Forget “And, And, And.” Try “And, But, Therefore.”
You could deliver today’s PowerPoint exactly as you have for the last three presentations—the way you always do it. Why not? It seems to work: Voice your main point and talk down through the argument step-by-step and point-by-point. Ask for questions at the end. Check that task off your list.
Some of your audience may listen all the way through and even have their mind changed per your conclusion. But many will compose shopping lists in their heads or wonder why every single character in HBO’s Succession was so despicable—really, not one likable character.
Or you could try to undercut your audiences’ wandering with a story. But a story carries risk: you might fail at applying the storyteller’s art of folding the message into a tiny origami and lining it up to fit through a keyhole of curiosity. Only then can you unfurl it and sail it through the open minds of your listeners. Also: a story carries some emotional freight—your emotional freight. Will you risk revealing something about yourself? If you can answer yes to those two worries, by adding storytelling elements, there is a chance you may engage your audience in a way that you have never engaged them before.
The risk might be worth it because the story you create may engage you, too, so that, this time, you don’t count the minutes until you can step away from the podium. Instead, you may tap the raconteur’s pleasure of telling a story that becomes a mini-event. Perhaps even a milestone where you enjoy telling and your audience enjoys hearing. So, win-win.
How do you turn a PowerPoint presentation into a story? One starting point is to take the advice of professor turned filmmaker Randy Olson in his book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (University of Chicago Press, 2015).[i] Olson advised ditching the “And, And, And” mode of presentation, which amounts to “a pile of sundry facts that may be interesting or even curious, but makes no meaningful picture as a whole.” Instead, adopt an abbreviated (but deeply-formulated) form that advances a coherent story: “And, But, Therefore.”
Your story starts with some salient facts already present in your PowerPoint presentation. Not all the facts, only the top facts. These critical facts help set the context and give your audience a sense of what is coming next. In storytelling parlance, this is the “ordinary world,” where these facts apply and shape all we do. These are the things we all know. But rather than presenting a laundry list or a bulleted, scannable list, opt for a couple of facts that portend bigger things.
“But” advances your story by telling your audience there is conflicting evidence. According to Bruce Kirchoff, if your story were a three-act play, “But” would come at the beginning of the second act.[i] You see, the facts as presented don’t quite fit the “ordinary world.” This inciting incident reverses direction and demands a new hypothesis and, most likely, a new set of actions. If you have some emotion about this inciting incident and tell that emotion, then you will have found the keyhole of curiosity.
“Therefore” tells the story of how to live with “but” in Act II. In the archetypal Hero’s Journey,[i] “Therefore” is how the hero gets home again, changed (and improved, one hopes). This is the bulk of the story, the bulk of your presentation. “And” and “But” do the folding and fitting through the keyhole—the work of hooking the audience. “Therefore” unfurls the sail and completes the journey.
So What? I’m Just Presenting Marketing Plans to My Team
“All my team expects is the timing and tactics,” I hear you saying. “They don’t need a story to keep them interested.” Maybe that is true. But what if your team members do not all have your expertise? They may not know why this situation needs a drip campaign rather than a blast campaign. Stick your “but” right there. You have a strong hunch about how this audience will respond to personalized messaging touches rather than a dump truck load of general stuff. Your “but” is a reason to change course, a reason that, when said aloud, invites collaboration from others on your team. Then tell your story.
Can everything be turned into a story? Maybe. Maybe not. I do know that if there is anything remarkable in our communication with each other—by which I mean those times when we actually remark to one another about something—it almost always follows a story format. If, at dinner, I tell my wife a set of facts I discovered that day, I can watch her eyes glaze in the first two seconds. But if I start with the salient “counter-fact” that made me rethink everything, her eyes may not glaze. At least right away.
In Part 2, I’ll tell you how to fold your story tiny to ready it for delivery. Hint: it involves locating the single word that changes everything.
Be brave. Tell a story at your next presentation rather than “and-ing” out sundry facts.
[i] Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth. NY: Anchor Books, 1991
[i] Bruce Kirchoff. Presenting Science Concisely. Boston, MA: CABI 2021. 39
[i] Randy Olson. Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.