Storytelling and Structure…not so much

“What’s your opinion on the topic of structuring business presentations as Story?”

Question from: Gonzales Alvarez

Good question, Gonzales. Let me begin by giving my definition of a story:

A story is a narrated sequence of words or other triggers in a way that an simulated experience (def: images, smells, sounds, tastes, touches, and emotions) is created in the mind of another person.

This includes true anecdotes, stories from books, movies, folktales, borrowed stories with permission, and personal stories, etc. Further distinctions are founded in critical thinking and a story subjected to critical thinking dies a terrible death.

32b0703c2f6a6c2d248ca03feaef397e My books offer a geography of human connections when story can help, I offer buckets full of stories, but no rules, no structure. There is a reason for that. Structural guidelines feel like rules to me, and I have the kind of personality that hates rules. Some people are rule followers, some question rules, and if you want to find me…breaking rules is my definition of the creative process.

This means I break my own rules and try everything. I’m not anti- or pro-structure; I am anti-dogma. I bought a couple of the books Gonzales Alvarez cited in the full text of his question.

  1. Paul Kelly’s 7-Slide Solution
  2. Andrew Abela’s Advanced Presentations by Design and his SCoRE method
  3. Nancy Duarte’s Resonate and her hero’s journey adapted from Vogler’s The Writers Journey, which in turn was adapted from Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

If I was flummoxed about a presentation I would go straight to one of those books and look for ideas. I don’t believe these brilliant people (and they are!) truly meant to issue a Presentation Dogma promising their structure will work every time.

The popularity of story structures is not so much the author’s wish as the wish of people scared of delivering a presentation.

Follow my structure, color in these lines and “I can make you a star (storyteller)!”

An offer that is “too good to be true” is too good to be true. Real storytelling is an art that communicates “Truth” sorely lacking in business presentations. Data doesn’t deliver a promise. Any story designed to illustrate you data is a waste of time, until you have earned your audience’s trust. You can’t predict which kind of story will do that, it is completely relative to the context, and a structure might put you on the wrong track.

You are trying to create a FEELING by using triggers of sound, smell, touch, taste and images that simulates an EXPERIENCE in you listeners mind. The content of the story can be irrelevant to your presentation IF the feeling you create is TRUST, FAITH, EMPATHY, and a genuine promise.

For example, Steve, a British ex-pat working in the USA, picked me up at the airport personally to tell me about using a story from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Tipping Point about “connectors,” people who know lots of other people and have a gift for bringing them together. In it, Gladwell uses Paul Revere as a prime example. As Sheila O’Malley said on her blog, “It wasn’t just that he went on his famous ride, and rallied the troops – it was that he was the kind of person who could galvanize others, who knew EVERYBODY, and everybody knew him …”

The job was a multi-million contract to build a sustainable, wetland-friendly building back in 2009. Many builders promise sustainability but they don’t deliver (not really). Steve’s managers are the Raul Revere’s of sustainable contractors: they are connectors who can locate the before-sustainable-was-cool suppliers because they already know them, they have worked with them.

That day, Steve represented his company in a final presentation among a short list of three contractors. Steve has a wonderful sense of humor and spent his first 5-10 minutes telling his version of Paul Revere’s story in great detail, pointedly using his “losing side” British accent to communicate his genuine humility and genuine admiration for his American “winning side” client. His listeners couldn’t help but remember failures or successes of their own based on the “who you know” truth.

All numbers and dates in a construction pitch are guesses — careful guesses but guesses nonetheless. Once the client was focused on the serious issues of integrity and deadlines, the rest of the presentation was free to follow the structure those presentations always follow. Familiarity creates trust as well.

If Steve had used a structure would he have missed the magic of this particular story? Or worse, distorted it into a structure that would destroy the flow?

Karen Dietz turned up a fabulous clip of Kurt Vonnegut discussing structure. He makes fun of our favorite stories. I think he makes a point about creativity. Being who you are will mean you can’t follow a pattern/structure. Just because we love a story doesn’t mean we trust it.

(You can read the full text of Vonnegut’s entire talk here.)

Humans have a weird relationship with freedom and creativity.

“If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism.”

