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Every Great Presentation Needs a Story—Here’s How You Tell One

Chi Lee
Jul 7, 2020
 in 
Tools & Tips

Looking to create your next presentation that can leave a lasting impression?

Key to this is understanding the role of stories and how different story structures can be applied depending on your purpose.

In this blog post, we’ll be covering:

  • The importance of stories
  • Why stories are key to a great presentation
  • 5 story structures, when to use them and examples that show them in action

What’s the importance of stories?

Stories turn information into a narrative and narratives get people to act. 

Think of it this way—if information were represented as dots on a page, then the story is the string that connects them together. Without a story, you have puzzle pieces, but you haven’t formed a picture yet. Ever been handed a set of jigsaw puzzles without knowing the full image to work towards? 

Well, delivering a presentation without a story sort of feels like that. It leaves you feeling lost.

The thing is, stories have been around for as long as we’ve lived. On a large scale, it’s how culture gets passed down and how knowledge gets shared. Think family traditions, presidential speeches, and TED Talks. Also, think...what’s the one thing they all have in common?

They’re memorable. 

Humans enjoy narratives because the very process of identifying with a narrative means we are showing empathy and emotion towards it. In fact, Uri Hassan (a fantastic neuroscientist) discovered that a great storyteller literally causes the neurons of an audience to closely sync with the storyteller’s brain.

That’s basically the equivalent of “getting on someone’s level”.

Why should I think about storytelling when designing a presentation?

“Do I really need to tell a story when I’m creating a presentation to secure a brand partnership? What about for a sales report? To present quarterly earnings?”

Yes, yes, and yes. 

We get that some stories are bigger than others, but at the core of any presentation, you’re trying to explain something.

If graphs indicate that sales have been going down across the board, there’s going to be a story in there about why this is happening, what you plan to start or stop doing, and how things change. Without this narrative context, the data has no way of being interpreted.

On the other end of the scale, some stories are expansive and inspire collective change.

When BMO, a Canadian bank, decided to make massive technology and business transformations across their 900 branches, it needed a compelling reason to answer every employee’s question of, “why should I change what I’m doing?”

So BMO hired a communications agency that built them a 50 slide presentation, delivered by the transformation leader to all of its senior leadership team members. In this presentation, there was a story about time. That it was the right time to make a change. That if the business wanted to improve their customer’s experience, it needed change to respect their time more. That was how the presentation sold the idea to everyone in the room that day.

It’s also important to keep in mind that stories can be told both in spoken form and through visuals. While used for different purposes (words help elaborate on what visuals can quickly communicate), both forms work hand-in-hand to reinforce the same narrative.

5 different types of stories to structure your presentation

Depending on the purpose of your presentation, you may need to explore the use of different types of stories. To help you decide which to choose, here are 5 compelling story types and examples of when they might be most suitable:

1. Future Stories

This story technique focuses on a time when the problem at hand has already been solved and the rewards achieved. 

It places the audience in the mindset of thinking about future possibilities in a motivational way. The more realistic and grounded in reality the story of the future can be told, the more likely the audience will feel the tangible results. 

You can tell future stories in two ways: by focusing on the possibility of a great future and how it can be achieved, or by focusing on the possibility of a bad future and how it can be avoided.

When to use this

  • At the start of an investor pitch, state the possibilities that can be achieved with your product/service upfront in order to get the audience hooked on the rest of your presentation.
  • To move people into action with a sense of urgency created.

See it in action

Bill Gates begins his talk by describing an impending risk of a deadly global virus killing over 10 million in upcoming decades. Through this, he creates a sense of urgency that allows him to deliver the message of needing to plan and create preventive measures starting today.



2. Converging Ideas 

A presentation that uses converging ideas shows how different people’s thinking came together to form one product or idea. It shows the origin of that idea and the process for how it was formed.

The story starts with the first thought, which is then followed by the second, third, and however many others there are. Then, it ties all the thoughts together and illustrates how they unite and contribute to the final idea.

When to use this

  • To show the strength of a team/partnership.
  • To show the idea was built on deliberate thinking and full considerations.
  • When Introducing a new product/idea, or when selling it.

See it in action

John Bohannon’s talk begins by explaining how the idea in his presentation came to him while speaking with a physicist friend of his. Uniting their thoughts together, he describes the power of using dancers to visualize complex ideas (though we know not everyone has a team of dancers ready to work with, we can still apply this idea in accessible ways by using music or visuals to simplify a complex message).


3. Hero’s Journey

Commonly used in folk stories, it follows a protagonist who sets out on a journey. Only after conquering obstacles along the way are they able to return home with new-found wisdom.

This story technique shows your audience how you came to gain the knowledge that’s in your presentation. It explains the process for them, from your perspective, and allows the message to come alive through human experiences involving trials and tribulations.

It’s a humanizing technique that creates a sense of relatability and builds trust.

When to use this

  • When you need to establish credibility with a new audience upfront.
  • At the start of a workshop that aims to teach (to show you can “walk the talk”).
  • To demonstrate the success of a product/service by featuring someone’s struggle before using the product/service vs. how they feel after.

See it in action

Nicole Bishop kicks off her elevator pitch by speaking to her own health-related experiences before introducing her AI tool, Quartolio, that analyzes millions of articles, trials and patents that can be used by specialists. Through this, she shows herself as knowledgeable on the topic and intimately familiar with the space:

4. Petal Structure

This style leans on one central message that’s being reinforced by multiple ideas or speakers. For instance, It’s helpful in situations where an audience might need some convincing to believe or take action on what’s being presented. By being shown multiple points of view that support the same message, the audience can feel the importance or weight of it.

When to use this

  • When you have a group of speakers who are sharing the same message.
  • To show that multiple people have agreed on something, therefore, it holds weight.

See it in action

At the beginning of Dave Visan’s pitch for his app, Brightwheel, used to revolutionize early education, he shows how kids, parents, and teachers all struggle with the current system. Even more impressively, when showing how kids are struggling, he plays three clips of different children all saying they don’t know what they got out of school that day. Visan successfully uses the petal structure twice (once reinforced by visuals!) all within a minute to drive his point home.


5. Sparklines 

The name of this technique (which shares a name with small line charts, but used for a different purpose), alludes to the visual mapping of the feelings evoked from a presentation:



By fluctuating between hope and reality, this type of presentation identifies current day challenges and helps your audience envision a world where that challenge is defeated.

Rhythm is important here. Note that there is an up and down motion throughout. This is intended to not overwhelm the audience with too much of a future outlook so that it feels removed from reality.

The last step in this presentation technique is to (literally) end on a high note. To leave audiences with a sense that the future outlook is near and can be reached.

When to use this

  • For longer presentations when you have the time to build up momentum. 
  • Long-form speeches that empower you to radically shift the audiences’ way of thinking.
  • Large product releases feature a number of substantial changes.

See it in action:

When Steve Jobs introduces the world to the iPod for the first time, he compares a number of features (such as storage space, device size, and download speed) but does so in a way where he goes back and forth between two worlds—where we are (with CD players) and where we could be (with iPods). Only at the very end does he reveal the iPod in physical form, which is received by a delighted round of applause.


Bringing it together: building your next presentation with a story

The next time you create a presentation, think about how the role of a story can elevate it that much more. 

Before you put these story structures into action, there are key things you should know first: 

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do they know?
  • What do they care about?
  • How do you want them to feel by the end of your presentation?

When you have these answers down, get creative and explore which story type works best for you. Also, don’t be afraid to combine different stories together (done authentically, this can be really powerful)!



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