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Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Presenting, User Groups.
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I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.

 

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