Great Presentations:  It’s about the story

A colleague of mine – Andrew Healy  – is a regional medical lead for our provincial tissue and organ donation network. Recognizing that tissue and organ donation rates in Canada are abysmally low, he is attempting to increase physician awareness about this issue.  As a first step he recently attended a (non-medical) course on public speaking, in an effort to improve his communication with physicians.

I’ve heard Andrew speak many times prior to attending the course. He’s excellent. But when I invited him post course to speak at a local conference I run, I was blown away.  He had completely reorganized his approach to large group presentations.  He told a story. In this case, it was the riveting story of his young daughter receiving a liver donation. He shared the emotions of being a parent and physician, while watching his daughter (and family) wrestle through multiple ICU stays. In the process Andrew brought the more
technical and abstract points of his presentation to life (For more information, click here). Today his daughter is a beautiful, vivacious and super smart girl (she must get it from her mother).

I remember his presentation vividly.

Andrew attended Nancy Duarte’s course.  And he credits her coaching with transforming his large group presentations from good to great. Duarte suggests that there is a spectrum of professional communication from reports to stories.  Reports organize facts by topic, while stories organize scenes dramatically. Somewhere along the middle of this spectrum lies a professional presentation.  Facts and technical elements must still be shared in a logical manner, but engagement (buy-in, attention, commitment etc.) of an audience requires the emotional connection that a story delivers.  Great presentations share facts by telling a story.

The second key idea from Duarte is that an audience cannot be passive.  Rather, a great presenter will focus the story to actively include the audience.  When the audience resonates with the tension and dramatic arc of the story, when they feel included in the role of “hero” in the narrative, the presenter has effectively brought the audience to the decision threshold.  It is beyond the scope of a presenter to force the audience to cross the decision threshold. That choice is for each member of the audience to make.  But once the threshold is crossed, once a decision for action is made, once a commitment to change is reached, then the goal of the presentation (the technical elements of the report) is achieved.

If your administrative budget needs to be increased, if your communication strategy requires reconfiguration, if you are experiencing accreditation issues, the most effective presentation will not simply show figures and trends.  A great presentation will tell a story that weaves these facts into an emotional narrative that leads the audience to the point where they must decide on the merits of the argument. Story is a powerful communication tool.

For a deep dive into Nancy Duarte’s work, download her free ebook Resonate.

For an overview of her approach to professional presentations, check out her TED talk .

 Image courtesy of iosphere/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net