5 storytelling techniques the best presenters use

Even when you have to handle corporate damage control, storytelling will entice your audiences and win them over.

The best executive presenters are storytellers at heart.

Storytelling is powerful. It can help charities secure more donations. It’s been tested as a technique in mock trials to persuade juries. Storytelling also impresses in business, and can help sway people’s opinions while helping you earn respect.

In a recent episode of the CBS show “The Good Wife,” the main character, Alicia Florrick, was the keynote speaker at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting. A few days prior to the meeting, she nervously shared her speech with her business partner, Cary, who told her the talk was dry.

Tell your story, he advises her. That’s what people want to hear.

Telling your story might be easy if you’re Alicia Florrick, but it’s not so easy if you’re an executive presenter preparing for a board meeting, or a manager trying to persuade members of your sales team to change their priorities.

Some situations lend themselves to storytelling more effectively than others, but there are tried-and-true techniques almost anyone can use.

Anthony Haines, president and CEO of Toronto Hydro Corporation, recently delivered a post-mortem speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade about the December ice storm that left 400,000 people without power. Haines is a great example of an executive presenter who is a storyteller at heart.

Here are a few storytelling techniques Haines used that anyone can apply:

1. Start with a story.

There are many ways to start a presentation, but Haines chose to start with a story.

“Do you know that feeling you get when you’ve been invited to a dinner party, and as your hosts serve dessert, they ‘treat’ you to photos of their last vacation?” Haines asked. “That’s what I’m about to do right now. I’m going to show you pictures of how I spent my Christmas vacation.”

2. Use pictures and video of real people.

Haines shared video, news footage and pictures that depicted the ice storm’s impact in a personal way. He showed the audience media coverage of some of the many interviews he gave, sharing as much information as he could and correcting misperceptions about the process of restoring power. He made it personal and real. He used PowerPoint, but he did not read from his notes. He just told his story.

3. Find a hero the audience can relate to.

Early in his presentation, Haines introduced other Toronto Hydro Corporation employees who worked hard during the crisis. He invited them all to stand for a round of applause. He also spoke about the Hydro crews who worked tirelessly to ensure customer safety while restoring power to homes during Christmas.

4. Introduce conflict.

All heroes need a goal, and when they encounter challenges in pursuit of their goals, there is conflict. Clearly the story of Toronto’s ice storm did not go as planned. Haines described these situations in his speech, painting a picture of the havoc the ice storm created.

Customers had no way to contact Toronto Hydro, and could not receive updates on when power would be restored. Toronto Hydro worked with the police to identify people with special needs and transport them to warming centers. There were additional outages when tree branches broke and fell on power lines, and live wires created safety concerns for both Toronto Hydro crews and citizens.

5. Use statistics the audience can understand.

During the ice storm, the number of incoming calls overwhelmed Toronto Hydro’s call center. To explain the situation, Haines said, “If the call center agents for every electric utility in the country had been working for Toronto Hydro, they would have been able to handle only half the calls that flooded in.” This illustrated the scale of the problem, and showed the audience that circumstances were beyond Toronto Hydro’s control.

Haines had other qualities that made him a good storyteller. At times he was self-deprecating, and he laughed at his inability to make decisions in the company’s emergency response center about which switch to flip and when to do it. He joked about his attire during the crisis: a bright yellow hard hat and gaudy orange emergency suit. He also gave credit to the hundreds of Toronto Hydro employees who worked tirelessly to restore electricity—many of whom worked through Christmas in miserable conditions.

Haines could have resorted to a canned corporate presentation that just stuck to the facts. Instead he appealed to people’s innate love of stories, and he triggered empathy in his audience.

No matter what the situation, storytelling can be a powerful way to connect with your audience and convey your message. The smartest executive presenters are those who learn how to use it.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Polaris blog.


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