How to Choose a Story Arc for Your Presentation
“Our startup could be profitable in three years. Our main obstacle is hiring, but I’ve got a plan to help us staff up in time.”
Let’s try that again: “We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us with hiring. Here’s some data to prove it. But I’ve got a plan to help us. And if we succeed, we could be profitable in three years.”
Or, how about this: “I’ve got a great plan to help us double our workforce, which is what we’ll have to do if we want to be profitable in three years. If we can’t hire up we may go out of business.”
There are so many ways to tell a story. In a business context, it’s just as important as in film or entertainment to think about the way you structure your story and select the right pieces of information for maximum impact.
Ann Kim, Senior Portfolio Director at IDEO and instructor in our course Impactful Presentations, uses her decade long experience as a filmmaker, journalist, and designer (she served as the Chief Design Officer for the U.S. Surgeon General) to craft interviews, data, and observations into stories that inspire. In this Creative Confidence Podcast episode, she walks through the elements of a story, different story arcs, why and how to experiment with your story arcs, and shares examples from her work in the healthcare and entertainment worlds.
The elements of a story
The first thing Ann does when working on a project is to pull out the beats of her story, or rather the key elements she wants to convey. There are two approaches she uses: 1) Pour over all the data and “turn over every stone" or 2) Tap into your intuition, relax your mind, and ask yourself what the three to five things are that you remember most.
People tend to default to the turn-over-every-stone method, Ann says, but the best approach is a combination of the two. As you’re choosing your story beats, keep your audience in mind. What questions or presumptions are they coming with? How can you address those in your presentation?
The main elements of a story are often context, conflict, climax, and closure. In the business world, context might mean research and data, conflict could be the challenge you’re facing, climax is the solution you’re recommending, and closure is the vision you have for the future.
“There's a ton of storytelling that's done collaboratively. And that's where it gets really fun.”
Asking “So what?” to surface impact
Before you begin pulling out story beats, ask yourself what impact you want to have. What do you want people to do or think after your presentation?
An exercise you can use to clarify your impact is the “so what” test, one of the tools used in our Impactful Presentations course. Find a friend or colleague who is comfortable pushing back on you a bit. Give them a quick overview of your presentation and have them ask back, “So what?” Explain why you’re giving this presentation, and continue iterating your answer as they ask “So what?” a few more times. Continue until you get to an answer that embodies the impact you want to have on your audience and what they’ll get out of it.
Ann likes using the so what test because it’s a way to put into words the stakes of your presentation. It forces you to articulate what you’re trying to convey to your audience and allows you to play around with different wording. “Oftentimes there’s too much to say and people feel compelled to stuff all the words into their story,” she says. How would you summarize the “so what?” of your presentation in just a few words?
Choosing a story arc your audience will connect with
There is no one right way to tell a story. But the way you choose to organize your information can be the deciding factor in getting your audience to take the action you desire...or not. “The beats are the blocks of the story and the arc is how you pull those things together,” Ann explains.
The arc is the choreography of your story—how it plays across time and in terms of emotion and how your audience is experiencing your story. “Creating empathy is a huge part of storytelling,” Ann affirms. As humans, we’re very attuned to story arcs. They can create anticipation and engagement, which leads to better retention and understanding.
Going back to the elements of a story—context, conflict, climax, closure—organized in this order, they are a classic story arc called the 4 C’s. This arc works well if your presentation has a clear problem and solution.
There are several classic story arcs that can be seen across hundreds of years of literature and storytelling. In our Impactful Presentations course, you’ll see more graphics and examples to bring these arcs to life.
Lovesick is a documentary film Ann created about matchmaking for HIV+ singles in India. She used a classic linear story arc with a beginning, middle and end for the film. Chapterizing with title cards established context around the “rules of marriage.” She loved seeing the audience’s reactions to her film. When people in India watched it, the chapters with each marriage rule came across as relatable and humorous—putting into words unspoken rules that everyone knew about. In America, they were more educational, as people didn’t know as much about Indian culture. Keeping her varied audience in mind helped her decide on this story approach.
In a project for the Department of Mental Health for the State of Massachusetts, Ann’s team at IDEO created an illustrated video to help visitors to the site understand their purpose. The video shows what it’s like to be a parent trying to understand what help your child might need. It tells the story through the details of people’s lived experiences, using snippets of audio from real parents as the beats of the story. In this context, building empathy and emotion was critical to getting people to take the desired action—seeking medical help for a loved one.
Combining data and emotion to spark action
For the mental health video, Ann intentionally didn’t lead with lots of data points around wait times in hospitals or the number of children who suffer with mental illness, for example. A good story moves people to action, and data often fails to do this alone.
“Part of what storytelling allows you to do is get to the why behind the data and provide what it means experientially for people,” Ann says. Data can help set context, but it’s important to show your audience what it means for them, for your end client or customer, and what the ramifications will be from the business side, too. Those takeaways are the beats of your story—not the numbers.
If you’re presenting to a group of people who expect lots of data, as Ann is familiar with in her work in the healthcare industry, include it, but be selective. What kinds of stories and evidence will move people in the direction you want them to go? Acknowledge during your presentation that quantitative data is what might feel most like evidence to them.
Experiment with your story to get it right
“You have to abandon the idea of your first draft being your last draft,” Ann warns. “It’s not about getting it perfectly right from the beginning. It’s about going through the motions of trying it.”
People often default to the linear timeline-style story arc—first this happened, then this, lastly that. Just recognize that bias, Ann says, and try out a few other ways of structuring your story before landing on one that feels good.
Here are a few tips Ann has for experimenting with story arcs:
- Jot down notes of all your potential story beats on sticky notes or index cards. Ann leans toward physical paper notes, but you can use slides in a deck as well. Try labeling each slide with what needs to be said and the takeaway, then add in details later.
- Don’t spend too much time making your first story prototype beautiful. It can be hard to change or critique a presentation you’ve already spent hours and hours making.
- Organize your story beats into groups to find the hierarchy—the main elements that other pieces will ladder up to.
- Name your story prototypes, ex. The Frankenstein or The Vision, to differentiate them.
- Reorganize your story beats on index cards into several different arcs. Try them in an order that feels off.
- Try telling the story from your client or user’s perspective. What did they feel?
- Force yourself to share your story. You’ll get helpful feedback on how it’s coming across. You may also discover there are certain beats you don’t need.
- Play with your story arc as you’re doing the work. Don’t wait until you’re completely done with a project to think about how to talk about your work.
Often, a story is not one person’s to tell. “There's a ton of storytelling that's done collaboratively,” Ann says about her work at IDEO. “And that's where it gets really fun.”
If you’re working on a presentation with a group, Ann has a few ideas for ways to work together to find your story beats and the best arc for maximum impact:
- For distributed teams, use a tool that you feel comfortable with that allows multiple users in at the same time. Figma, Mural, Miro and Google docs all came up as favorites for our podcast listeners.
- Plan for discussion as well as heads-down time to work individually.
- Do an activity where each team member gets to choose seven story beats. Come together to share and see what you can learn from how each person interprets the story differently.
- Assign team members to try out different story arcs with your agreed upon story beats. Present to each other and see what lands.
Throughout the process of experimenting with your story, give yourself space to get it wrong a few times. “There’s this notion of people going solo into a corner, working it out and leaving the room with the story set,” Ann laments. “And that’s not the way it works.” Take the time to play around with your story now and you’ll have a much greater impact when it’s time to present.
Learn how to deliver presentations that spark a shift in beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets in our online course Impactful Presentations.
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