6 Storytelling Secrets to Bring Swagger to Your Next Presentation

Can you remember the last time you were moved, motivated or *gasp* INSPIRED by a corporate presentation?

More likely, you spent an hour listening to the droning of a monotone voice, watching overloaded and incomprehensible slides, and passed the time by counting your arm hairs.

Then the next day you delivered one. Exactly. The. Same.

Some bizarre corporate mythology tells us that the only way to come off as professional when presenting is to speak business bullshit, barf torrents of data (usually row after row in an Excel spreadsheet) and spend longer than anyone could ever bear doing it.

Now think about the last conference you attended, where a charismatic speaker took the stage and held you emotionally captive while filling your brain with credible info. They made you laugh, cry, think and feel! How the hell did they manage that?

Stories. And for some unknown reason, we don’t believe they have a place in the boardroom. Why? Because most of us don’t have the swagger required to craft and tell them effectively.

Not anymore. The time has come to release your storytelling swagger and blow the lid off the best-kept secret to getting people to fall in love with your ideas.

Secret #1. Every Business Message Can Be a Story

Every message you need to communicate in a business situation can be formed and communicated as a story. Missed the numbers last quarter? That’s a story about how you or the team have faced down adversity, learned powerful lessons as a result, and are now primed to triumph. Discovered what’s been holding that next release back? The classic ‘hero hunted down the monster, conquered it and saved the day’ will likely work. As human beings, we’re incredibly conditioned to accept messages in the context of a story and when they’re presented to us as such, our brains give over, and settle in for the ride. And that puts you in the swagger seat as the teller.

Secret #2. Swagger Comes from the Storyteller

Bring your unique swagger to the story. That means revealing your truth and intention — and believing in your message. As such, the same tale should come through completely differently depending on the storyteller so you need to keep it real in the telling. What helps is that every business story comes down to humanity if you frame it right. You might think your story is about new technology. But who built the technology? People. Who will use the technology? People. Who will benefit from the release of it? People. So bring your authenticity to the story by sharing personal perspectives, experiences and insights about the process. This makes business stories both come alive and seem more believable for the audience.

Secret #3. Data and Facts Won’t Cut It

Relying on data or facts alone is a sucker’s bet. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the brain! When researchers studied cortex activity in response to hearing data without the context of a story, only two areas, known as Broca’s and Wrnicke’s, reacted. But when data was deftly integrated into a story, the motor cortex, sensory cortex and the frontal cortex all lit up like a freakin’ pinball machine. So just because your organization has always delivered information a certain way or you keep getting asked to “share the numbers,” don’t get sucked in. Integrate those facts and figures into a story that will resonate across their entire brains. Your audience will respond in a far more positive way and won’t even understand why!

Secret #4. All Tales Have a Beginning, Middle and End

Just like in fairy tales, your business story requires a beginning, middle and end. If we simply share facts in a linear progression, the audience isn’t taken anywhere. Their brains are craving a journey and that will require the story to begin somewhere and end somewhere different. ‘We started here and arrived here. And there was some sort of tension, conflict or challenge in the middle that made it interesting. And aren’t we all relieved to hear how it ends?’ That’s classic story structure.

Secret #5. Make It Emotional for Maximum Swagger

It’s more than OK to bring emotion to your stories. In fact, research has shown that the brain retains stories featuring Emotionally Charged Events, or ECEs, far longer than those without them. Keep in mind that emotion doesn’t have to mean throwing yourself on the boardroom table and weeping (although that would be memorable as hell). Emotions can come in the form of fear, joy, anticipation or relief. And yes, emotion may require you to be vulnerable. But if you have enough swagger to show that something was important enough to make you FEEL, your audience will not only remember you, they’ll also feel more connected to you.

Secret #6. Don’t Let Your Ego Kill You

Great storytellers know that what they do is totally in service of the audience. If your story is purposefully designed to try and make you look good at the expense of the value to your audience, it’s not going to land. Part of being a swagger-y storyteller is putting your OWN NEEDS second to the key message your AUDIENCE NEEDS to hear in order to alleviate their pain or satisfy their desires. Never forget that it’s human nature to care about yourself first. Make sure your intention is to help them and by definition it will benefit you as well.

Storytelling is a craft. It takes time to get crazy good at it. But with these secrets revealed, you have everything you need to start building your chops. Your business culture may resist, but swagger means the courage to gently push back because you know it’s the right thing to do for both your message and your audience.

And that means a happy ending for everyone.

Leslie Ehm is a speaker, author and Founder & Chief Fire Starter at Combustion Training. Her book SWAGGER is released 2019.