A story about storytelling

Like many professionals, as strategic planner I’ve always had to give a lot of presentations. People that knew how to present very well taught me to build a presentation in 3 clear steps:

  1. Say what you’re gonna say.
  2. Say it.
  3. Say what you just said.

This is called the McKinsey way and it’s generally seen as the most effective way to get your point across. If you repeat your message enough, people will remember it. Makes a lot of sense, right?

Not so long I had a discussion about effective communication with my friend Tony Fross. He asked me a simple but though provoking question: what if you get your point across, but the listener doesn’t buy into your point?

Uhh yeah, obviously that’s not very effective. It’s not an uncommon scenario either. Often you present to people that need some convincing about your perspective. Their initial response is to protect their current point-of-view. A bombardment of facts, even if you repeat it 3 times, is not likely to change a person’s long-held belief system. It just makes them uncomfortable and defensive.

If you look at it from this perspective it’s almost a miracle that I’ve still been able to convince a fair amount of listeners - clients - over the years. Clients that then had to go back to the office and convince their colleagues of our now shared viewpoint. Of course their colleagues hadn’t been at my presentation so the whole cycle started all over with one difference: my client hadn’t mastered the story like I had, but I wasn’t there to help him.

I started to look for new ways to build presentations that made people feel more like they convinced themselves, could be more easily remembered and passed on to others.

I landed on the book “The Story Factor” by organizational consultant Annette Simmons. Her point: the key to effective communication – and hence influence – is storytelling. Storytelling is less about what you say and more about how you say it. Story naturally progresses in developmental stages that turn your listener around 180 degrees, 10 degrees at a time.

“Sequence is very important here. You should save your facts until after you are reasonably sure the interpretation is going to support your case. When you give facts first you risk an interpretation that bends your facts to support your listener’s existing view or discount and discredits your facts in a way that permanently cripple these facts as tools of influence. (…) Without a bridge between you and your listeners, all of your words will fall into the gap between you.”

This completely changed the way I write presentations now. Instead of giving away the key point of the presentation at the beginning, I save it for last. I start with the perspective of the audience, and then take them on a tour of all the aspects that step-by-step convinced me to believe what I believe so they can step-by-step come to believe the same things. And I insert a little drama and tension along the way, to help remember the story and make it easier to pass on.