Tell me a Story

From the earliest years of our lives we are entertained by stories, from the books that our parents read to us as children to the wonderful films created by the entertainment industry. They engage us, enthral us and often leave a lasting impression on us.

The best advice I can give you if you’re thinking about a talk or presentation is ‘Tell me a story’

There’s a basic structure to every good story. Whenever I’m preparing for a keynote, a meeting with a potential client or working with groups inside my company, I’m always thinking about this structure and how I’ll build the content for what I need to say and the feeling that I want to create around it.

‘Once upon a time’
Every good story has a clear beginning, we’re setting the scene, establishing the normal state of events. This is about making a connection with people and where they currently are.

‘The Villain’
Now it’s about disruption, the villain in this context doesn’t have to be a person, it’s a disruption to the life we know. It could just be change, something that’s happening or is going to happen that will change the peaceful existence that we know into something worse, you’re introducing tension at this point. In the case of the IT industry it could be a new regulation or something far more sinister such as Ransomware.

‘The Hero’
Our Knight in shining armour, new technology or a new approach to doing something. Again the hero isn’t necessarily a person, it’s something that allows us to deal with the villain, to slay the dragon.

‘Happily ever after’
All good stories end with the world being a better place than it was at the beginning, the villain is gone, the hero victorious and people can go back to living their lives in peace and comfort.

There are many other elements that can go into developing a powerful story, a story that people want to listen to, but I believe the ones above are essential.

From my experience in the Tech industry we often start the wrong way when we think about the content we’re developing, we think about the products that we want to talk about, then we go off and find slides that we like that describe these products in the best detail. Once we have our 50 or 60 slide uber deck we then start to whittle this down to our favourite slides, usually applying the one slide per minute rule. 30 minutes of content? that’ll be 30 slides then.
When you see these types of decks presented it’s like someone reading an instruction manual to you, full of good information but typically very dull to listen too.

Then once you do have your content often the next biggest mistake is that you don’t practice, how on earth can you think that you’ll get through 30 slides in 30 minutes if you haven’t actually tried?

At an event a few months ago the speaker before me had a 30 minute speaking slot and had prepared 114 slides! As someone in the audience I felt physically exhausted by the end of his talk, he managed 70 slides before he was pulled off stage. I remember almost nothing that he talked about, what a wasted opportunity

Here are my 5 recommendations, most learnt through trial and error;

  1. Start with the story. I have a slide template and word document with the four sections I described above, using this I start to build my story for each of the sections. There’s an added benefit to this approach, you can begin to move away from relying on slides altogether. If you’ve done the ‘Once upon a time’ section then you know the next step is the ‘Villain’, once you’ve done this it’s the ‘Hero’. Over time you can reduce the number of slides to the point that you can tell the whole story without them if you wanted to.
  2. Get your timing right. For a keynote you have a fixed window and you have to develop your talk to this. But if you’re presenting a solution then you should decide how long you need to present for, not have this dictated to you by someone who is trying to fit you into an agenda. If you truly believe you can cover your content in 20 minutes then don’t agree to a 45 minute slot on an agenda.
  3. Begin with a thank you, don’t finish with it, you’re not a comedian and it’s not a performance, what exactly are you thanking people for? and if there are 5 or 6 of you on an agenda, then chances are all of you are saying thank you. Surprise people, ask them to do something because they came, at some point they may do it and they’ll look back on the event and remember your talk, this is the reason you spoke in the first place, don’t lose sight of it.
  4. Find a critic, someone you respect that will be honest with you and practice your talk in front of them. Do not pick someone that is likely just to placate you, choose someone that will be honest. I’ve made this mistake, I chose my critic poorly and went to an event feeling like I had a strong talk, it wasn’t pretty.
  5. Be prepared. In my years of speaking at events I’ve found that if I do these things then I’m usually well prepared and I enjoy giving my talk. I’m not thinking about what is on the next slide because I know exactly what’s coming. I can relax and drop in anecdotes or be more descriptive where I want to be. I can even get a sense for how the audience is responding and adjust if necessary.

The Mirror Effect

In acting circles they say that how you feel on stage is often reflected in your audience, if you’re stressed, they are probably stressed, if you’re uncomfortable then they are often uncomfortable as well. Practice and enjoy your talk, if you are relaxed and enjoying delivering it then there’s a very high chance that your audience is enjoying listening to it.

Here’s some advice from a professional, well worth a few minutes of your time

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