Technical Storytelling – Keeping your Audience Awake

(C) Copyright Depositphotos / @luislouro

When people ask me what I really do for a living, I tell them I’m a storyteller:  I listen to people tell how things are, apply my experience and insight to the situation, then tell a story about how we can make the future better.  After a recent keynote, I was flattered when several people came up and asked me to share some thoughts and ideas on technical storytelling.   That’s a wide ranging topic, and while I’ve been studying the topic for years, I don’t pretend to be an expert on all of it.  So here’s just a short intro to the topic of modern, technical storytelling.

We are all wired for story, and have been since the first time we told a tale around the campfire – stories, and sharing them, are one of the defining characteristics that make us human.  And those stories have things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end, and often have heroes and villains, trials and tribulations, and a twist or surprise.  Stories connect us with each other, and transform us from individuals – or vendor and customer – to a team working together towards a better outcome. Use cases are stories when built properly.  Product demos are most effective when they’re stories –  hint: ‘this tab does this, and this button does that’  is nota story!

Stories can be visual, verbal, or written.  I’ve found that it works best when they’re either visual and verbal, or written by itself (though some pictures can help).  In this post, I’ll talk mostly about formal presentations, but whiteboards also fall into that category – you just draw the picture as you go.  The worst are when written and verbal are combined.  Case in point is the infamous slideument that tries to multi-purpose a presentation with a document.  It does neither well, and often sucks at both.   By this measure, about 99% of presentations, well, suck.  Seriously, if you’re going to leave your slides behind – or heaven forbid, read them, you don’t need to show up in the first place.  That’s because of what Guy Kawasaki calls the Bozo Effect.  It goes something like this:

If you need to put eight-point or ten-point fonts up there, it’s because you do not know your material.  If you start reading your material because you do not know your material, the audience is very quickly going to think that you are a bozo.  They are going to say to themselves ‘This bozo is reading his slides.’  I can read faster than this bozo can speak.  I will just read ahead.

And if you’re thinking, ‘well, I don’t read them, I just talk to them’, then you’re missing the point. If there’s text on the screen, the audience will read it, wonder what you’re skipping, and read instead of listening to you.  That’s especially bad if it’s at a keynote, because they probably have to strain to read the tiny 8 point font with the wrong copyright date at the bottom on the footer.  A few words, a strong visual, and a compelling story are all you need, and it’s far more effective as books like Made to Stick, Brain Rules, and A Whole New Mind which talk about the science behind all this.

The best stories are always personal, which is why it’s critical to design and customize your presentation to the audience.  Bespoke trumps off the rack and sends a message that you are fully invested in the experience.  That’s the opposite of skipping slides in a ‘canned’ deck, which sends a clear message that the audience wasn’t worth the effort to prepare properly.  Likewise, running long at all, or short by a lot, sends a message that the audience wasn’t worth practicing for.  Now having a stump speech is fine (I have several), but they’re alwaystailored to the audience. What’s nice about the Zen/Ted style is that since the bulk of the content is verbal, a lot of the tailoring can be done in speaker notes.

More substantial tailoring is really like building a presentation from scratch.  That begins with a brainstorming session.  I like going analog – one thought per post-it – and clustering, rearranging, organizing, and cutting(!), on a white board before settling in to build the content and map visuals to the concepts.  For visuals, it’s worth investing in high-quality images or graphics.  My style is photographic, so I get my images at either Depositphotos.com or shoot my own. Yours may be more graphical, but please, no cheesy clip art.   Please keep in mind IP rights to images, and only use ones that are appropriately licensed.

Fonts are important – especially using them consistently and placing them properly.  One pixel out of alignment or slightly different size causes a cognitive lurch and distracts the audience.  Speaking of size, a good rule of thumb is that if you can’t read the font on your laptop screen from across the room, it’s too small.  I built a custom template with fonts pre-set, and gridlines to ensure that everything is in place.  And speaking of templates, don’t use one with a standard header and footer.  If the audience doesn’t know who you are and why you’re there, you’re doing something wrong.  And since you don’t ever (seriously, never…no really, never!) share your deck – it means nothing without your narrative after all – you don’t need to worry about copyright on every page.  I highly recommend Slideology and Presentation Zen as guides to build better decks, and regularly re-read them, especially before building a major presentation.

Last, Practice, practice, practice.  Rehearse out loud, with a remote control, either sitting or standing as you will actually deliver it.  If you really want good feedback, record yourself (on video!) and watch the session. Then do it again. Repeat until you know what you’re going to say on the next slide and can seamlessly hit the remote button in the middle of a sentence – no pause necessary between slides.  Trust me, that’s probably the most painful experience you can inflict on yourself, but it pays off.  If you want to see a master presenter at work, go watch any ‘SteveNote’ – a Steve Jobs Apple keynote.

All told it takes between 10 and 30 hours to build and practice a new one-hour presentation, and usually includes between 60 and 120 slides and images.  For the initial few run-throughs, speaker notes with thoughts about what I want to say are hugely helpful, but after practicing enough, all you really need to see on the speaker display is the current and next slide.  That’s when you know you’re ready.

Now all this is about how I build and deliver technical stories.  A lot of these techniques are universal (e.g. lose the slideument), but others, like the photographic style of presentations, are my own creative style.   Bergman, Lucas, Spielberg, Eastwood, Roddenberry, Pournelle, Niven, Rand are all incredibly effective storytellers, each with completely different styles.  Now, I’m not including myself among their ranks, just illustrating that the key to truly effective storytelling is to find your own unique creative voice. We are all storytellers!  Every one of us told stories as kids, made believe that we were super heroes or heroines, animals, cops and robbers, or simply made something up about how that window got broken.  It’s part of being human.  We just have to remember, and practice, how to do it well.

It’s worth the effort. Your audiences will thank you.

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