September 18, 2017

Storytelling in Presentations

It’s Monday morning, and your colleague Jim is presenting a new project. Great. Oh no wait, he is taking out his laptop, plugging in an HDMI cable, and now he is ready to put all of you to sleep. Jim just destroyed an interesting topic with another boring Powerpoint. Just as he gets to slide 404, you fall asleep and start dreaming. What if there was something to get this situation less boring? Enter our new superhero: storytelling. In this article, we will discover together how you can apply the secret powers of storytelling to your presentations. And put your audience into excitement mode rather than sleep mode.

Structure creates storytelling

Our designers here at Enigma love to say that “structure is meaning.” Of course, I agree with my dear teammates. But I will go even further. As a seasoned storyteller, I would say that “structure is storytelling.” Having a structure to support meaning is great. But meaning alone will not create excitement.

The problem-resolution structure

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Have you ever seen a startup pitch in the form of a video? You know these videos which start with the notorious “Meet John, …”. These videos use the problem-resolution structure. This kind of sequence is a classic storytelling framework. It goes like that:

  1. Life is nice and easy

  2. A problem arises

  3. An unfair fight begins

  4. A hero comes in and finally overcomes the problem

  5. They all live happily ever after

This structure is a big classic that many storytellers use. First, you define the context so that people can start to have empathy. When your audience starts to have empathy they are immersed in the story you are telling.

The basis for empathy is a character the public can relate to. It’s quite hard for people to have empathy for inanimate objects. So most of these stories start with the famous sentence: “Meet John, a creative storyteller…”. You could, of course, start with “Once upon a time…” But let’s face it: you don’t want your boss to feel she’s being treated like a child.

As we said in other articles about storytelling (see A brand without a problem is a brand without a soul), we need a challenge to create a compelling story. When the problem arises, we use the character to create a strong connection with the viewer. The character will go through the problem, and an unfair fight takes place. You need to provide enough details about the problem so that the audience can relate to the character.

It’s the moment for a hero to appear. In presentations, brands or speaker often think the hero should be the product or service. But remember what I said before: it’s hard to have empathy for inanimate objects. So instead, use another character as the hero. This person might bring a secret weapon or specific skills to overcome the problem: now this can be your product, service or project that will solve everything.

Then you can give details about the technical stuff. At this stage, you describe how whatever is it you are pitching will help people solve the problem. Typically it’s when you go into the details of features, planning, and budget.

And then of course, because we are positive storytellers we will tell a happy ending. The hero solved the problem. Life gets back to what it was at the beginning: nice and easy. It’s a happy ending.

This type of structure is powerful because it helps people empathize quickly. Your public sees the purpose of the project, service or product you are pitching. Even if you are presenting a project which is not related to a new product or service you can use this structure. By doing so, you help your audience see the greater plan where your project fits.

The problem-resolution structure with a twist

I have to admit, the structure I showed you is a good one for beginners. Once you have played with it a few times, you should be ready for the stronger one. This structure uses the same pattern than the previous one but adds a little twist to it:

  1. Life is nice and easy

  2. A problem arises

  3. An unfair fight begins

  4. A hero comes in and overcomes the problem

  5. Everything seems solved… but it’s not!

  6. There’s a the final fight but the hero might fail

  7. A little help from a sidekick is needed to win

  8. They all live happily ever after

The previous structure had a flaw: the viewer knows what will happen. OK, now there is a problem, they are going to get over it, and now everyone is happy. To fix that issue we add a little twist.

When people start to think that everything is OK, we come with a new, bigger problem. This new challenge is too big to for our hero. Here you need to let believe people that the hero is powerless. That’s the moment where comes into play the sidekick. The sidekick brings in special gear or skills that will solve the problem or defeat the enemy. And of course, we end up with the happy end again.

With this little twist, we can create a bit more tension in the story. This structure is used in most blockbusters today. So it is safe to say it has a good track record.

The Steve Jobs structure

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Steve Jobs was a fantastic presenter. You might think that he used some complex structures to create excitement. In fact, Jobs followed a rather simple structure. And he did this for most of his presentations of new Apple products and services. The structure goes like this:

  1. Here is what I am going to tell you

  2. Here is what I promised to tell you

  3. Here is what I just told you

  4. And because I’m a nice guy here one more thing

The three first parts of the structure are using an “at nauseam” structure. Jobs repeats the information until you throw it up or keep it sealed in your memory for ever. This technique seems pretty conservative and not so exciting, right?

