~ By Curtis Fletcher
When was the last time you attended a meeting at work or a presentation by an executive and found you were both informed AND entertained? Fix that date in your mind. Now, how many meeting have you attended since then that have put you to sleep or left you wondering why you were there?
It is an interesting conundrum that so many folks feel that business presentations should be all business when the most successful business people are the ones who tell stories: Bill Gates, Jack Walton, Steve Jobs, all story tellers.
John Kotter, Harvard Business School professor, author, widely regarded as an authority on leadership and change goes so far as to say, “Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best–and change–from hearing stories that strike a chord within us.”
Perhaps its a confidence issue. We’re not sure we can pull it off and that keeps us from leveraging story, analogy, and humor in the business setting. Allow me to suggest three guidelines that will help your confidence when using story and humor in your next business presentation.
It Has to Fit
I was presenting a “customer testimonial” at a dinner session where customer prospects had been invited to hear what was new in a particular software package. The gentleman up before me started his presentation with a story/joke he’d heard the day before. He told it well enough and he got a decent laugh. It had nothing to do with the rest of his presentation.
I watched as the audience drifted off into side mumblings and private chuckles about everything other than what the speaker was presenting. He’d lost them.
When I came up next I had already changed my intro. I started with a story about being in a dinner meeting where the food was good, the lighting and sound were bad, and the slides were impossible to read…nearly the exact setting we were in at that moment. Not only did I get the audience back, I had them in the palm of my hand because the story fit the setting, the purpose, and the information I was about to present.
It Has to be Fun
When using humor, analogies and stories in business meetings you need to be sure that your choice of material is inclusive. Anything that segments your audience or risks offending a particular group isn’t fun. Self-deprecation, verbally allowing yourself to slip on a banana peel, that’s a much safer bet.
It was a session on reporting, standing room only, 300 customers. They weren’t hostile, but they were anxious, they needed something new. Before we even got to Q&A a guy half way back raised his hand and in an angry voice said, “Listen, I don’t care about this new reporting engine. Unless it talks to the scheduling engine it doesn’t help me. What are you doing to make them talk to each other?”
I paused, “Well, we’ve had them in counseling for several months and we’re sending them off on a romantic getaway this weekend where we’re really hoping for a breakthrough.”
The room exploded in laughter. If I had left it there it would have been terrible because this guy would have felt that he had been made the brunt of the joke. Instead, I stepped down off the stage and moved in his direction as I continued, “I once had a vendor tell me that batch reporting (the stuff you schedule) wasn’t important, that it was all about the flexibility of the reporting engine. I disagreed completely, he had to pay for lunch, and we didn’t buy his software.” I then went on to explain EXACTLY how the two engines were going to talk to each other.
By telling a brief story where I put myself in his shoes and showing I understood his concern I relieved his tension. By making the information fun and inclusive I had now become a trusted problem solver who understood their need rather than a fact spouting “expert” who was out of touch with day to day business.
It Has to Flow
Remember the simple truth that all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Beginnings should be strong, anticipatory, just say the words “Once upon a time…” and watch the eyes in the crowd all focus on you.
- Middle’s are where you put the bulk on the content, generally the bit you have to say.
- Ends are where you drive home the connection and application.
If you can’t get all three don’t use the story.
Find your stories. Craft the flow, make them fun, use them where they fit and people will remember what you have to say.
There is little success where there is little laughter. ~ Andrew Carnegie
Curtis Fletcher has been an integral part of the Dynamic Communicators International family for close to 20 years. During that time he has applied the principles of SCORRE while working in a variety of companies in a variety of roles ranging from youth pastor to internet programming analyst, from marketing director to CTO, and from VP of strategy to personal coach. Curtis is currently the director of constituent marketing operations for Compassion International’s US group…which, with him, is subject to change at the drop of a hat.
In his spare time, all three minutes of it, Curtis enjoys photography, computer graphic art, and occasional fits of Xbox and he subscribes to the notion that Disneyland IS the happiest place on earth. You can follow Curtis on Twitter or his blog.