We now know your brain loves stories. It literally lights up (in a fMRI scan) when it hears one—not only igniting more mass volume of your brain (than it does with facts and figures), but it also activates more unique functions within your brain. Stories also fit well into the way your brain processes, stores, recalls, analyzes, and knits material together into a more layered and developed body of thought. And during the storytelling process, fMRI data shows that both speaker and listener are experiencing the same sensations, at the same time. They’re on the same wavelength.
But not all stories are created equal. Some are simple and sweet; others are complex and intense. Some use laughter, irony, and wit; others use emotion, surprise, and drama. Some are designed for information and education; others strive to persuade, motivate, and challenge.
When selecting stories for your business presentations, your objective is to find those narratives that are most applicable to your points, more compelling in scope and effect, and more timely and relevant in their instruction. After all, that’s the point of using a story—to magnify and intensify your point, not just to spin a yarn. Stories should be used to give color, quality, and substance to your presentation. You want to engage more of your audiences’ brains.
What you’re looking for is a salient story. Great word, isn’t it? Salient. It means that which is most prominent, most necessary, most essential. From the Latin word that means “to leap,” a salient story is one that literally leaps out at you, grabs your attention, and makes you stop and listen.
Here are four criteria for ensuring maximum saliency in your stories:
Relevance: Does your story apply to your topic and specific point?
Ever heard someone use a story in a business presentation—most of the time it’s during the introductory remarks—and it was exceptionally funny or wildly fantastic or extremely contemporary? But it didn’t relate at all to the presenter’s overall message or even any point within it. The speaker told the story seemingly just to tell a story.
But now what? The speaker grabbed your attention and set your thoughts in one direction, and now he’s going to take you in an entirely different direction? What was funny or captivating or pressing is now just confusing. What was the point? Make sure your stories relate to your message and your individual points. Otherwise, your story is like a person spending the day standing around and taking up space.
Significance: Does your story have significant size, scope, and depth?
The opposite challenge to the funny-or-fantastic-but-not-relevant story is the story that, while it may have some relevance to your presentation, is mediocre, boring, or lifeless. It would have been better just to continue to the next point, rather than to stop the flow of ideas with a story that doesn’t further engage and inform your audience.
A significant story is one that has a sizeable dimension to it; it’s larger than life. It’s so pervasive that it reaches far and beyond the ordinary information. Or it’s intense and uniquely focused so that, while not grand in size, it is impressive in the depth and penetration with which it touches your listeners.
Timeliness: Does your story deal with contemporary issues and themes?
Used effectively, a speaker references an anecdote or historical event because it has meaning and consequence to today’s world. Used ineffectively, a speaker can simply tell a dated story. Timely stories have significance and relevance. Just because something has happened in the past doesn’t means it bears repeating, nor is it necessarily pertinent to your presentation.
Instead, use stories in your business presentations that are current and cutting edge—like your audience is hearing them for the first time, or better yet, like they’re the first to hear them. That’s what adds not only significance and applicability, but also an edge of excitement.
Enhancement: Does your story add further meaning and value to your presentation?
Telling a story just to tell a story is just telling a story. And it’s wasting your time and that of your audience. There’s no rule that says for every major point you make you have to present an accompanying story. If it doesn’t move the momentum of your comments further, it’s taking them off in a side route or sending your audience on a detour or back a few steps.
When told correctly, a well-delivered story will take the ideas you’ve outlined and given them more life and fullness, engaging your listeners further. Remember what we learned about the brain when it hears stories instead of merely facts and figures? An appropriate story attracts, grabs, and controls attention by expanding depth and range. Like the soundtrack to a movie, providing a more meaningful and enjoyable experience.
Don’t be a yarn spinner, rehashing empty, old tales lacking vim and vigor. Instead, be a verbal virtuoso, captivating your listeners with powerful, timely, significant, and relevant narratives. Your presentations will be much more impressive and your audience more responsive.
The brains of your listeners will appreciate the saliency.
In the next blog, we’ll look at how to position and present your stories for optimal effectiveness.