What distinguishes great storytellers from merely good presenters? What makes someone capable of weaving an enticing and inviting tale while someone else will do a competent job of complementing his or her slides, but not really leave the audience wishing there was more to be had?
I want to confront the elements of one bad and one average presentation with a situation I find to often be an excellent measure of presentation excellence: telling stories to children. Based on that comparison, I would like to derive some elements which can lead to better or even great storytelling. Let's go.
A failed presentation
I recently attended a failed presentation. The speaker is an expert in his field and has been recognized as such by his peers. In a peer environment, he has no issue in bringing his ideas to the fore. However, this time he was confronted by an audience of non-experts, and he needed to translate his deep technical knowledge to another level of understanding. He failed and he knew it. I took notes during the presentation. I'll share some of the observations I made, which I've structured a bit.
The speaker was holding onto the desk and did not want to move away from it. It almost appeared as if the desk was a buoy and a lifesaver. Letting go would have meant certain death to this person. He exhibited fear for his audience. He did not look at his audience or even if he did, he never let his gaze settle on the audience to "feel" the vibe of the group. He was not aware of visual and auditive feedback queues reaching him through the non-verbal communication the group was offering him. The material to "understand" the group and work with it was there. He just never used it because he did not see it.
His presentation was a bunch of slides filled with text. He killed us with his Powerpoint. I'm sure all the information was on there. But ALL the information was on there. And presenting ALL the information in a Powerpoint or whatever presentation software you use is a sure way to make your talk completely incomprehensible. Because text is not information.
Conclusion & message
The speaker did not own the stage. He never made the storytelling space his. This space extends beyond the speakers' desk and encompasses the entire room and even beyond. He never showed any flexibility in adapting his story to the audience without losing the essential messages. He was not a storyteller.
If I had to sum up what he told me through his presentation, it would be "I feel like I've been forced into your space and will make myself as scarce as possible." That's a waste of good time from an expert, but also a waste of time of the entire audience.
A mediocre presentation, which really was a failed one
I'm sure you've attended plenty of presentations of the kind I'm about to describe. They are rather common in certain competitive business environments and are often given by the most important hen in the hen house. An informative presentation, an update where there is no room for any discussion, interpretation or even the possibility to gain an understanding. The objective clearly is to do this, shine and then get everyone to the drinks as soon as possible. The presenter may be funny, but mostly that's purely incidental.
The speaker is often a dominant player, an important person in the hierarchy of the organization which he is presenting to, or an external consultant invited by the organizational top layers. They cover his back and he knows it. This guy (yes, it's often a guy) knows everything. There is only one story and it's his. By nature, this type of presenter is not adaptive to the audience. The content cannot and will not be changed. Not because the presenter is not capable of doing it. On the contrary, I often think these presenters would be great presenters if only they would get off their high horse and stop to listen to their audiences. Rather, they refuse to change the content because they are right, and you/we are wrong. Even worse, rather than changing the way their information is offered they react aggressive to audiences when they feel the group reaction does not align with what they think it should be.
Their presentations are typically too long and contain too much information. They've taken the time to go through the information and synthesize, but only where it supports their message. During the presentation, they often have limited to no real interaction with the information on a slide. The slides are really a distraction for the guy who wants to be center stage and in the spotlight. The question remains, if that is the case, why bother using them in the first place.
Conclusion & message
Dominant speakers are really no better than those speakers scared of their own shadow, as we witnessed in the first example.
The message they yell in your face is that "You are a prisoner in my space which I will now impose on you." I have an automatic alergic reaction to these people, and I often excuse myself quite rapidly. It's just not worth my time to look at 30 minutes of self-glorification.
Great presentations - Storytelling to children
Contrast this with the great presentations happening every evening all over the world. I'm talking about the millions of stories being told to children before bedtime.
Storytelling to children is usually a very relaxed activity. There is no confrontation between speaker and audience, but rather a deep complicity. Let's discover this together. Stories are often constructed in such a way they allow the speaker to be adaptive to their audience in order to get the clear and concise message across. The medium also allows for permanent feedback. A child will clearly show whether or not it's still on board with the story. If not, their minds often leave the room to reflect on the past day and the awesome bug they saw creeping on the windowsill of the classroom during that ... oops, just wandering a bit. Feedback, right. A child is replete with visual and auditory clues on whether or not the understanding is there.
The advantage of many stories is that they have been refined over the ages. Less is really more in stories. The message has been honed to almost perfection, and the reader in his or her role of presenter has the material to weave a tale, on occasion with beautiful, relevant illustrations. Think about this for a second: for most traditional stories, you need one or two visual queues before you are able to identify them. As an adult. For stories you may not have heard or read in 30 years. Think about that in terms of presentation effectiveness.
I'm holding off for the conclusion and message for a bit because I want to integrate this in my profile of a great presentation with a great storyteller. Let's go there together, now.
Great presentations with great storytelling
I would like to make the distinction between preparation and execution. Let's visit preparation first.
Great presentations with great storytelling require the material and the storyteller are in tune with each other. The material and the story prepared by the storyteller need to be flexibel enough to allow the storyteller to put in accents and change the pace of the story while the storyline remains consistent. Much like children's stories, this requires refinement. You need to move beyond the initial chaos and complexity of your story and simplify, not by taking away but by adding and refining.
Great preparation also includes a good understanding of the dynamics of the room in which the presentation will occur. The presenter needs to own, but not dominate the room. In effect, he or she needs to adapt the lay-out of the room to the real needs the presentation and the audience may have. This also takes time and plenty of preparation.
The execution of a great presentation asks for a welcoming, open attitude towards the audience. I've seen great speakers welcome the audience before the start. I've seen other great speakers not seek any contact to not disassociate their personality from the story they bring. Either can work, depending on the circumstances. As long as the audience feels welcome and drawn into the world of the speaker and his story.
In execution, the story needs to be adaptive yet hold the line to make sure the message does not get lost. The speaker has the ability to permanently query his audience to check whether they are still aware of the storyline. Tactical use of silences at unexpected moments or to mark endings is a great way to do this.
A great presentation also keeps it real. There is some, but limited room for theory. The audience needs to be enticed with reality, with actual or at least possible situations within the initial constraints of the story and needs to be able to react to that. Take Red Riding Hood, for example. A talking wolf is hardly realistic, but no child would accept this wolf to act in manners different from what a story-wolf would do. In all it's imagination, the storyline needs to hold, it needs to be realistic.
Through this all, there needs to be room for interaction and exchange with the audience. Ideally, the audience becomes part of the story. Who never "bit" with their hands in the feet or legs of their children at the hight of the "eating of grandmother" scene in Red Riding Hood? Who cannot remember their first, slightly scared but mightlily amused reaction?
Conclusion and message
A great presentation with a great storyteller leaves both the speaker and the audience lots of room for creativity without losing the key message. A great storyteller allows his audience to see its own reflection in him or herself. A great storyteller says to you: "Welcome in my space, which I will share with you. It will become our space."