When your document stands alone, make sure your story speaks for itself

If you’re not telling a story, you’re losing your audience.

But what does it mean to “tell a story” in a corporate setting? After all, we’re talking to other adults about complex topics like product launches, business processes, IT systems, and marketing initiatives.

Telling a story can be as simple as incorporating into your communications some key principles that most good stories share:

  • a strong narrative that readers can follow without getting lost
  • concrete people, places, and things that make the abstract tangible
  • a plot with a clear resolution

The trick is how to apply these principles in everyday business communications. Here, I’d like to focus specifically on that ubiquitous platform organizations use internally to share ideas and information: PowerPoint.

PowerPoint has become the go-to corporate platform for making new ideas visible, promoting a cause, building consensus, and getting approval to move forward. It’s easier for most people to digest than a lengthy text file. And the author has much more control over what is seen and read. In theory, PowerPoint is a powerful tool for telling any story.

In practice, however, PowerPoint often fails to help its author achieve any of his communication goals. Why? Most people neglect to exploit the one tool that’s inherent to the application — a narrator.

In many corporate cultures, it’s a common practice for people to create PowerPoint presentations that they never actually present.

How often do you open your inbox to find a deck of disjointed slides, with only a vague idea of what the author intended you to learn from or do with them? Or are you guilty of emailing your deck to the masses, hoping for a desired reaction?

If your story can’t stand alone and you’re not there to explain it, you risk confusing — and losing — your audience. You’re less likely to get the buy-in, funding, or other reaction you set out to achieve in the first place.

But what if you crafted each presentation as if you were telling a story? You could create a communication that furthered your agenda — even without being there to represent it. (After all, it’s not like Tolstoy walked around explaining Anna Karenina to each reader.)

Here are some suggestions for drafting your deck — or any communication, for that matter — as if it were a story:

  1. Start with a script. This is your strong narrative. It’s what you would say if you were there to present the ideas yourself. Scripting your thoughts as you would say them ensures that you’re unfolding them in a logical order, with a beginning, middle, and end — just like a story. It will enable readers to follow your thoughts like breadcrumbs, without the distraction of wondering where you’re going or what you’re trying to say.
  2. Limit each slide to only one idea and one image. Think of a children’s book or comic strip. These are easy to read because information is pared down to its essence. Chunk your script into a series of big ideas and put one idea on each slide. Don’t worry if it makes your presentation longer. If it’s easy to understand and click through, readers won’t notice the length. They’ll notice the clarity.
  3. Make all the slides your own. Throughout history, storytellers have built on the tales of others to make new stories. (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies anyone?) So it’s not wrong to borrow slides from other presentations — but it’s crucial to edit them carefully to further your narrative. Otherwise, you’re likely to create a fractured narrative that confuses readers.
  4. Use concrete examples. Our world is full of abstract ideas — cloud computing, health insurance, data-driven insights, investment vehicles, and so on. Take a cue from stories and use real-life examples to illustrate your big ideas. Insert a case study, make up a character, or use statistics to ground fuzzy concepts in specifics.
  5. Make the ending — and desired action — clear. What do you want readers to do after perusing your deck? Fund your initiative? Implement your marketing plan? Be more informed in choosing a vendor? Make sure you lead readers to the conclusion you’d like them to arrive at. Just like a good story, when there’s resolution at the end, readers won’t feel as if they’ve wasted their time.

Barbara Gordon is a writer and researcher at ThoughtForm. She helps clients develop and deploy brand and communications strategies.

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