I love this story:

Christopher Wren was a famous English architect and builder who lived from 1632-1723. Legend has it that he was walking past three stone cutters working on the rebuilding of St. Paul’s cathedral. He asked them each what they were doing. The first worker said, “I am earning my wage. The second worker said, “I am building a wall.” The third worker said, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.”

The story can be told in many ways and has even developed a life of its own, being retold in some circles as John F. Kennedy’s in conversation with a janitor at NASA, who informed him without a trace of irony that he was “helping to send a man to the moon”. Is the JFK story true? It’s doubtful. Is the story of Christopher Wren true? Probably not. Both, however, convey a clear message about perspective and contributing to a greater purpose than the obvious.

During my practical presentation skills workshops for scientists and researchers, I encourage the use of stories as a good way to create understanding. Short tales and personal anecdotes can bring a message to life, and unlike facts and figures, which are often considered vital in the business world but are quickly forgotten, stories create “sticky” memories by tapping into people’s emotions and senses.

And stories are not only powerful tools in presentations: they can inspire, motive, persuade and drive action if they are told simply, authentically and with the audience in mind.

Using stories in presentations

Here are a few things to consider before weaving a story into your presentation:

Know what you want to say and to whom

What is the message that you want to share or the information that you want to convey in your presentation? And who are you trying to reach? The stories that you tell to a team are likely to be very different to the stories you share with a client, even if the message is the same.

Make it personal

If possible, draw on your life experiences and tell a personal anecdote to bring your message to life. If you can’t think of something suitable, by all means use a fable or folktale or even a joke (although be careful with humour – it’s not universal), and introduce it in a way that makes it personal to you. For example: “When I first opened my company, I stumbled across a story that sticks in my head to this day.”

Introduce a struggle and a resolution

Good storytellers know that in order to get an audience on their side, they need to share a story about a hero’s journey: the hero (person or organisation) has a goal that is thwarted time and again (by competitors, by the environment, by themselves), which creates conflict. Eventually the hero overcomes the challenges and there is a resolution. This sort of story takes an audience on the journey with you, and makes them want to become part of the journey, ideal for changing hearts, igniting minds and driving action.

The story I opened with doesn’t have a struggle and resolution unless you’re familiar with your history, but the JFK version does, if you think about the context. The USA was in the middle of the space race. Problems abounded. The Russians managed to get their man in space first. The goal of the US changed to “putting the first man on the moon”. The janitor believed. The USA overcame. The struggle is implicit. It makes the JFK story particularly powerful to audiences who understand the story behind the story.

Keep it simple

Not all stories need to be three-part-epics. Some of the most memorable stories are short, straightforward and to-the-point. Trim your story of all unnecessary details – you’re not trying to be an actor, so the theatrics are necessary – and tell your story simply, with a few well-placed details that allow your listeners to immerse themselves in your tale and “get the message”.

Think about how it might be retold

A story is a viral tool. If a story has been told well, the first thing some listeners will think will be “Great story! I must tell that to XYX!” So make it easy for your audience to share your story further afield. Spend time practising your story, working out how to turn your message into a lean story that’s simple to retell, and you may be surprised at how far your story travels.

The short summary

If you’re presenting an idea or information to an international audience – or any audience, for that matter – using stories and anecdotes to explain your ideas will not only make it easier for people to understand, but it will make your message stick and with a bit of luck, your audience will spread your message further by retelling your story.