Tips for storytelling and presenting

I’ve been asked a few times for advice on how to present at conferences and tell stories, and this tweet has prompted me to share the tips and links I usually pass on.

Does your audience want a story?

James Mathewson, Distinguished Technical Marketer at IBM, warns against storytelling on websites:

“Storytelling had been the hot top topic across content marketing for the past few years, with trendy websites taking a more literary approach. Colour us sceptical on this approach because the web medium itself is literal, favouring plain language over metaphor. But there is one place where storytelling is required: case studies.”

Creating the structure of the story

The late Richard White taught a very simple structure for anyone describing a case study or business story:

  1. Describe the (non-gender specific) damsel in distress. This is often a customer.
  2. Describe the (non-gender specific) scary dragon. This is often a challenge to the business.
  3. Explain the (non-gender specific) knight in shining armour. This is often you or your solution.

Nancy Duarte analysed famous political speeches to identify the common structure:

There are also more complex structures for longer stories, such as the monomyth and the seven point story structure.

I often structure my presentations around Kipling’s “six honest serving-men” – “their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”. I also use marker slides that show that we’re going to talk about Part 2, Part 3 etc.

Another approach for presentations is to use a rhetorical structure. The rhetorical structure can encourage you to define the scope of your talk at the beginning of your presentation. You can choose between:

  1. A broad scope with less detail, or
  2. A narrow scope allowing for greater detail.


The more you present, the better you get. You can learn techniques from the best to help you along the way:

Are you telling a story with or without visual aids?

If you are presenting without visual aids, you will need to create the images in the audience’s minds:

Your attitude when presenting

Lots and  lots of people hate presenting. Practice does help, and there are a few tricks you can use:

  • Break down any invisible walls between you and the audience. Ask them to raise their hand if they have seen or done this already. If you have time at the end, you can ask them about their experiences.
  • I know one presenter, who asks the audience if they bite! He says it settles his nerves when they say no, and it breaks the ice between him and the audience.
  • Remember the audience wants you to succeed. Few want to listen to a bad presentation. So they will forgive a few mistakes.

Learning and Practising

Go to storytelling gigs or sign up for Toastmasters. There are lots of safe places where you can practice.

I do a few practice runs, to myself, alone. The first one is often terrible, resulting in me rearranging and deleting content. After two run-throughs, I’ve usually got the presentation length about right.

Other useful sites

Please share your thoughts

What presenting tips work for you?

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