But the last part of the structure is what made the whole presentation successful. The audience knew Jobs always had a “one more thing” to add at the end. And they never knew what this “one more thing” would turn out to be. With the addition of this last part, the first three sections get another power. They build suspense.

Starting from the end

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A more creative storytelling structure is when you start with a teaser of the end. Many movies you saw in theaters also use this approach. They reveal a scene from the end of the film and then come back to the beginning. This mysterious and creative approach creates a constant suspense. You motivate people to understand how the story could lead to this specific moment.

This structure is especially interesting if you have something visually appealing to show. It can be a product, a website, a poster, or anything else. It is also important that you only tease the result and not show it in complete. If you show everything from the start, you will break your presentation. Your teammates will wonder why they have to follow the rest of the presentation. But if you show only a piece of the result, you create suspense. People want to see the entire result and understand how you got there. They are now fully immersed. Storytellers who use this technique know that humans are curious animals and leverage this to create suspense.

The first two minutes are a transition moment

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We gave hundreds of presentation in our ten years of existence. In all these presentations we noticed a similar pattern. The first two minutes of any presentation or meeting are lost. People are finishing a quick message to their buddies, checking one last email. Two minutes is the time that people need to switch from the task they were doing to the new one. You need to give two minutes to your audience to be fully into this new presentation meeting.

Thus we recommend having a start which is not about the hard and important facts that people must remember. Rather we use these two minutes as a transition to get people slowly into the new topic. In the problem-resolution structure, the setting of the context does exactly that. If you use the Steve Jobs structure, the announce of what you will talk about does this too.

Now you have a robust structure to bring your message to your audience. Time to get into what will make your story shine.

Better presentations with storytelling visuals

I had hard words at the beginning against PowerPoint. Don’t get me wrong. Such tools are an excellent opportunity for storytelling. But only if you use them in the right way. First, you select the structure that will better support your story. Then you can use a presentation tool like Powerpoint or Keynote to put it on steroids. Here are a few tips to do exactly that.

Storytelling means fewer words and more images

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We all know that a good picture is worth a thousand uninteresting words. Everybody knows it, but nobody follows this rule.

A PowerPoint presentation is the support of your story; it is not the full script of your story. When you display tons of text on the screen, you are talking to the logical mind of your viewers. You are not asking them to immerse themselves into an image; you are asking them to read and analyze your typos. Of course, you would prefer to have your audience fully engaged instead of reading.

As a challenge, I suggest that for your next presentation you only use images and one-word titles. It’s by playing with the extremes that we learn. At first, it will be hard for you. But then, you will see that the most important part of your presentation, is what you are saying. How you are saying is also extremely important. But the rest, like your PowerPoint, is only the cherry on the cake.

Storytelling is also about emotions

Images are good, but a digital presentation can go even further.

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To create even stronger emotions with your presentations you can of course use video. When you have a good video in your presentation, it creates an enjoyable break. It lets people breathe during your presentation. The issue with videos is that it’s sometimes hard to find one that fits into your story. Or you have to edit it, which takes some time and a bit of technical knowledge. If you have read a few of our articles, you might know one of our secrets. We especially love another type of animated images: GIFs.

GIFs are powerful images with limited animation. They are easy to find, quick to add in a presentation and create strong emotions. We use this kind of images not only in blog articles but also in our presentations. And we have had many reactions from our clients. Some got so excited about a particular GIF that we had to send it to them afterwards. They then shared it further with their colleagues. When it happens, you know your presentation was memorable for your audience.

More about storytelling

Our team believes in the power of storytelling. We write about it to help our clients use this strength into their communications.

Here a selection of articles to become a master in the field of Storytelling:

A brand without a problem is a brand without a soul

Three examples of how storytelling can improve your branding

How to fail in storytelling: 7 common mistakes

How storytelling can improve your website

Corporate communications and storytelling: stop talking!


A million thanks to Daniele Catalanotto for helping me put together this article!

Need a hand making your presentation exciting?

Our team of specialists is always happy to start a conversation with you. We will help you tell your story in a memorable way Start a live chat conversation by clicking on the live chat bubble on the bottom right of your screen.

Discover how we used Storytelling with an emblematic Swiss brand presentation

For the launch of I.N.O.X. – a new Victorinox watch designed to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the brand – the ambition was to create a kick-off event based on brand storytelling.
The purpose was to move from product-oriented to brand-oriented communications. It was the perfect occasion for Enigma to increase the awareness around Victorinox watches in an innovative way.

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