How Storytelling Can Improve Your Presentations

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by Wanda Curlee

I often write about neuroscience and its affects on project management. So I spend a lot of time scouring academic research, trade journals and even LinkedIn for new information on the topic. That’s how I came across this recent Business Insider article about what makes a good speaker.

Neuroscience is the very first thing mentioned in the piece, which makes the cognitive case for storytelling. It argues that understanding how our brains work can make us better speakers.

According to the article, you have about 15 seconds to grab your audience—and the average attention span is about 5 minutes. So how do you keep people engaged?

By using stories, says Princeton University researcher Uri Hasson. Mr. Hasson and his colleagues used fMRI machines to measure blood flow to regions of the brain of a speaker and the audience while a story was being told.

This research “found that the brains of a speaker and his or her listeners ‘exhibited joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.’ Simply put, the listeners' brains mirrored the speaker's brain—only when the speaker was telling the listeners a story.” The implication? Our brains are wired for story.

While I was in the Navy, stories were often used as a learning tool. And as a university professor, I’ve seen this approach work with students, as well. But what does this mean for people working in project management?

Relate and Resonate

Project professionals need to be storytellers. We may not all be on a large stage speaking to a big audience, but we’re always presenting, whether it be to stakeholders, sponsors, senior executives, etc. And think about the mundane information we often have to report.

An effective presenter is able to tell a story that will resonate with his or her audience and make mundane information more interesting.

Recently, I was a speaker for the Human Capital Institute (HCI). I used stories to make neuroscience resonate with the audience. I was delighted with the feedback I received. Each person that approached me remembered one of my stories that stuck with them and even resurfaced previous memories.

So when it’s your turn to talk to the C-suite, interject stories. You will be remembered by your ability to relay the information well—and that may serve you well when the next difficult assignment comes up.

What’s one of the best presentations you’ve ever heard? Did the speaker use stories to illustrate his or her presentation?

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: March 31, 2017 07:13 AM | Permalink

Comments (35)

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Yes Story telling is powerful!

Great article, especially loved the key line "According to the article, you have about 15 seconds to grab your audience—and the average attention span is about 5 minutes. So how do you keep people engaged?" I also find that humor works well to really bond with the audience and bring them together with the speaker.

Liana - Thank you for your comment. I agree humor may work. However you really need to know your audience. Humor may backfire as well. I had that happen a few times. Since then I use humor sparingly. I am not great with humor so I tend to avoid unless I am the object of the humor.

Good post Wanda. You certainly have a point - Besides being a story teller, probably keeping the audience excited by asking them questions will also help keep them engaged.

I'm not the best storyteller, but I try. Being able to tell a story that your audience can relate to will increase your ability to influence them. Let's face it, project managers need all the help we can get.

I'm not extremely well read on the subject of storytelling, but I came across a book I really enjoyed, while a member of ToastMasters. Between what I learned from the book and what I learned (and practiced) in ToastMasters, my presentation skills were significantly improved. The book is The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons. The first chapter of the book (The Six Stories You Need to Know How to Tell) is available on the author's website:

Whether or not you buy the book is up to you - I have not stake in it. But I do recommend at least reading the first chapter.

Great post! Keep big audiences engaged is a challenge, I enjoy it.

I think storytelling helps others relate to the speaker, so I always try to infuse stories during presentations to help connect with the audience. Stories are a beautiful way to help others remember what you are sharing. This is an important "tool for our PM toolbelts" and I am so glad you took the time to write this article. Very useful and important. Another thing I do is put little quotes into announcements or e-mails based on the audience. For example, if I am writing an update for stakeholders who are also football fans, I might include a sports quote they can relate too. This has been well received and I've enjoyed their feedback about the quotes.

Good idea on the storytelling. I am going to try it (particularly since I am very square on my discussions).
Thanks Aaron for the book recommendations, "The Story Factor" by Annette Simmons.


Rami - I agree that questions do help to keep the audience's attention.

Aaron - Thank you for the recommendation. I will look for the book.

Mayte - Thank you

Lori - Thank you. Little quotes are an excellent idea. That would be good for presentations as well.

Omar - Let me know how the story telling goes.

I'm in the middle of reading "The Story of You" to improve my presentation skills. I'm realizing presenting can be in the same format as I train--tell a story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Great insights on what it takes to engage an audience. Thanks.

Story telling is the best way to engage audience. Also it's helps audience to relate the same with their experience. It also help audience to understand complex issues in a simpler way.

Great Wanda. Story telling certainly engages the audience more that simply reading from the slides. Through engagement, the content is much more consumable.

Understanding the audience helps with the story selection, so to speak.

Andrew - Thank you. I do agree even with storytelling you need to understand and know your audience.

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