Move the Audience to Feel: Storytelling in Presentations

One of Maya Angelou’s most famous declarations is a wonderful reminder for the presenter:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This statement lends itself beautifully to how we should approach presentations. It sounds terrible, but there’s a pretty good chance your audience will forget most of what you say to them during a presentation. They have a million other things going on in their lives; unfortunately, your presentation isn’t the most important thing.

If you don’t believe us, think of the last speech or presentation you attended. What do you remember from it? What sticks out in your mind about it? Our guess is probably not much, which segues nicely into our next point…

There’s also a good chance people will forget what you did. Unless you do something truly shocking, sincerely fascinating, or mind-blowingly unexpected (which if you can, more power to you!) then it’s a good bet that your audience will forget what you did. Work to be as memorable as possible with your approach, but when it comes to a standard presentation, the extent of what you do is more or less simply speaking to the audience, which doesn’t leave much of an impression at all.

So, if there’s a good chance your audience is going to forget what you said and what you did, where does that leave you? Well, as Angelou says, “people will never forget how you made them feel.” And the easiest, most effective way to get people to truly feel something is by telling a story.

Let’s say, for example, you’re selling health insurance to business executives. Rather than present dull, prosaic statistics about the abstract benefits of having health insurance, try telling the story of Jim, who has Stage 4 lung cancer because when he first felt like something was wrong he didn’t go to the doctor because he didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford treatment. Tell the audience about how Jim’s family is suffering, and how they’re now in massive debt because of Jim’s lack of health insurance.

Pull at those heartstrings! Move the audience to feel something about health insurance by telling Jim’s dire story. Don’t placate or pander; base your stories on something real, something true, something that could happen to each and every member of the audience. Because just as Maya Angelou says, if you make a person feel something, they’ll remember. 

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