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One of the most cited pieces of advice about presentation content is to include a personal story that creates empathy with your audience. Unfortunately, that often results in a story that is meaningful to the presenter and not to the audience.
But personal stories can work if they are relevant and if they follow another, more pervasively cited piece of advice about writing that predates presentations: “Show, don’t tell.” As the great 19th century Russian writer Anton Chekhov put it:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
The adage is drummed into the mind of every writer by editors, by television and film producers, and by creative writing teachers. Here is how MasterClass, the popular online education subscription platform puts it:
“Show, don’t tell” is a writing technique that allows the reader to experience expository details of the story through actions, sensory details, words, or the expression of characters’ emotions, as opposed to through the author’s own description of events.
In a BBC podcast on climate change, futurist and author Ken Liu summarized “Show, don’t tell” as giving “concrete content to abstract values.” He went on to say:
You can cite all the charts, and tables, and graphs you want. Human beings are not convinced by those things. You actually have to have stories that empower people to see…What will be compelling though is a story that says here is what sustainable living looks like, here is what life looks like without congested roads and cars and all this terrible modernity that we’ve surrounded ourselves with and think that this is the only way to live. That is the kind of vision that will inspire people that will get people to say hey there is a different way of doing the future, let’s work on that.
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Two large cohorts that understand the value of human-interest stories are clergy and politicians. Rare is the sermon or campaign stump speech that doesn’t include a human-interest story. Newspapers and magazines use them regularly. A daily feature on the front page of the Wall Street Journal is a human-interest story they call the “A-Hed.” More often than not, the first sentence in the article contains the name of the actual individual around whom the story is built.
Business presentations, however, have not gotten the message. They default to the “charts, tables, and graphs” that Ken Liu rails against.
The executives of most Life Sciences companies are always eager to load up their presentations with details of their revolutionary new drug or groundbreaking device along with the dense charts of the clinical trials that demonstrate their safety and efficacy, but I encourage those executives to include stories of patients who were treated successfully by their technology.
Robert Ford, the Chairman and CEO of Abbott, the medical device and health care company, fully understands the importance of human-interest stories. They were the first words in his keynote at this week’s 2022 CES:
I could not be more proud of the stories that we’re about to share with all of you. ‘Cause these are stories about this convergence—this convergence of health and technology to empower human lives. And they come from all around the world. And they’re powered by data, cutting edge science, technological innovation. But they’re rooted in one single concept, human-powered health.
In 1996, I coached the Yahoo! IPO roadshow. Founder Jerry Yang and CEO Tim Koogle were eager to describe their then revolutionary technology but before they did, Tim talked about how he used the site help him prepare his tax return.
Of course, the illustrative function of a story is only a means to an end: to move audiences to action. In the BBC podcast, Ken Liu showed how the use of stories produced results in the campaign for smoking cessation:
We have managed to stop, essentially, tobacco smoking in the US and that’s largely a matter of constant storytelling. We talk about it in films and TV. We talk about it in fiction. We talk about it in advertising campaigns. We have it in stories children tell their parents and parents to grandparents, over and over again. Over time, behaviors do change when the story around it change[s].
And then he made his call to action for his own cause, climate change:
I hope that we can tell the same kind of stories that will change the way we travel. The way we build. The way architecture is conceived. I’m very hopeful that we can shift the cultural narrative around to more empowered community oriented de-globalized sustainable narratives.
To get your business audiences—customers, partners, investors—to buy into your message, you must help them see your idea in action. Your narrative must show how your product or service or company can produce positive results. So do add human-interest stories to your presentations, but if you want to make them persuasive, make them relevant, illustrative—and like the Abbott CEO, make them human-powered.