How To Tell Better Stories and Improve Case Study Presentations

This past week I had the privilege of presenting around the Los Angeles area with the Joint Regional Intelligence Center. Over the course of the three days of events, I got to hear an impactful, engaging and moving presentation about the ambush of two Las Vegas Metro Police officers from a detective in that department. As case studies and “lessons learned” presentations are so important to furthering the profession of warriors, protectors and guardians, I found myself thinking about what made this particular presentation so strong. Alternatively, as I’ve seen many of these presentations, what has made others so boring and hard to sit through? While it is easy to focus on obvious things that might detract from a presentation, like a speaker who visibly isn’t passionate about their topic or a presenter who reads their text and bullet point filled PowerPoint slides to their sleeping audience, I’ve found that the most engaging case studies and lessons learned presentations are the ones that tell the best story.

For presenters looking to improve their speaking performances, I recommend you pick up Steven Pressfield’s most recent book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That is and What You Can Do About It. The aptly titled book isn’t only for writers but also provides a number of takeaways for speakers looking to improve their presentation delivery. When it comes to improving the case study presentations, we can start with his chapter on “How To Write A Boring Memoir.” Pressfield writes:

Your great-great-grandmother crossed the prairie in a Conestoga wagon. You have photos of her; she look exactly like Julia Roberts. Grandma Julia fought off bushwhackers and marauding Comanches. She gave birth on the trail. To twins. In all, she raised eleven children, buried three husbands, lived to be 106 and was twice elected mayor of Pocatello, Idaho.
Okay. Let’s take this great story and screw it up royally.
1) We’ll begin with Grandma Julia’s birth.
2) Continue through her childhood and education.
3) Cover the Conestoga period.
4) Describe her various marriages, her child-rearing experiences, her political career.
5) End with Grandma Julia expiring in a nursing home in Mar Vista, California, surrounded by her loving family.
ZZZZZZZZZZ.

As Pressfield points out, that story is incredibly boring when it is written chronologically following those five steps. A story told chronologically puts people to sleep, even those who admire the main character and want nothing more than to be excited by the memoir. The chronological structure is what makes many biographies so hard to get through. And that structure, which often forces the reader to go through one pot of coffee after the next learning about the person, is also what many presenters choose when presenting their case study. As a result, instead of having the audience ready to eagerly write down the lessons learned at the end of presentation, the audience has lost interest because they simply became bored along the way.

Many presentations of case studies begin with the date and time that the attacker begins his or her journey along the path of violence and continue to plod along the timeline sequentially, right through the attack being discussed and into the aftermath of the event. Even though that structure is thorough and complete, it often puts the audience to sleep, just like the story about Grandma Julia, because the case study has violated all of the essential rules of storytelling.

Since presenting a case study is storytelling, nothing more and nothing less, we can take the advice that Steven Pressfield gives in his book about how to apply the principles of storytelling to nonfiction writing (the six section headers in bold below) to learn how we can improve the way we pass along lessons learned from recent or historical events covered in the commentary.

1. Know your theme. What is this presentation going to be about? What is this case study going to mean to the audience? As the teller of the story, you likely have much more information about the situation being presented and have spent more time thinking about this example than anyone in your audience. This means you are uniquely qualified to find the key takeaways and the lessons that should be learned. By defining why you want to talk about this topic in the first place, you will find what your story is about.

2. Make the hero of the story embody the theme. Choosing a “hero” in a case study of a violent act where someone has lost their life isn’t always easy. In case studies stemming from the military, law enforcement and security, often times people have died, which is often what makes it a situation we can learn from. But depending on what the theme is and what the goals of the talk are, there should be someone embodying the lessons that you want the audience to walk away from the presentation with. Was it someone who died fighting to protect their buddy on their left or right? Was it someone responding to the scene who exhibited incredible courage? Was it someone who recognized the attacker left of bang, but whose words were lost on aloof members higher up in the organization? If the theme comes from the heroes themselves, ensuring that the hero embodies the theme is something that will naturally already be there once the theme has been decided upon.

3. Cut everything that is not on-theme. Editing a story is the hardest part of the process because there might be facts that are “nice to know” but aren’t really in the “need to know” category for the purposes of telling the story. This doesn’t mean you have to cut out facts that further the story or is something that should be considered as part of the main idea, but as the case study is leading up to a lesson learned, you don’t want to do anything that might distract the audience. Remember that you might know this case study inside and out because you have lived it and have thought about every piece of this particular case, but for many people in the audience it will be the first time. If your “nice to know” information confuses them, adds in unnecessary characters or deviates from the theme, you need to make the hard choice of taking that extraneous information out of the presentation.

4. Identify the climax. What is the scene that everything in your story is building towards? This doesn’t have to be the last act on your timeline, but is the thing that is at the absolute core of the story. This is the event that represents the theme. While the theme might be specific to the case study itself, whenever the story can transcend into something universal to an entire generation, the impact becomes much more powerful.

5. Solve the climax structurally. Is there a way to structure the story in such a way as to save the climactic scene for the very end? Maybe not, but you can use other structural techniques, as Pressfield points out, to creatively bring it back at the end of the story. When it comes to building towards the climax structurally, no one is saying to violate historical fact, embellish events or make up lies to deceive the audience about how the events unfolded, but finding the structure is a way to be even more faithful to the actual events and their meaning than you would be if you were to simply tell the story chronologically.

6. Continue to apply the principles of storytelling. Even though the story is not fiction, there still needs to be a villain, there still needs to be a clear three act structure (which Pressfield elaborates on very clearly in the book), you still need to continually raise the stakes of the story and you still need to put the hero in jeopardy to keep the audience’s attention.

Presenting a case study and telling a real life story that has some elements of drama or action doesn’t undermine the importance of the message, but it does ensure that the audience will remember the lessons learned because they were kept engaged, on the edge of their seat and hanging on every word to see what happens next. We often say that our heroes who died in battle or the line of duty are “gone, but not forgotten,” and by ensuring that our audiences are completely immersed in the stories we tell, we can ensure that they remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, learn from them and do what is needed to prevent the same situation from happening again.

As presenters, educators, instructors and trainers, there is a lot of responsibility in being a member of what the military calls the supporting effort. Our only job is to ensure that the men and women about to face our nation’s enemies, criminals and adversaries (the main effort) are as prepared as they can be. It means that we can never “mail it in” or give a presentation about a topic with anything less than every ounce of passion we have. Our success is not measured in audience applause, book sales or revenue from training events; it is how much we can improve the performance of our students in their jobs. Redesigning presentations is hard work. It is tedious and it is time consuming, but if making our presentations more memorable and more engaging means that one more warrior, protector or guardian gets to come home at the end of the day, no amount of effort is too much.

If you are still interested in learning how the principles of storytelling can improve your presentations, you can learn more about Steven Pressfield’s new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That is and What You Can Do About It by picking up from Amazon.


Patrick Van Horne is the co-author of Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life. He is also the co-founder and CEO of The CP Journal and served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps.

This article was originally posted on The CP Journal. To stay up to date on all of Patrick’s articles as well as a collection of articles we are reading, be sure to sign up for the Weekly Profile, by clicking here.

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