How to Use Strategic Storytelling in Business Presentations

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On May 22, 2019  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

How often have you sat through a business presentation where an executive has presented meticulously-researched data only to be met with an unconvinced or even disinterested audience? If you’ve ever tried to persuade someone using a purely logical argument, you know it can be a challenge to inspire them to act on the basis of your reasoning alone. Sure, data and statistics can be powerful! But if you use strategic storytelling, and not simply numbers, the result can be much more persuasive – because strategic storytelling influences hearts as well as minds (data works on the logical side of our brain, stories work on the emotional side).

Planning your strategic storytelling presentation

Whether it’s convincing people to buy your product or service, persuading your board to approve a strategic plan, or getting a prospect to sign a new deal, engaging their emotions with strategic storytelling will increase your chances of success.

Strategic storytelling is about conflicts and solutions

Whether it’s your shareholders, your CEO, or your employees, humans are born to be receptive to stories. We’ve been telling and listening to stories for generations, whether it was around campfires a thousand years ago or on social media more recently. However, not all stories are interesting. The ones that stick almost always have three main elements: The challenge or problem, the journey, and the solution or discovery. Focusing your presentation on these opposing forces is where the sweet spot lies.

Here’s an example: let’s say you work for an FMCG company and you need to present a proposal to your board to eliminate the use of unsustainably sourced palm oil from all of your products because your brand’s reputation is under increasing scrutiny and sales are starting to slide. There are two ways you could go:

1. The conventional approach, focussing your presentation on:

  • Why and how sales have declined
  • The alternatives to palm oil
  • Logistical details and profitability of each alternative
  • The different phases of the switch-over

2. The strategic storytelling approach where:

  • Your presentation unfolds with a moving story about a farmer on an Indonesian island who fell prey to a crippling respiratory illness because of the large swathes of native forest that were burned to clear land for oil palm farming. His illness meant he couldn’t work and provide for his family and before too long he lost all his land. He is among thousands of other people, as well as threatened animals such as orangutans, who are dying prematurely as a result of air pollution from the fires. (The conflict).
  • Your joint venture with the company that owns these oil palm farms is being battered by bad press as more people around the world become aware of the terrible consequences of palm oil farming. You now need a way to salvage the situation before your brand’s reputation is damaged forever. (The journey).
  • Switching to alternatives like sunflower and soybean oil sourced sustainably could improve brand perception, customer loyalty and sales. Setting up a fund to rehabilitate Indonesian farmers and protect wildlife who have suffered from mass deforestation will further your brand’s reputation. (The solution).

Which presentation approach would be more likely to persuade you?


5 Tips to Integrate Strategic Storytelling into your Business Presentations

generate a light bulb moments for your strategic storytelling presentation

Tip 1. Keep your strategic storytelling real

To present a convincing business case, don’t use a fictional story. The best business storytelling examples use real-life success stories with heroes that have paved the way already.

Using real employee or customer issues that are currently happening allow your audience to envision carrying out the solution themselves. Use actual data from your company or industry to show how the solution or the hero of the story helped the business.

If your audience can relate to the strategic story you’re telling, it will help you build trust – and business people are more likely to agree to your idea if they trust you.

Tip 2. Create tension to make your solution persuasive

Nancy Duarte’s ‘What is’ and ‘What could be’ approach helps create tension by setting up a conflict and then revealing the path to a better way. You’ll also find that this is one of the most versatile storytelling strategies because no matter what your scenario, there is bound to be a ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’.

Focus on what everyone has accepted as the status quo while simultaneously revealing a better way to do things – it makes the conflict as easy to spot as the solution. Presenting before and after scenarios creates a contrast that resonates with the human brain. This, in turn, not only delivers the message clearly but also ensures it’s remembered and, better yet, retold.

Here’s an example:

Status quo: We’ve been selling products containing palm oil for over 20 years now.

What is (conflict): But our recent deal with Indonesia’s largest palm oil exporter has resulted in lots of bad press and our brand has taken a hit. Sales in the last year have declined.

What can be (solution): What if we can salvage the brand by switching to alternatives like sunflower and soya oils? A positive brand perception will mean better customer loyalty and ultimately a recovery in sales.

Tip 3. “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves”

This is another powerful strategic storytelling strategy you can incorporate in your business presentation.

Rather than tell your audience “This is what our solution/product can do,” focus on “This what you can do with our product/solution.” For instance, instead of building your message around:

‘Our palm-oil-free products help save the environment by reducing mass deforestation’

…use a message that triggers emotions at a more personal level, such as:

‘With every purchase of our palm-oil-free products, you are voting against environmental destruction and saving the habitats of hundreds of animals.’

Tip 4. Know who you’re talking to

Tell a story that will resonate with your audience – it’ll keep their attention. Find common ground with the audience you’re presenting to. You can do this by making a list of your audience’s motivations, challenges, fears, values and aspirations, all of which will provide valuable personal insight to make your strategic storytelling appealing. Common ground is a bridge to empathy. Empathy means people will engage more with your story, especially if you use pain points they recognise.

Tip 5. Have a clear structure when using strategic storytelling

A story needs a clear beginning, middle and end – so the audience will understand, remember and even be able to retell it. Providing specific time periods, names and relatable characters makes it even easier to recall.

Also, when using a story in a business presentation, stay away from too much text and complicated graphics on your slides. Pictures play a pivotal role in conveying your message. A single picture interlaced with emotional language can go a long way in conveying your message.

Moral of the story? Tell, don’t sell

Stories are all about the emotions they conjure. Emotions can end up playing a vital part in decision-making – presenting a business case can always involve a powerful story. Remember: Business presentations don’t have to be all data and logic! 

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

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Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

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