Telling Powerful Stories: 3 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

I love making sense of masses amount of information and telling stories. I also love teaching others how to do this.

By taking three simple steps, you can dramatically improve the stories you tell. This is derived from a post I wrote on Quora, but my goal here is to give you the three steps that will most dramatically improve your ability to tell a compelling story (mostly for use in PowerPoint - but can be applied broadly).

To become great at this it takes a lot of practice - but this will point you in the right direction.

Three steps to becoming a master storyteller

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Picture yourself writing a slide for a presentation to your boss or a client. You've spent the last three months working on an intense project. You have spent long hours crunching data, doing analysis and research. You want to make sure you communicate ALL the information you have found.

This is a mistake!

Many people make the mistake of trying to get all the information across. They are tied to all the hard work and long hours that they spent analyzing things. However when it comes down to it one thing is true:

Data matters, but stories change hearts and minds

This is what I learned at McKinsey that dramatically changed how I looked at presentations. This is why consulting presentations feel much different than other presentations. They are trying to drive change, not just present information. Sometimes you are just trying to display a boatload of data and it may make sense to put it all out there. However, I would argue it may still makes sense to try to tell a story. After all, stories are more memorable.

So How Do you Do This?

#1 - The title is your message and the content reinforces it
The title of the slide should be the message you are trying to get across and the slide area should prove the point. The logic needs to be crisp - communicate the message (title) as succinctly as possible and make sure that the message is reinforced by the slide content.

A good test is to ask someone to look at your slide. If they can understand everything in under five seconds (yes, really), it has the potential to be a persuasive slide.

Here is a very simple example of communicating a clear message. What do you think?

slide1

#2 - Structure your logic: Work backwards
The pyramid principle is an approach popularize by Barbara Minto and essential to the structured problem solving approach I learned at McKinsey. Learning this approach has changed the way I look at everything in the business world since.

The pyramid principle starts from the end and work backwards. What are you trying to achieve with this presentation? Are you trying to convince someone to buy something? Are you trying to change someones mind?

This slide gives a rough framework of this approach:

slide2

First you want to determine your main recommendation, goal or idea. Then try to understand which three key points (it doesn't have to be three, I've just found its a good number 80% of the time) will best deliver on that message. Next, you are at the analysis level - what types of analysis, data or insights will help prove each of the three points?

Ideally all three points will be what you call "MECE" - mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive - meaning all three points cover the entire spectrum of ideas, but do not overlap.
Here is an example of what I mean:

Main Idea: The top three for badminton in the 2012 Olympics were the best ever.
Point 1: The gold medalist was the best ever
Point 2: The silver medalist was the best second place finisher ever
Point 3: The bronze medalist was the best third place finisher ever

I would then find analysis and information proving that these three points are in fact valid. (Note: I do not actually know anything about badminton).

The MECE principle is not perfect - it is more of an ideal to push your logic in the right direction. Use it to continually improve and refine your story.

More Info:
• Here is a good post on this from Quora: Kyung Rae Kim's answer to What is "The Minto Pyramid Principle," and how do I use it?
• A good video on the MECE topic

#3 - Bringing it all together: Testing the story
Once you have an entire presentation put together, go slide by slide and copy-paste every single headline into a word document. Now read them in order:
• Does it makes sense?
• Does it tell a story?
• Is it structured a la the pyramid principle?
• Will it change someones mind?
If not, you have more work to do. Good luck 🙂


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