Nothing can capture an audience’s attention quite like telling a good story, and lately the business world has been taking notice of that age-old fact. Like hunters at a campfire, business people are gathering around conference tables hoping to hear a tale, not just look at Powerpoint slides.

“It’s a trend right now,” says speech expert Eileen Sinett. “But it’s something that has been around for a very long time. The more narrative you can give, the more likely your audience is going to sit up and listen and be influenced.”

Sinett will host a class on using storytelling in presentation on Friday, July 24, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Intelligent Office at 300 Carnegie Center, Suite 150. $149, $60 to view on live stream. For more information, call 609-786-2400.

Sinett grew up in Middlesex County, where her father had a trucking business and her mother was a homemaker. She said her father passed down his entrepreneurial spirit to his children. “Out of seven kids, five of us are entrepreneurs now,” she says. “So I think there must have been a very strong influence. He was a pound-the-pavement, fast-moving entrepreneur. He had a lot of investments in real estate, two shoe stores, and a bar that someone else managed.”

Sinett graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a bachelor’s degree in speech, and got a master’s in speech correction from Kean University in 2002. Her first job was working with children with developmental problems, and with geriatric stroke patients. In 1979 she left that career to become a coach, consultant, facilitator, and keynote speaker. Through her Plainsboro Road-based consultancy, Speaking That Connects, she coaches leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs, and her clients include large corporations, nonprofit groups, and individuals.

Sinett found out about the storytelling fad when a client, a big pharmaceutical business, wanted her to integrate it into a presentation. They wanted their technical people to tell “the story behind the numbers” instead of just showing spreadsheets. At first Sinett was a bit taken aback. “I thought, oh my God, storytelling is a performance arts skill-set that I haven’t really been trained in,” she says. But she soon trained in it herself. As she learned, she realized she was already doing it.

There are countless ways to integrate stories into a presentation.

At the beginning: “Having a striking headline or a factoid are some ways to start a presentation,” Sinett says. “Saying, ‘Hi, my name is so and so, and I’m going to talk about so and so’ is boring. There are hooks that will get audiences to pay more attention, and one of them is a personal narration. You could say something personal that links to your message that has a narrative approach. That gets you big bang for your buck.”

Use examples: For example, Sinett once gave a presentation about body language. To illustrate her point, she used an example from her own life. One day, while taking a dance class, Sinett made a mistake and she reacted by grimacing and stamping her foot. Her instructor told her that her reaction to the mistake and her attitude afterwards were far more noticeable than the original misstep.

“To exemplify points in trainings, I will typically embellish with a story here and there. The main benefit is that people respond more to a story than to facts. There was an old IBM sales trainer who said that people listen to facts, but they buy on feelings. This is similar. You can listen to a series of facts, but it doesn’t penetrate the emotional field the same way that a story does.”

Use analogies: Another kind of storytelling is much more basic: an analogy. Sinett says there was an IT compliance person who had to give a presentation on compliance to an audience that wasn’t well versed in the topic. To get them to understand IT compliance, she compared getting a compliance certificate to getting a driver’s license, and linked each compliance item to a rule of the road. She humanized the topic with an easy-to-understand analogy for the complex subject she was describing. “Sometimes storytelling is more anecdotes, and sometimes it is more metaphors and similes and using visual graphic ideas to illustrate concepts. Some people call that storytelling as well.”

TED Type: Another kind of narrative is the TED Talk-style description of an idea. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, his presentation was all about how the device would do three things, and he told a story about how the new phone would be used. “He didn’t talk about the data or the engineering behind the scenes. He told stories that are more personal,” she says.

Don’t Fear Silence: Sinett says many people talk nonstop when telling a story, but they shouldn’t be afraid of a few seconds’ pause. “Silence is a universal connector,” she says. “Though I understand how a person being silent for two seconds can feel like that’s a very long time, it really is advantageous to balance speaking with listening.” Silence can allow the speaker to judge the audience’s reaction or to create “space” within a presentation much like margin space on a written document. A pause can focus the attention of an inattentive audience (an old teacher’s trick) or be used right before a major point to emphasize it.

Finish strong: “The last thing, next to the first thing you say, is the most remembered by the audience,” she says. Rather than say “thank you,” and walk offstage quickly, Sinett recommends having a strong takeaway and letting it sink in before walking off stage.

“I think corporate America is too slide-dependent,” she says. “People plan presentations by cutting and pasting their slides. While I’m not saying that is never needed, I think there’s a much better approach to illustrate a story that you own because you planned it and you can say it without slides. Slides are additional and secondary and reinforce what you are saying because some people learn better by vision and graphics.”

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