Telling a Story — with PowerPoint?

beyondbulletpoints
The idea:
If a story is a powerful way to inform, engage and bring about change, could the use of presentation graphics make the story into a ‘movie’, and hence make it richer and more powerful still?

Cliff Atkinson’s new book Beyond Bullet Points, which proposes to end once and for all the cruelty of subjecting your audience to slides full of mind-numbing bullets, sentences and numbers, is, ironically, published by Microsoft Press. I read it because it tells you how to accompany a story with slides. In previous posts I’ve described the power of narrative to open the listener up to the possibility of change, to make a vision real and compelling, to teach and provoke and inform in a memorable way. What this book does is providea process to supply the pictures to go along with the story, so your presentation becomes “a blend of movie and live performance”.

The process has three steps: Writing a script to focus your ideas, storyboarding the script to clarify the ideas, and producing the script to engage the audience. My previous posts have told you about the art of crafting a good story. The storyboard for a movie script is actually sketches of visuals, but for purposes of this book it’s merely parsing of the critical parts of the story onto successive slides. Then you use graphics — and few words — to reinforce the key points of the story with memorable images.

The book presents a story template (reproduced above), which you can also purchase as a PowerPoint add-in, or download in Word from Cliff’s site, to organize both the writing and storyboarding process. The book takes you through a simple example using the template, but also provides variations and an extensive bibliography of resources to help you craft and storyboard your story like a pro. The first 5 slides (“Act One”) engage the audience emotionally. The next set of slides (3 for a 3-minute explanation, and additional 9 for a more detailed 12-minute explanation, and an additional 27 for a more detailed 39-minute explanation, one minute per slide), lays out the rationale for the proposed solution from Act One. In 3 minutes you can explain why your solution makes sense, in 12 you can explain why and how, and in 27 you can explain why, how and how you know. The ‘power of three’ is a classical story-telling device and also used to support deductive and inductive logic in debates and professional research papers. It’s the Pyramid Principle turned sideways, and the structure of Elevator Pitches.

Then “Act Three” resolves and restates, again using classic storytelling structure.

The book goes into great detail on how to compose slides, again with an extensive bibliography of resources for graphical layout. Both the sample story and the sample graphics are pretty vanilla, but they’re just for illustration. The value of the book is in the framework it lays out. Use it in connection with some of the cited resources on expert story-telling techniques, expert graphic design and composition, and you should be able to create an impressive, professional and compelling story with slides that accentuate and reinforce rather than distracting from the story. And no bullet points!

Sometimes a movie can actually detract from the story by imposing visuals instead of allowing the audience to supply their own, and to make themselves the ‘hero’ of the story. Is there a danger that by using visually rich slides you could find that more is less?

I think it depends. If you’re a confident and animated speaker, you probably don’t need any slides at all to make an effective ‘production’ that will be impressive and memorable to your audience. And while it’s unwise to clutter your slides with a lot of text that will focus the audience on the slides instead of on what you’re saying, it can be equally unwise to have lots of slides with trite and amateur graphics (“low production values” as they put it in the biz). The rule for compelling composition is the same for visuals as it is for words — if it doesn’t add anything, get rid of it.

Since I’ve stopped using bullets on slides and started telling stories instead, I tend to use slides only for memorable quotations, tables and charts. That means I’ll often go into a 20-minute presentation with only three slides. Until I become a more accomplished story-teller I may try this book’s advice both to structure my story in a more disciplined manner, and to ‘fill in’ the slide deck with some interesting visual images — probably photos of the business or other setting the story is about, to set context for the story without impeding the audience’s ability to fill in the details themselves and personalize and internalize the story as their own.

The book also mentions the most important element of any presentation — eliciting interactivity and participation by the audience. This is just as important with a story, and requires a subtle touch — putting off all questions until the end is a sure way to put the audience to sleep until that time, but an awkward or unsuccessful elicitation can quickly make your professional production look very amateur.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on three matters: Who tells great stories, and how does their structure differ from the template above? What’s the most impressive, graphically speaking, slide deck you’ve ever seen, and is it available online? And what techniques have you found work best to get just the right amount of quality audience participation?

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7 Responses to Telling a Story — with PowerPoint?

