Finding the narrative

Finding the narrative

Would you waste hundred hours of your time for not a lot of outcomes or results? No, right?

For nearly eight years, I’ve covered a range of leadership topics in this publication; but one that does stand out in popularity and application is the topic of presentation skills. One of the hardest things to do when making a presentation where a large amount of data is presented is to make it interesting to the audience, applicable, and most importantly calling for some degree of action. Ninety percent of presentations I see merely ‘share’ information; often in the form that’s better served as a handout to the audience.

Would you waste 100 hours of your time for not a lot of outcomes or results? Then why do organizations waste hundreds of man-hours having large and small audiences sit through presentations that are quite pointless, apart from the strange desire to ‘share’ information from the stage?

I, thus, challenge you to think about why people should listen to your topic and what actions you want them to take. One of the key methods I use, as a professional speaker with more than 65 paid engagements a year, is the power of the narrative.

Assume you’re going to present some numbers to show the general state of the sales or how the company you work for is doing in terms of its profits and losses. Usually, I experience a ‘death by Powerpoint®’ session, with all too small figures or multiple bar or pie charts; and fonts so small, I need a zoom lens to make sense of them. Worse, ‘cut and paste’ spreadsheets which most of the audience are squinting to read. Go ahead – prepare that presentation. But now challenge yourself by using a different strategy.

Find the narrative present at the time of the meeting. That’s it.

Ask yourself what the audience and the organization have been experiencing in the near past and might be in the near future. Have external circumstances, like competition, changing legal frameworks, currency shifts, and so on affected them negatively? Or perhaps some major structural reporting changes and staff retrenchments have created concern, anxiety and cynicism? On any occasion, there is a narrative sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken. The once-great mobile device and systems brand Blackberry, for example, has seen the narrative shift against them. In the past five years, they have nearly exited the mobile handset market which they dominated in the late 2000s. They are now re-creating their brand narrative to become a purveyor of high security, closed mobile communication and business security services. That transition demands a change in the narrative in so many ways – from the content of the future vision of the CXOs, right down to rally the staff. So look at your company and identify key points of pride, fear, or focus and use that as your narrative. If you need to change the narrative, do so.

Next, illustrate with a personal story how the narrative you are presenting will lift, inspire or demand action. Typically, you should bookend the story. You set the context and the players of the story at the beginning. It might possibly be a personal story. These are easy to recall and keep you sounding authentic. Never borrow someone else’s story.

Then keep it simple, many details are often uninteresting. Create tension in the form of a conflict, a daring challenge or a quest with an uncertain conclusion. At an appropriate stage, draw in only the specific numbers that matter to the narrative.

Create attentional drama by using the simple law of ‘threes’. For example, state the three main highlights of the year, but save the last and most significant one to the end. Evoke curiosity, pause and then perform the ‘reveal’. This build-up is often referred to as ‘salting the presentation’; making it deliciously interesting. In short, make your audience give a damn about the content you are presenting, and be eager to hear the next part of it.

What course of action are you seeking to win from them? What support are you seeking from a fellow CXO, for example? What are the implications of a trend? Numbers and bar charts could easily be replaced by a graphic representation of an ‘up’ or ‘downtrend’, with only the key number being included in a slide, usually a comparative set of numbers e.g. sales before implementing initiative XYZ and sales after the initiative.

Finally, circle back to your story, where you left hanging at a suitably interesting part. It’s been shown that parts of the brain that are engaged when listening to a story are the same parts that influence action and engagement. If you’ve created the right degree of curiosity, tension, or suspense, returning to completion will create a huge focus. Why? Most of us hate unfinished sentences, as well as incomplete tasks. A part of us needs closure and completion.

Bring your story to bear, linking key lessons, comparisons and metaphors to the industry-specific data you had to share; and then finish the story. By this time, your audience should be ready, emotionally, to accept a call to action. That action represents your return on investment for delivering a presentation 90 percent of others simply refuse to do, and yet it is every presentation’s content and call to action that will be remembered long after the microphones go cold and silent. Good luck in finding and delivering your powerful narrative.

Meet the author:

David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor and is best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations motivate teams and grow leaders. Engage him with questions at