– Erich Fromm

Following a recipe to create a story offers a safety net that not only keeps you from falling; it wraps you so tightly you can no longer swing from the trapeze.

Gonzalez Question in it’s entirety: Simply told, I don’t buy it. If you put the eggs, onions and potatoes in a sauce pan, you’ll get a mess with little resembling to a Spanish omelet. It is one thing is to use stories in a presentation as another tool of persuasion, illustration, or entertainment; and another thing completely to pretend that by putting conflict into the presentation and having a main character you have a Story.

Telling stories is great for a TED presentation where somebody describes his humanitarian project in Uganda or how she started a movement to save children in India after something striking happened to her. But what story can I tell to my students when teaching them about firewalls? Of course, I tell lots of anecdotes taken from my career or from news clips, but this is not a Story.

As I see it, the only legitimate way to structure a presentation as a Story is when you’re narrating a collection of facts (not necessarily in chronological order) about what happened to you. I’ve structured scientific presentations in the past this way because I was describing the project’s inception (the inciting incident, what led me to start working on the project), the problems I faced and how I solved them, and then the final product with the benefit to the audience. And, of course, ending with the call to action.

But when dealing with more abstract matters – like presenting a business model, a security audit report, or a project’s progress report; when discussing the buying alternatives or selling your product to potential customers – you can use two real or fictitious characters describing the usefulness of your products or resource to stories, anecdotes, and testimonials, but that’s not Story.

What’s your opinion on the topic of structuring business presentations as Story?


5 thoughts on “Storytelling and Structure…not so much”

  1. Hey Annette! Love the article and thanks for the mention.

    My experience parallels yours. Everyone wants to know the structure of a good story thinking that once they know the structure, all will be well. But I have never known anyone who, once they know ‘story structure’, can go tell a compelling story.

    Our analytic side wants the knowledge about structure in order to feel safe, I think. Discussions about structure are only meaningful after someone has built storytelling skills and can now comment on their art/craft. Discussions with clients about story structure don’t amount to a hill of beans. Telling, coaching, practicing — that’s the real work.

    Oh, and BTW — regarding the references to Vogler, Campbell, etc. — Campbell was working off of the analysis of Vladimir Propp from the Russian school of Folklore. Propp’s work is much more complicated than Campbell reported, which was then further distilled by Vogler. It’s like a game of telephone where the message that starts at the beginning sounds very little like what you hear at the end.

    Good work girlfriend! Keep cranking this stuff out. Like Gregg Morris, I’m bringing this into my curated content on biz storytelling.


  2. Hi Annette,

    Thanks for the fresh stuff. I love to read and listen to your concerns. They are in the global consciousness. I have got a questions these days from a coaching client of mine about how to present a technical presentation…

    I use to coach people around the issues they ask me but this time I put my consultant hat and gave him the option to write a story about how a character created the product and what was the drama within the challenges, and how the character managed to work around the obstacles, and what are the dreams of the team, etc, etc…

    I hate rules as well. They seem dogma to me as well and I use to flow with the clients every time. For each client I have specific questions and every time I when I tell a story I tell it with different words, intention depending on what I feel as energy in my connection with the public.

    I am sending you regards from Romania.

  3. I think that metaphor, anecdote, story before, after or WITHIN a presentation serves to enliven most presentations. Depending on the presentation purpose, content, audience a ‘story structure’ may work in one or two instances.
    Story skills and presentation skills do align quite well – e.g. establishing rapport, creating interest, engaging………..
    The Vonnegut structure in some ways parallels the frameworks of Campbell, Claes Jansen, William Bridges, even Kubler-Ross………. (I prefer framework to model or structure)

  4. I agree. Don’t fabricate a business presentation into a ‘story’. It will still be a business presentation ‘story’, not a story with recognizable (and remembered) experiences. Much better to use personal stories (maybe metaphoric) to illustrate processes and/or objectives, find a rhythm (repetition) and hand out the business presentation (information / data) afterwards. The data will conform to the story and make sense (and by that probably better remembered).

  5. Karen, Very interesting about the back story behind the back story of our Patriarch Campbell!

    Ioan, Always nice to hear from you. Being from Romania, you have good reason to distrust dogma, yes?

    Don’t you just love Vonnegut?

    Exactly. It ain’t about the Data!!!

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