  1. Derek says:

    Are the 5/15/45 minute columns backwards?

  2. Another Dave says:

    Some weeks ago, I commented that you might want to look into NLP for effective story telling. You asked back: “Isn’t NLP what cults use?”Well, this entry gives me an excuse to elaborate ;-). NLP is, among other things, a bundle of theories of communication.One thing that might help you to tell more engaging stories is the Zeigarnik effect. According to Wikipedia, Bluma Zeigarnik, a russion psychologist, found out that people remember unfinished tasks better than finished tasks, like a ‘cliffhanger’.Applied to stories, that means that your audience can more easily connect the content of the stories you tell, if you nest them into each other, i.e. if you start the second story before you finish telling the first story, and start the third before you finish the second story, and then wrap them all up at the end. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but you should try it!So Zeigarnik died long before NLP was invented, but Richard Bandler probably was the first persion to use the Zeigarnik effect by nesting therapeutical stories into each other.NLP has, of course, much more to offer, and there are indeed a lot of what I’d consider black sheep, who try to use NLP to manipulate people or to make quick money. At the core, however, it is a very humanistic approach to communication and thinking, and you should not dismiss it too quickly.I could write a lot more, but for now I’d like to just wrap up the last yet unfinished ‘loop’, (did you notice?) and say that cults DO use methods described by NLP, as they also use language communicate. From my perspective, you could as well have asked: ‘Water? Isn’t that what cults drink?’ ;-)

  3. Another Dave says:

    Well, the above looked much more structured before the comment system removed my line breaks. Or it prooves that nesting stories is despite other theories confusing ;-) [I hope not].Do HTML-Breaks work? If not, please excuse the ‘br’s…

  4. Another Dave says:

    Ah. Here I go again – sorry for the repost – this time with breaks:Some weeks ago, I commented that you might want to look into NLP for effective story telling. You asked back: “Isn’t NLP what cults use?” Well, this entry gives me an excuse to elaborate ;-). NLP is, among other things, a bundle of theories of communication. One thing that might help you to tell more engaging stories is the Zeigarnik effect. According to Wikipedia, Bluma Zeigarnik, a russion psychologist, found out that people remember unfinished tasks better than finished tasks, like a ‘cliffhanger’. Applied to stories, that means that your audience can more easily connect the content of the stories you tell, if you nest them into each other, i.e. if you start the second story before you finish telling the first story, and start the third before you finish the second story, and then wrap them all up at the end. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but you should try it! So Zeigarnik died long before NLP was invented, but Richard Bandler probably was the first persion to use the Zeigarnik effect by nesting therapeutical stories into each other. NLP has, of course, much more to offer, and unfortunately there are indeed a lot of what I’d consider black sheep, who try to use NLP to manipulate people or to make quick money. At the core, however, it is a very humanistic approach to communication and thinking, and you should not dismiss it too quickly. I could write a lot more, but for now I’d like to just wrap up the last yet unfinished ‘loop’, (did you notice?) and say that cults DO use methods described by NLP, as they also use language communicate. From my perspective, you could as well have asked: ‘Water? Isn’t that what cults drink?’ ;-)

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Derek: Nope — for the 15-minute presentation you use both the 5 and 15 minute columns, and for the 45 minute presentation you use all three. It’s all about level of detail.AD: Thanks. I’m still somewhat skeptical about NLP but that may stem from my bias against psychology. Although the main sites on NLP at the top of the Google lists are unhelpful and self-serving, the Wikipedia entry on the subject is very good, and intriguing. At least I have a better understanding of it, and I like its bias for the useful over the theoretical and the use of models.

  6. Meg says:

    Visuals are everything.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Depending upon length of presentation (can be used for anything from 2 hours to 2 days) … mix n’ match according to issue & objectives.I’ve found that a carefully-designed process such as set out below can reduce significantly the number of slides I’ve used, and give participants a solid, enjoyable interactive learning experience.Preferably a room set up with round tablesshort 2 or 3-slide theory burstsa question to have the group at each table work on (3-5 minutes) brief sampling of report-backsanother theory burstanother question – to groups, or dyads or triadsanother round of report-backsanother theory burst, leading to a longer group exercise (great if there are break out rooms, or hallways with chairs and couches)and so on …

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