Presentations as Stories?

Mock Turtle Questions

Many who offer advice on how to present argue that you need to develop your presentation as a story. Nancy Duarte is one. In her book, Resonate (available as a free download through iBooks), she explains how stories can help you present effectively. She goes into considerable detail about how to develop a presentation as a story.

I enjoyed this book immensely and learned a great deal from it. I recommend it to you in confidence that you too will benefit from reading it, but I do not completely agree with this commitment to story. I do not follow a story format in my presentations (although I do rely on some story-like features and I do insert story capsules). As I read Nancy Duarte’s book, I thought seriously about whether I should be more rigorous about building my presentation into a story. Might that move me up another level?

I struggled with this. I could tune in to the idea but I could not see how to turn my own presentations into stories without distorting the narrative. My impression of Nancy Duarte’s book is that she is gearing her discussion to presentations for business and marketing. Do her arguments hold up for the knowledge professions, those in which ideas derived from research and design dominate?

Knowledge Professions

Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin, speaking on the Science of Persuasion, eventually resolved my uncertainty on this issue. Cialdini and Martin do not tell a story but rather work through a series of claims. Their presentation has story-like features and includes story capsules but is not, in itself, a story. It is, nevertheless, a presentation of the highest standard.

Cialdini and Martin outline six rather straightforward strategies that can be used to persuade. They might have turned this into a story by inventing a fictional character who used these six strategies to persuade others. That may or may not be more engaging and more memorable than what they have already done but, problematically, fiction cannot support scientific knowledge. Furthermore, even if such a story were true, a single encounter does not offer convincing support, at least within behavioral science, for a scientific principle. In this case, a story would detract considerably from the power of the presentation.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins, author of the Selfish Gene and many other books on evolutionary biology, is a wonderful storyteller. See, for example, his story (55 minutes to 65 minutes in this video) about how European cuckoos, famous for laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, can make their eggs look like the eggs of the bird that owns the host nest. His story works because he is basing it on widely known and accepted scientific principles. Because they are widely known and accepted, he does not have to justify his appeal to them with scientific data. He can build an engaging story around them because they are accepted within his scientific circles.

In contrast, the principles that Cialdini and Martin outline are not established to anywhere near the same degree. Cialdini and Martin need to offer quantitative support. That does not lend itself to a story format.

I conclude from this that story is not an essential ingredient of a powerful knowledge presentation and further conclude that an attempt to develop a knowledge presentation as a story will very often undermine the message.

Explanatory note: I hesitated at first to offer the presentation by Cialdini and Martin as a model. They set a high standard, some features of which are well beyond most of us. Nevertheless, the power of their presentation does not come primarily from those dynamic graphics or from their expertly-shared narrative. Rather, it comes from their straightforward explanations, their well-focused graphic and quantitative support for their points, and their well-focused story capsules. We could all aspire to developing presentations in that style.

7 responses to “Presentations as Stories?

  1. Gavan: I’m assuming that there are a number of effective approaches to presentations, some of which work better for some types of presentation (and I would never assume that one size fits all, which seems to be the crux of your piece). I have seen some excellent presentations, and many by my former colleague/mentor, Gary (Klein). Gary loves a good story, and his presentations are littered with them, which makes his presentations engaging and memorable. But I wuold argeu that the overall structure of the presentation is not story-based (similar to the description you provided about your own use of stories). However, the key for me is that there is a structure (dare I say “logical”) which therefore supports the memorability requirement (not necessarily the engagement requirement). Gary used one approach that may be the same as your “claims” example, where he started off with several “Beliefs about decision making” (for example), and then went on to “bust the myths” about each commonly held belief. It was engaging because he got the audience to commit to rating the extent of their agreement with each belief at the beginning and then asking them to rate their agreement following his presentation. An engaging beginning; a structured trot through, busting each of the myths, and then a review of whether he had succeeded in changing the audiences’ beliefs… (typically 4-7 beliefs… 7+/-2?!!). The structure and participation/commitment supported memorability and engagement (several stories were used to illustrate data that busted each commonly held belief). Is the requirement just that there is a structure and a means of engagement… which the “story approach” meets, as does the “claims” approach. Different horses for different courses? No argument here.

  2. Rob: Good comment. I do think some sort of structure is essential. Gary always does an outstanding job. However, in science and technology, almost everyone has a structure but somehow it fails to engage. I am still working through this to clarify for myself but I think a good presentation, while not necessarily a story, has story-like features. I am not yet clear on what those features have to be.

  3. Dave Lamp, PhD

    Couldn’t agree more with the power of metaphor found in stories, since it is through them that we can experience another’s perspective without personally having to actually do what they did. However, after having spent many years advising military commanders about their interaction with media, I’ve had to adapt the way that these stories work. When I first was exposed to the Myers-Brigg Type Indicator with its four temperament archetypes, I found a workable framework for integrating the way others learn.

    The practical, sequential style of the military leader loved to tell stories about their own experiences to compare and contrast other’s performance with their own. But they had little interest in concepts, team-building, or vision casting! The only thing that seemed to matter was excellence in performance within their own community of practice. So when I had the chance to build a learning management system for the largest government training agency, I extended this principle to the way content was created to meet these differences. I realized that if I was going to create an online learning system that would allow teachers the freedom to use their own style, as Rob illustrated in Gary Klein’s methods, it would need to be adaptive to those preferences. So I hypothesized that each temperament had a preference for gathering information and then a similar method for deciding an appropriate action as a result. The precient work of Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (1991, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, New York: HarperCollins) gave me a metaphoric, feudal taxonomy for them that resonated with my clients. Therefore, I created software “containers” for each: 1) Summaries and main points for the rule-making Kings; 2) Steps and process exercises for the pragmatic Warriors; 3) stories and metaphoric examples for the creative Magicians; and team-building experiments for the community-based Lovers. With these templates, any class could be automatically assembled from components we all use when we teach: main points, illustration, exercise/experiment and discussion. These “containers” also provided a way to monetize content since each were associated with their creator and was available for use within the community of practice for reuse or with different instructional preferences.

    The commercial value of such a system was the premise that students would be given the opportunity to pick the instructional “containers” that matched their own learning preference, thus cutting the time to gain competence by as much as 75%! This preference would then be stored with their profile allowing an interactive, semantic experience between content-creation/delivery and When we teach a classroom filled with different learning preferences, we have to provide all the main points, exercise steps, metaphoric examples and “so what” experiments, since we don’t know “who’s who in the zoo!” Though my system ran into privacy issues when it was built at the turn of the century (!), I believe that the advances made to protect individuals within the social media explosion. However, in the online experience–it becomes as if we’re tutoring individuals! This method also gave content creators a computer-based “colleague” who could assemble content for the student and then collect the quiz components created for that section measuring progress and understanding. This idea remains as a patent-pending mechanism I hope will one day be part of the way we “digest” the vast flow of ever-increasing content.

    • Dave, your strategy sounds similar to the strategy that Nancy Duarte talks about in her book. I have not yet fully assimilated her arguments but will keep your ideas in mind as I do so.

  4. Thanks, for the recommendation. Sounds like an intriguing concept and one that may also be similar to what Apple did with their iPad app for teachers known as iBooks Author, available free @

  5. Dave, yes, they are similar in the sense that iBooks Author is a free iBook about how to use Apple’s iBook authoring program to develop electronic books, while Nancy Duarte’s Resonate is also a free iBook (but on presentations).

    In my opinion at least, Nancy Duarte goes beyond iBooks Author in demonstrating innovative ways to use the electronic book format to advantage.

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