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 show how stories persuade juries. Storytelling also impresses in business and can help sway people’s opinions while earning their respect.
In a recent episode of “The Good Wife,” Alicia is the keynote speaker at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. A few days prior, she nervously shares her speech with her business partner, Cary, who tells her the talk is 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 convince 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 the presentation 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 proceeded to share video, news footage, and pictures that depicted the impact of the ice storm in a very 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 he made it real. Yes, 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 trying to restore power to homes over Christmas.
#4 Introduce conflict
All heroes need a goal, and when they encounter challenges in pursuit of their goal, 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 their 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 sheer 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, laughing 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 them working through Christmas Day 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 triggered empathy in his audience. No matter what the situation, storytelling can be a powerful tool to connect with your audience and convey the message you’re looking to share, and the smartest executive presenters are those who learn how to use it.
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5 Storytelling Techniques to Master Before Your Next Presentation