and a dizzying amount of numbers. First thing out of my mouth: "What story are you trying to tell?" We close the computer and I ask them to explain key themes in a way anyone can understand. As they talk, I write an outline with numbered categories and bullet points. Then, I print each slide and we go through them one at a time, highlighting words and data that support their key themes. If it's not absolutely necessary, it moves to the appendix. Less is more.

By the end of the exercise, every slide has a number that corresponds to the handwritten outline. And because visuals are just as - if not more - important than the information itself, we discuss how design can heighten their message. After all, you could have the best copy and stats in the world, but if they're packaged like noisy confetti, you may as well toss the deck and speak from the heart. But design is a discussion for another day... I love the challenge of finding stories in stats and bullet points. But what brings me the greatest joy is the lightbulb moment when colleagues realize this:

Presentations aren't about words and numbers - they're about the people behind the information.

Feeling inspired?

What if you could connect with your audience - not just spout facts and figures, but make them feel something? What if they understood your message beyond reason? Do you think they'd take action? A presentation can be like a puzzle, often more fun to assemble with a friend. Ask a colleague who knows nothing about your business to take a look at your slides while you explain key themes. Do they get it? If you'd like my perspective, I'm happy to coach you through this. Give a shout at


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