Presentations

Stories Don’t Always Work

Everyone loves stories, but be careful how you use them

Everyone loves to hear stories, don’t they? We’re in the era of story for business presentations. All the experts tell us that stories are the best vehicle for making your content engaging and convincing audiences, and for making your points stick in their memories. Use stories for persuasive presentations, we’re told, because so much of our decision making takes place in the fast, intuitive System 1 thinking process in our brain. For the most part, I agree with this advice, and I can personally attest in my training and speeches that using stories to illustrate my points can boost credibility, engagement and retention. (It also boosts my instructor ratings—not that I pay any attention to that)

But stories do not always work for every audience, and may even backfire in some situations.

Audiences can differ in their need for cognition, which is a fancy way of saying that some audience members like to think carefully and deeply about the points that are being presented to them. In fact, everyone has a need for cognition in the right circumstances. If you are being asked to make an important decision that requires considering various complex factors, you are much more likely to engage your slow, deliberative and analytical System 2 thinking. But some audiences place much more emphasis on careful thinking than others, especially if you’re presenting a proposal that will cost a lot of money or require major change.

Besides, not everyone in the audience is the same. When you consider the social styles of individual audience members, roughly half may be analytics or drivers. In some audiences, you will have a much higher proportion of analytics and drivers. If you’re presenting to a high-tech company that has a very engineering-driven culture, you will often have a majority of analytics in the room. Or, if you’re presenting to senior managers, they will tend to have a higher share of drivers than a regular audience. Analytics will be automatically suspicious of stories because they think they are being deliberately used to hoodwink them, and drivers will become impatient for you to get to the point.

Once, after running a sales training class, I received a complaint from their sales director that I should have told fewer stories and finished the class earlier. Yet, I later heard from others that he often repeated a couple of the stories he heard during the class to make his points in sales meetings. So, I’m definitely not advocating that you dispense with stories altogether—just make sure you modify your approach to match the needs of your audience. For analytics you should lead with data to earn the right to follow up with an anecdote to make it real; for drivers, keep the stories as short as possible, and be prepared to cut one short if you notice signs of impatience. Above all, make sure they are spot-on relevant to your point.

What if the audience is mixed? That’s where your preparation and audience analysis are critical. Make sure you know the style of the most important decision-makers in the room and plan your use of stories accordingly.

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