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How to use storytelling in your presentation

So, it’s time again for your monthly report. There it is. You’re going through your presentation, slide by slide, imparting an imposing array of facts and data. Your audience? They’re doodling on their notepads or scrolling through their smartphone or staring blankly at you with a look that says, “My body might be here, but my brain’s already moved to my weekend fishing trip.”

The information went in one ear and out the other.

Is there an alternative? Could you have found a way to make the information inspire change? Impact the future? The answer is yes, and it comes down to one word


What? Yes, if you want your audience be engaged with your presentation—both intellectually engaged, thinking “How can I use these ideas in my work?” and emotionally engaged, swelling with feelings of belonging and purpose—you’re not going to get there with dry facts and data.

You need to tell a story.

That’s what this post is about: How to use storytelling in your presentation, even the most data-driven one. When you use storytelling in your presentation, you can engage with your audience in ways you’ve never experienced before.

Ready? Let’s go.

We’re wired for stories

Go to Google and type in Stories and our Brain or something like that. You’ll be presented with a never-ending scroll of experts who use science to explain the power of storytelling. It turns out that the human brain is wired for stories.

The Harvard Business Review, for one, has published dozens of articles on the persuasive power of story for both leadership and branding. Likewise, there are myriad TED Talks about the neuroscience behind “storified” messaging.

Scientists have monitored people’s brains as they experience a story and they’ve found that they don’t act as spectators. They act as a participant in the story. They empathize. When we hear, “Once upon a time,” we gladly let ourselves be transported to this imaginary world.

That’s why your heart races when Indiana Jones finds himself in an impossible jam. Neuro-economist Paul Zak has shown that people listening to a story with a classic dramatic arc release more brain chemicals associated with empathy.

And why is that? Because stories appeal to our right brain. Right brain is all about feelings, emotions, intuition, imagination.

Other experts have other examples. Look through your Google results. You’ll see.

Stories engage us. We can’t help it. It’s how our brains work

And in my profession as an executive coach and presentation skills trainer, using story is sorely overlooked in presentations that hope to affect change.

What is a story?

Before we dive in, let’s stop and define a story: A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a character encounters a complicating situation that he/she confronts and overcomes.

Introduce this sympathetic character—your protagonist—and show him/her going about his/her business as he/she does every day. This is known as the normal world. Your audience will find that they identify with your protagonist.

Then the complication hits and throws him/her off balance. He/she wasn’t expecting this! Your audience wonders, “How are they going to get out of this?” and they scoot forward in their seats.

The complication, by raising a problem that will hang there until it’s solved, introduces the element of tension, which is sometimes called “suspense.” Will our protagonist make it against these incredible odds or won’t he/she? The tension is what will keep your audience glued to your story.

All the best stories, the ones that grab us and draw us in, are structured this way. Think of Toy Story, for example. Woody is king of the bedroom, his “normal world,” until a complication arrives, Buzz Lightyear. Woody’s role has been usurped. The rest of the movie is Woody wrestling with this complication until he realizes that he needs to change the way he views the world and, in that, triumphs.

How to use story to create powerful connections

Start your presentation by humanizing the problem you are there to solve. Introduce your protagonist. You could even start by saying, “I want to tell you a story about Joe.” Describe Joe’s world. Put us in that place where we can see it in our imagination.

When you say, “I want to tell you a story,” you capture attention. People look up from their smartphones/doodling. What? A story! We’ve been telling or receiving stories for thousands of years. It’s how we share our lives, perspectives, and experiences. And every time we hear a story, we become a participant.

Here’s an example. My husband and I support an organization in the Seattle area that helps the homeless. When seeking funding for their various programs, it’s not enough for their fundraising materials to say, “We need X number of dollars to buy X number of beds.”

They want to humanize the problem. Instead of data and numbers, this organization uses characters and tells a story: Meet Robin. Robin’s had some hard times and currently lives on the street…or meet Carol. She and her two kids are struggling to make ends meet.

They show Robin or Carol wrestling with an unknown future. Robin going through garbage cans for sustenance or shivering under a cardboard box. Carol’s struggle to find housing that will keep her kids safe. The organization paints word pictures for its audience. Helps them feel what these people feel. In doing so, they are creating an emotional connection.

That’s the way to impact the audience. This isn’t about facts and figures. It’s human. We must help Robin and Carol!

Skeptical? Check out these TED Talks. They use storytelling to engage you. You can’t help yourself. It’s the power of story. The presenter opens by introducing a sympathetic character in a pinch—in these two cases, themselves as the hero. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked!

Using “story” to present facts and data

I can read your mind. It’s saying, “All this talk of Indiana Jones and homeless people is fine, but you don’t understand: My presentation is about data. Facts and figures. There’s no way to turn this into a story!”

On the surface, it sounds reasonable. You are presenting data. And…you might be forgetting an important aspect of data.

Studies show that data appeals to our left brain. The left brain is all about structure, order, logic, analysis. Important? Yes. Motivating? Not so much.

Daniel Kahneman, Princeton professor and recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, proved in his Prospect Theory that humans make decision emotionally first, rationally second. The data is important, but emotions will always drive behavior first.

You’ve put a lot of effort and energy into your charts and graphs. Sure would be a shame if it didn’t motivate your audience to action, wouldn’t it?

Your best opportunity to make your data come alive, is to humanize it. Most businesses are built to help humans solve their problems. Humans. Look at the mission statements of 10 big companies, and you’ll notice their mission statement will be some form of “We help people do X.” Succeed. Transform their lives. Fit into their summer bathing suit. It can be anything—but it’s usually about helping humans overcome their complications.

Here are some suggestions to humanize your presentation:

  • Tell the story of a typical customer who was having a terrible problem until your company’s solution came into their life

  • Tell the story of an employee at your company/organization (making sure to protect their dignity and privacy). Make them an everyman—or everyperson

  • Tell a story from your life that illustrates the main point you’re going to be making in your presentation.

  • Tell other people’s stories (as long as you give credit where it is due). For example, if you read an article last week and the story is still sticking with you, then it is probably a good one. If it is relevant to your topic, find a way to make it flow within your presentation.

  • Let the audience use their imagination (“Imagine a time …”)

My greatest recommendation: don’t dive directly into the data or your solution. Don’t assume your audience understands the context or the ramifications of the data that affect real, live humans.

Take time to set the stage. Tell a story. Give the background of where we are and how we got there. Identify the challenge (what’s blocking your goal, what happened to derail or what are the conditions that created a problem). THEN, present your findings.

Paint word pictures. Spark your audience’s imagination and empathy. Think about what’s at stake to lose or gain. It doesn’t have to be long. Take 60 seconds. Don’t miss the opportunity to grab the audience’s attention and motivate them to “sit up and listen.”

How to use storytelling in your presentation

Want to grab your audience and engage them intellectually and emotionally? Tell a story. You’ll transform your audience from spectators to participants. With their emotions engaged, they’ll be more receptive to the ideas you have to share—and people will be talking about your awesome presentation long after the meeting is over.

Did you like this post? Let us know. Comment. Share. Subscribe. And check out other blog posts. Try Do your presentations just inform or do they INSPIRE?

So, what now? Want to take your presentation skills to the next level? Check out NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations leadership workshop. Participants practice and present real content and receive supportive and individualized feedback and coaching. Individual and group sessions are available.

Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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