How to engage an audience is the single request I’m asked most frequently in my workshops.
It’s not easy getting an audience member’s attention. They have plenty to distract them. They physically bring their distractions with them – like cell/mobile phones, laptops, iPads, etc. They mentally bring into the conference room all of the tasks lying back at their desks.
As presenters, we complicate further any potential engagement by doing things to distract them. Bad presentation skills is chief among the list, but a lack of passion and excitement can be just as dissuasive in ensuring your audience never hears or remembers a thing you say.
And yet, it’s also easy to engage an audience. All you have to do is tell a good story.
Storytelling is as old as the world itself. They were the first (and remain) the primary way people pass down their culture, experiences and expertise to others. Stories inhibit everything important to us. What are the world’s religions, if not stories? Stories are how children learn to talk and read, and are arguably the first time they tap their natural imaginations. We tell stories at virtually every important event in our life. In fact, we are our stories to paraphrase the anonymous quote, “Life is nothing more than a series of really good stories.”
So, perhaps it’s not so odd to think that telling a story can be as useful and relevant in business as it is when you talk to your best mate.
Sometimes I have the story in mind well before I begin to plan my presentation. But more often than not, I get myself organised first. My information needs to be sorted and prioritised. I want to anchor the basic message in my mind before I put fingers to the keyboard or choose the PowerPoint template. Preparing myself – with my words, then images, then body language – all help me determine the best story, because the story needs to be anchored in the “why.” Why are you telling the story? An irrelevant story is as useless as a bad presenter. A story must have purpose.
After that, it’s pretty easy to find or create the story because virtually every story has the same elements. A good story must have …
- A hook. It’s the entrance into the story, to get started. If your listener/reader isn’t interested caught from the beginning in the intrigue of what you’re going to say, they won’t listen to you or read any further than the first 90 seconds.
- A protagonist. It’s a lead character who the listener/reader can connect to personally. Typically, this protagonist is a stereotypical single person of my audience. Or for a pitch, it’s one stylised person who suggests the “everyman” of the primary target audience. I give this person a real name and, if possible, a face, to make them human. Stories are built on emotions, and you cannot make statistics emotional. You must talk about people to engage people.
- A problem. It’s not a story if there’s not a conundrum, a knotty issue that the lead character experiences at the beginning of the story. Sometimes this person knows there’s a problem, but sometimes it’s more interesting if they don’t know they have a problem. And sometimes the person doesn’t even know they have a problem. The “problem” in their mind is usually a mess, and the story helps to bring clarity to the mess. I think of this problem as the Central Problem of my presentation, and I try to elaborate upon the Central Problem by breaking it down into smaller (and simpler) issues which are easier to explain to the audience, to help them digest and understand the problems we face.
- An arc. An arc is the connection from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the path of self-discovery that the lead character must travel, to resolve the problem and come out better (or wiser) in the end. Remember, it’s not just the protagonist who learns. Your audience goes on that path with your lead character. Together, they both discover the insights, which to me, is a metaphor for the research I’ve learnt as I gather information to create the presentation in the first place.
- A supporting case of colorful characters. A lead character needs company. Dorothy didn’t travel the Yellow Brick Road alone. It would have been too boring. That’s why the cast of people is around the lead person – but more than just to provide companionship, but also to provide perspective. (I also say “colorful” because I think when these secondary audiences are a bit off, unusual or downright hilarious, it makes the story dazzle.) Sometimes these hangers-on are nice, friendly, helpful even. But the really, really good stories have an antagonist, a person who makes life miserable for the lead character. It’s a marvelous way to show the opposite point of view. For me, working in communications for the past 27 years, I like to portray the Media – either traditional or digital – as my antagonists. (It’s both therapy, revenge and fun.) But don’t forget too all the other people who influence both the protagonist and antagonist. These supporting people add context as well as options.
- A climax. This is the point where the lead character’s journey, problem and resolution ram together into the denouement. (It’s a pretty word to say, isn’t it? Anyway.) The outcome is a problem solved. In business presentations, the climax as where strategy, insights and creativity merge together in the Big Idea. It’s the creative explanation, campaign, concept or tactic which gives the target audience the ammunition to improve their life. If it’s done right, this point of the presentation – like the climax itself – needs a little theatre and drama. The feeling you want after the Climax/Big Idea is unveiled is relief, a sigh of satisfaction.
- A conclusion. A story ultimately must end, usually with subtle (moral) lesson that links to the purpose, and brings the story to a rewarding close. The conclusion should neatly summarise the story without fuss, not just to remind your audience of the journey they just experienced, but also to make it memorable and compelling. One of the worst things you can do it simply end your story/presentation without a proper finish, if for no other reason it’s the last impression you give your audience.
You might not believe it, but any business presentation can tell a story. I’ve seen legal clerks and purchasing agents tell a story to get approval for budgets, resources and fiscal plans. There is a direct link between successful executives and their ability to weave a story. Here are three recent examples of my own.
For an internal presentation, to leaders in the small business loan division, we created “Dale,” a small business owner. We combined stock photos with a branch manager’s actual desired demo/psycho/graphics of a real customer in his area. Our story was Dale’s inability to get an instant loan on a Saturday so that he might win a life-or-death piece of business for his company. He followed him through his day, specifically how he’d use the bank’s online presence to get approval ASAP. For a women’s shoe line, we created 50-year old “Dinah” entirely from a client’s exhaustive demo/psycho/graphics research. Her story revolved around a frustrating day to find a running shoe which didn’t make her feel like she had orthopaedic issues. Here, we took photos of her journey through a Sydney shopping centre to visualise her day. For a new whiskey, we used a friend’s actual persona, right down to real pix of him in his favourite pub in Sydney, and his quest for the “perfect Fri night” with his best mates.
To me, the key is as much finding the right character who is 100% credible/believable, as finding a realistic story about how they perceive their lives. I think too when the team has a real sense of the audience – not just a bunch of statistics – their natural energy and personality come out in the presentation.
A few other points, to finish.
The story needs to wrap the entire presentation, from start to end. No part of it can stick out or does not fit. That loose part will sound irrelevant, which can make the story itself sound irrelevant.
As I said, a story is emotion, so consider how to engage with laughter or with fear. Think of it: the stories that you connect most to have a bit of risk. Without risk, the presentation seems pale. You want to challenge your audience. It may sound strange, but challenging your audience also makes them listen better.
And finally, to truly make a story come alive, you as the presenter must become a storyteller. You must be expressive, emotive and passionate – which has nothing to do with being professional. You can be both. What you don’t want is a professional story.
So, try and tell your audience a good story. Find the ideal character to make the story relevant. Give the character (and audience) a problem to sort. Add some interesting people to add depth, and unveil a Big Idea which brings your solution, recommendation or hypothesis to life.
And you know the ironic thing? If you can pull it off, you’ll have a great story to tell.