Writer and communication coach Carmine Gallo, writing on “What the Best Presenters Do Differently” for the Harvard Business Review (link here), reminds us of the importance of storytelling in trying to reach an audience:
Our minds are wired for story. We think in narrative and enjoy consuming content in story form.
Understanding the difference between presenting and storytelling is critical to a leader’s ability to engage an audience and move them to action. Unfortunately, presentation software often gets in the way. Slides should be designed to complement a story, not to replace the storyteller.
Gallo offers five core pieces of advice, and I’d recommend the full article for anyone who wants to dive into the detail. For this post, however, I want to emphasize Gallo’s first point: “Presenters open PowerPoint. Storytellers craft a narrative.” He adds:
If you want to engage your audience, you have to tell a story. But for most people who prepare presentations, storytelling is not top of mind.
Most “presenters” do what sounds logical: They begin by opening the slideware. But most presentation programs aren’t storytelling tools. They’re digital delivery mechanisms. PowerPoint’s default template asks for a title and text.
A bulleted list is not a story. A story is a connected series of events told through words and/or pictures. A story has a theme, attention-grabbing moments, heroes and villains, and a satisfying conclusion. Nicely designed slides cannot compensate for a poorly structured story.
OK, I’m biased. I’m a frequent public speaker, and I tend to get very positive feedback on talks before groups, both in-person and online. I think this has something to do with my not using PowerPoint.
Even when I’m not telling a story per se, I’m trying to educate and persuade an audience, typically about workplace bullying, dignity at work, or workers and workplaces generally. If an audience doesn’t know me, then I also have to establish my credibility and personal appeal, in addition to offering my content. Which brings me to…
…Aristotle’s On Rhetoric
In his work On Rhetoric, Aristotle — one of the greatest of the Ancient Greek philosophers — outlined three major properties of speech for purposes of persuasion:
- Logos, or the core logic of the speaker’s argument;
- Ethos, or the speaker’s essential credibility; and,
- Pathos, or the speaker’s emotional appeal.
Of these three properties, logos can be translated into PowerPoint content, but ethos and pathos come from the speaker. The latter are harder to convey when the lights are dimmed and folks are gazing at slides flashing by on a screen. After all, one’s credibility and personal appeal come from developing a rapport with an audience.
In a typical 10-20 minute presentation, that means making a personal connection quickly. It’s still vitally important even if you have the stage for, say, 30-60 minutes.
Looking at those classic Greek philosophers, would Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, or Homer have used PowerPoint had such wiz-bang technology been available back in their day? Maybe, but if so, they would’ve done so sparingly, I think. In Homer’s case, I think he would’ve stuck to the tried-and-true oral tradition.
I understand the usefulness of PowerPoint and similar platforms for presenting content. They can be very useful for certain types of teaching, as well. But if a speaker wants to persuade rather than merely inform, then I believe the Aristotelian properties of logos, ethos, and pathos counsel in favor of pulling up the screen and looking at one’s audience in the eye.