Friday, November 4, 2011

Forget PowerPoint: How Storytelling Can Save Your Presentation

The following is a reflection I had on an article entitled “Storytelling that Moves People” by Robert McKee. Although the article is old the content seems to still be relevant today.

Boredom has become an epidemic in the classroom. Professors spit out facts, quotes and statistics to students that are daydreaming about their weekend activities. Instead of spicing up lectures with attention grabbing stories many professors have decided to continue with the same teaching format that has been used for years and watch the students slip into a stupor. Unfortunately it doesn’t get any better after the student graduates and is in the workplace. The newly hired student finds him or herself in a boardroom listening to their manager give a lecture about future growth in a Powerpoint presentation that is slide after slide of numbers and seemingly unimportant data. However, there is a simple cure to boredom in the classroom and the boardroom, storytelling.

Robert McKee, a screenwriting coach who lives and works in the Mecca of the entertainment industry, Los Angeles, California suggests that storytelling is the key to solving the lackluster boardroom atmosphere. McKee is known for lecturing students that have written, directed and produced award-winning films. Although it may seem a bit unconventional to take advice from a screenwriter about matters pertaining to the business world McKee offers many important insights that have helped executives from the entertainment industry as well a software development companies such as Microsoft. What both of these companies have in common is a need to develop presentation skills that allow them to stop relying on conventional rhetoric and embrace compelling storytelling techniques.

Replacing slide presentations with storytelling is a transition that, if done correctly, can be more effective in conveying a message. The explanation for the effectiveness can be attributed to the emotional connection that listeners have with a story. Once that relationship is formed the audience members find themselves drawn to the different elements that makeup the structure of the story itself. McKee reveals that every well-prepared story has a structure in which a character is trying to restore balance to a life that has been rocked by an inciting incident. The storyteller addresses how the protagonist deals with different obstacles in order to succeed. Through dealing with the many obstacles the character is forced to accept a reality that is riddled with imperfections. It is these imperfections, this cruel reality, which everyone in the audience can relate to in their own way.  The listeners can empathize with the struggle that the protagonist is forced to endure in order to achieve success. Creating these types of scenarios that evoke an emotional connection is the key to, not only motivating employees, but also persuading them.

These are some that would be quick to say that stories tend to be exaggerated and in some cases down right manipulative. These justifiable accusations raise the issue of telling stories within an ethical boundary. The popular screenwriter is quick to defend his position by stating that often times when executives give lectures the data presented is a complete fabrication. One may only look at Enron and WorldCom to seek evidence of such unethical behavior pertaining to the presentation of illegitimate accounting information. In fact in order to make a story even more compelling stating the problem the company is facing first and then showing how it can overcome that issue can energize employees to become part of the solution. In the case of telling stories honesty is the best policy and in the end pays off to every member of the company. Withholding problems or sugarcoating them in the story telling process will only cause more harm to the company in the future. In some cases repressing the problem can cause an ethical breakdown to occur in order to rationalize and relieve the pressures that surface as a result of dread.

It is from dealing with and overcoming dread that listeners often times find positive energy. There is something to be said about the journey of overcoming an obstacle that looms over each and every one of us at some point in our lives. McKee emphasizes that coming to terms with the dark reality of the world makes the final triumph so much more meaningful in the end. The navigation through dread is what keeps the attention of listeners and is what causes them to cheer the protagonist to the proverbial finish line. Once the protagonist has completed the journey what lies in the path behind is a series of decisions. These decisions allow the character to restore balance and satisfy the desire, which caused them to start the expedition in the first place.

Relating a good leader and a good storyteller is a task that actually does not take much thought for the screenwriter. McKee suggests that a good storyteller has many of the same qualities that a powerful and effective leader possesses. Storytellers have a very good understanding of human nature and often times that quality is very important to have when leading others. Those that communicate through telling a story are often creative and intelligent once again we see two qualities that are also found in good managers. McKee closes the interview by saying that all good storytellers have a certain awareness of their selves. This self-knowledge allows them to understand others in a different light. Managers and CEOs who have this level of awareness are able to be great leaders. 

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