For many people, giving a presentation is tough. They struggle with fear and anxiety, and this might be made harder by the subject matter, if they aren’t entirely comfortable with it, or if the topic is bland and uninspiring. It can be difficult to get any meaningful message across and they might be worried that the crowd will be, to put it bluntly, bored.
But, even boring subjects need to be explained in ways that will get engagement, and some presenters have no trouble at all. So what’s their secret?
Speakers who are able to engage and enthrall their audiences will likely be doing something so very subtle that if you’re not looking out for it, you’ll miss it.
What they’re doing is telling stories.
It’s a powerful technique and it works in all communication mediums. Think of the government information videos of the 1970s and you’ll see that in order to explain health and safety in the workplace, they will often set up a situation. Rather than showing a presentation with the words “don’t climb an unattended ladder”, they have a comedy foil climb the ladder unattended and then you recoil in horror as he falls out of an open window.
We learn from this that climbing a ladder that isn’t being held by a colleague is dangerous, but we also remember it.
This is the power of the story, and if you can use this in your presentation, you will find you can engage an audience with even the dullest of subjects.
But why does this work?
The Power of the Narrative
As we’ve known for some time, the brain is made up of many complex sections which all interact with each other to give you personality, intelligence, in effect, you.
Using MRI, the brain can be monitored and under certain stimulus, scientists can watch as parts of the brain ‘light up’ and this has been tested while people have been told stories.
In a study carried out by Spanish scientists in 2006, they discovered that when the words “perfume” and “coffee” were said, the parts of the brain that dealt with olfactory responses lit up. In effect, the subject was “smelling” these substances, or, at least, remembering the smell of them.
This makes perfect sense to many of us. We remember a particular smell of a place we visited as a child, and when we return, the memories come flooding back. We remember sounds and are immediately transported back to when we first heard them. A song will remind us of a friend, a lover, a relative. A picture will remind us of a fantastic holiday.
In all of these cases, it’s not just a matter of being reminded of the situation as a solid fact, lots of chemicals in our brains are triggered, and we remember more of it, sometimes as if we were actually there.
So, a good narrative when presenting, one which involves the senses, will help the audience imagine the situation in more detail, in effect becoming a part of it, but even better is if you can involve them in something they already know.
Obviously you won’t know all of the life experiences of everyone in the audience, but you can take a good guess and produce a narrative that will, at least, apply to them.
For example, taking the 1970s health and safety videos mentioned above, they were often played out in an office setting. These videos were specifically for office workers, so they would be familiar to the target audience.
If you wanted to get the same message across to a room full of window cleaners, you wouldn’t set the story in an office. Instead, you’d have someone outside the office on a ladder. Same principle, yet it has been moved to appeal to the particular audience.
You can use storytelling in many ways to get a message across, but to really make it hit home, you need to make it familiar to the people you are talking to. However, there are other subtle tricks you can use to give a very powerful message, maybe using a story that isn’t related to the people you’re presenting to.
Did you see the movie “Gravity”? It was a film set in orbit around the Earth. Our hero found herself stuck in space with a rapidly disintegrating space station and a need to get to safety quickly.
The film was gripping; however, I’ve never been in space. I really don’t have any idea what it would be like to be there. Have you ever been on the International Space Station? I doubt it, but if you watched the film, you would get a feeling of claustrophobia and a real sense of being there.
This was because the film didn’t dwell on space knowledge. It related to very real fears that everyone has, and then played to those.
We know that space is an empty, quiet vacuum. We know that it’s a hostile environment, and we wouldn’t last too long in it without a space suit, and not much longer with one.
It’s cold. It’s lonely. It’s dangerous.
We know all of those emotions, we therefore relate to it.
This is an excellent tool to use in your presentation (indeed, in any communication), and it means you can use situations that may be unfamiliar to your audience, and yet will portray the emotion and the effect you require.
And the upshot of all this? It’s for people to remember.
Our brains aren’t great at remembering facts. If you were to have a bunch of facts fired at you in succession, you’d be hard pushed to relay them back only a few minutes later, and yet if they were wrapped up in a story, they’d be much easier to remember.
The more emotion you involve in your story, the more senses you trigger and the easier it is for your audience to remember it.
If you can involve sights, sounds and smell in your presentation, the likelihood is that your audience will find it much easier to remember than a bunch of facts read out from a PowerPoint slide.
What’s more, your presentation will be enjoyable, informative and memorable. And isn’t that, ultimately, our goal?