How to Upgrade Your PowerPoint Presentation Skills
Storytelling is the key to strong PowerPoint presentations.
Whenever I tell people I just wrote a book on how to use PowerPoint more effectively in business, their number one reaction is, “I need to get that book! I want to learn how to use storytelling better!”
Storytelling is a hot business topic. And no wonder. Forty years of research shows that stories make audiences more likely to understand, agree with and repeat your message compared to lists of facts.
But most business presentations are not of the “I Have a Dream” variety. They are humble PowerPoint presentations to discuss status reports, financial reviews and research results. But even so, there are ways to infuse the remarkable power of storytelling into your business presentations and PowerPoint slides.
First, why is storytelling so powerful? That’s a lengthy discussion, but the simplest explanation is our brains are hardwired to learn from stories. I pet the strange dog at the park, he bites me, I run away. Later, I see a different dog tied up outside a store and I automatically know to avoid him. Stories keep us safe.
Storytelling works because it helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes, as if we were experiencing it ourselves. This is called narrative transport, and it works best when you get the audience to visualize what you’re saying, rather than focusing on slide text.
Not all business presentations bend easily to fit a storytelling framework, but here are seven tips for turning factual PowerPoint slides into storytelling slides and harnessing some of that storytelling magic.
- Simulate real experiences.
Rather than summarizing your points, help the audience experience a situation firsthand. For instance, to illustrate your company’s customer service problems, don’t use bullet points but show screenshots of customers’ complaint emails or play the customer service recording.
I remember one effective presentation that illustrated our website’s poor navigation. The presenter began, “Okay, I’m looking for an answer to a licensing question starting on the homepage,” and they clicked through slides with screenshots of our website, showing how each link led to a different webpage. After five or six clicks, they were back at the homepage where they started. Experiencing this firsthand was more powerful than the bullet point: “It’s difficult to find information.”
- Add people pictures.
Stories are essentially about people (or a human-like character). If there are no people, there’s no story. That’s why, whenever your slides talk about people, try adding pictures of those people to the slide.
We are biologically hardwired to look at people pictures. Eye-tracking studies show that when we see a photograph, our eyes look at the people in the photo first (in fact, our gaze momentarily freezes on their eyes).
I like to add silhouettes to represent the heroes in my presentations, rather than photographs. Photographs found online are often protected by copyright. But you can easily make your own silhouettes by finding a photograph online and then tracing it with PowerPoint’s drawing tools.
- Turn a fact into a quote.
Let’s say you want to emphasize that poor product quality is driving customers to the competition. Rather than text on a bare slide, put a picture or silhouette of a customer with a speech balloon saying, “Your product is always breaking. I’m planning to try your competitor next time.”
I’ve seen this technique used very effectively. A presenter was showing us the three benefits of cloud computing. But rather than bullet points, she showed three photographs of customers with each talking about one of the benefits. Use this great technique for turning a bulleted list into a more engaging slide that tells a story.
- Use pictures that put your audience in the hero’s shoes.
Insert your audience right inside the action. For instance, select a picture of a business meeting that shows it from the point of view of one of the participants, not someone in the back of the room. Show a picture of a football huddle through the eyes of one of the players rather than someone in the stands. Choose pictures that help your audience see the world through the hero’s eyes.
- Use metaphors.
Metaphors are like stories in that we see one thing and automatically believe it applies to something else. Research shows we are more likely to believe a sports car is “exciting” when it’s compared to a “first kiss” than when we just read a list of facts about the car.
I once heard a speaker describing three software licensing programs. But instead of just listing each program’s details, he compared them to fountain drinks, including a small, large and the Big Gulp. The audience immediately understood which licensing program was most desirable.
- Insert video and audio.
Executives love to hear things directly in the customer’s own words. For instance, ask if you can audiotape a customer’s spoken comments when you go on a customer visit. Videotape the competitor’s booth when you go to the next trade show. Record customers shopping in your store to show how they make decisions.
One important tip: When you play audio or video, tell the audience what to pay attention to. For instance, before playing the shopping video, tell the audience, “Notice how many times this woman picks up the same box of cereal before making a decision.”
- Turn statistics into concrete examples.
Many business slides include charts. But charts do not create mental images, which is critical for narrative transport. People can relate to things if they can imagine what they look like.
For instance, in the book Made to Stick, the authors talk about scientists who had computed some mathematical formula so accurately, it was like “throwing a rock from the Sun to the Earth and getting within one-third mile of the target every time.” Can you realistically visualize throwing a rock from the Sun to the Earth?
But how about something more concrete: It’s as accurate as hitting a golf ball the length of a football field and getting a hole-in-one every time.
Both sentences state the same level of accuracy. But you can visualize one while you cannot visualize the other. Illustrate your own graphs with concrete stories your audience can visualize. For instance, instead of saying, “25 percent of our customers are dissatisfied,” say something that’s easier to visualize: “The average salesperson has 20 customers. This chart says five of those customers cannot wait to do business with another company.”
Forty years of research proves storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to get audiences to understand and agree with you. So don’t settle for dull PowerPoint slides. Use storytelling principles to help transport the audience to see the world through the hero’s eyes.
Bruce Gabrielle is a corporate trainer and author of Speaking PowerPoint: The New Language of Business.