Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin

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Once upon a time, an employee just like you decided that the skills shortage in construction needed tackling. Enough was enough. The skills problem had been a concern for over 20 years, and she’d read that only 10% of construction employers engaged with schools. This employee discussed it with her manager, reached out to a local school, and before she knew it, the date for a school visit was booked.

Then the hard work started – planning the presentation. How to engage a room full of students, all with a completely different understanding of construction, different levels of career aspiration applied by their parents, different beliefs about their own abilities and future, different emotions related to school and education, different interpretations of you and your message?

Where would you start?

You’re doing a presentation, so you start with the facts you want to get across, right? Don’t do it to yourself! Humans are hardwired for stories. We love heroes, journeys, surprises, layers and happy endings. Facts and raw data only gain meaning within the context of stories. Research shows that our brains actually become more active when we’re listening to a story. If you don’t want to be facing a sea of disengaged faces, don’t start with facts.

Deliver a presentation that captures the hearts and heads of your audience by stealing one of these classic storytelling techniques, compiled by Ffion Lindsay in her book, “The Seven Pillars of Storytelling“. Eight of the best are listed below, so you can start with the story – the rest will follow.

Human memory is story-based; before people could write, they communicated important information and guidance through stories that were memorable and replicable. A good story paints a picture, it puts information in perspective, and it’s much more likely that your audience will remember it. If you can use actual pictures and images to reinforce your point, that’s even better. The limbic part of our brain (the part related to emotion, and therefore thoughts and action) has no capacity for language at all.

By reminding people of the status quo and then revealing the path to a better way, a great presenter sets up a conflict that needs to be resolved. That tension helps to persuade the audience to adopt a new mindset or behave differently — to move from what is to what could be. And by following Aristotle’s three-part story structure (beginning, middle, end), you can create a message that’s easy to digest, remember, and retell.

Which style suits you best?

1. The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey (or monomyth) is a story structure that is found in many folktales, myths and religious writings from around the world.

In a monomyth, the hero is called to leave their home and sets out on a difficult journey. They move from somewhere they know into a threatening unknown place.

After overcoming a great trial, they return home with a reward or newfound wisdom – something which will help their community. Lots of modern stories still follow this structure, from the Lion King to Star Wars.

Using the monomyth to shape your presentation can help you to explain what has brought you to the wisdom you want to share. It can bring your message alive for your audience.

Good for:

  •    Taking the audience on a journey
  •    Showing the benefit of taking risks
  •    Demonstrating how you learned some newfound wisdom

2. The mountain

The mountain structure is a way of mapping the tension and drama in a story. It’s similar to the hero’s journey because it helps us to plot when certain events occur in a story.

It’s different because it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. The first part of the story is given to setting the scene, and is followed by just a series of small challenges and rising action before a climactic conclusion.

It’s a bit like a TV series – each episode has its ups and downs, all building up to a big finale at the end of the season.

Good for:

  •    Showing how you overcame a series of challenges
  •    Slowly building tension
  •    Delivering a satisfying conclusion

3. Nested loops

Nested loops is a storytelling technique where you layer three or more narratives within each other.

You place your most important story – the core of your message – in the centre, and use the stories around it to elaborate or explain that central principle. The first story you begin is the last story you finish, the second story you start is second to last, etc.

Nested loops work a bit like a friend telling you about a wise person in their life, someone who taught them an important lesson. The first loops are your friend’s story, the second loops are the wise person’s story. At the centre is the important lesson.

Good for:

  •    Explaining the process of how you were inspired/ came to a conclusion
  •    Using analogies to explain a central concept
  •    Showing how a piece of wisdom was passed along to you

4. Sparklines

Sparklines are a way of mapping presentation structures. Graphic designer Nancy Duarte uses sparklines to analyse famous speeches graphically in her book Resonate.

She argues that the very best speeches succeed because they contrast our ordinary world with an ideal, improved world. They compare what is with what could be.

By doing this the presenter draws attention to the problems we have in our society, our personal lives, our businesses. The presenter creates and fuels a desire for change in the audience.

It’s a highly emotional technique that is sure to motivate your audience to support you.

Good for:

  •    Inspiring the audience to action
  •    Creating hope and excitement
  •    Creating a following

5. In medias res

In medias res storytelling is when you begin your narrative in the heat of the action, before starting over at the beginning to explain how you got there.

By dropping your audience right into the most exciting part of your story they’ll be gripped from the beginning and will stay engaged to find out what happens.

But be careful – you don’t want to give away too much of the action straight away. Try hinting at something bizarre or unexpected – something that needs more explanation. Give your audience just enough information to keep them hooked, as you go back and set the scene of your story.

This only works for shorter presentations, though – if you string it out too long your audience will get frustrated and lose interest.

Good for:

  •    Grabbing attention from the start
  •    Keep an audience craving resolution
  •    Focusing attention on a pivotal moment in your story

6. Converging ideas

Converging ideas is a speech structure that shows the audience how different strands of thinking came together to form one product or idea.

It can be used to show the birth of a movement. Or explain how a single idea was the culmination of several great minds working towards one goal.

Converging ideas is similar to the nested loops structure, but rather than framing one story with complementary stories, it can show how several equally important stories came to a single strong conclusion.

This technique could be used to tell the stories of some of the world’s greatest partnerships – for example, web developers Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Larry and Sergey met at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they didn’t like each other at first. They both had great ideas, but found working together hard. Eventually they found themselves working on a research project together. A research project that became Google.

Good for:

  •    Showing how great minds came together
  •    Demonstrating how a development occurred at a certain point in history
  •    Showing how symbiotic relationships have formed

7. False start

A ‘false start’ story is when you begin to tell a seemingly predictable story, before unexpectedly disrupting it and beginning it over again. You lure your audience into a false sense of security, and then shock them by turning the tables.

This format is great for talking about a time that you failed in something and were forced to ‘go back to the start’ and reassess. It’s ideal for talking about the things that you learnt from that experience. Or the innovative way that you solved your problem.

But best of all, it’s a quick attention hack which will disrupt your audience’s expectations and surprise them into paying closer attention to your message.

Good for:

  •    Disrupting audience expectations
  •    Showing the benefits of a flexible approach
  •    Keeping the audience engaged

8. Petal Structure

The petal structure is a way of organising multiple speakers or stories around one central concept. It’s useful if you have several unconnected stories you want to tell or things you want to reveal – that all relate back to a single message.

You tell your stories one by one before returning back to the centre. The petals can overlap as one story introduces the next but each should be a complete narrative in itself.

In doing so, you can weave a rich tapestry of evidence around your central theory. Or strong emotional impressions around your idea.

By showing your audience how all these key stories are related to one another, you leave them feeling the true importance and weight of your message.

Good for:

  •    Demonstrating how strands of a story or process are interconnected
  •    Showing how several scenarios relate back to one idea
  •    Letting multiple speakers talk around a central theme

Stuck for a story starter?

There’s really no limit to the sources that can yield a good story. Stories can come from just about anywhere: from personal experience or the experience of others, or from books, newspapers and magazines, the internet, movies and TV programmes. Some presenters even find stories from mythology. You can also recycle and adapt stories others have used. Make sure you can feel the emotion in the story you chose, so that your audience pick up on it too. Use emotive language when you talk. People make decisions based on emotions. Always. You might have heard me mention that before here and here

If you want to see some storytelling experts at work, click over to TED.com and watch short presentations from the great and the good that will get your mind racing.

But more than anything else – more than the style you use, the emotion you add, the images you include – DO IT! Get out there and engage with schools. There really are no more excuses.

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