Story Telling vs. 10,000 Years of PowerPoint

June 16, 2010 · 6 comments in Miscellaneous

Sometimes I call myself a social media story teller. I often get advised that this is a weak position, that I should organize my presentation like big time analysts do it with lots of numbers and graphs or like recent MBAs do it, where the key points of a presentation are called, “key points.”

I disagree. I find story telling to be powerful, memorable and effective. I find charts flashed on a screen to be puzzling and often forgettable. Sometimes talking points work, but often they are either redundant or forgettable cliches.

Sometimes, I open my talks by mentioning that back in 1987, I was the PR guy who gave the world PowerPoint. I pause,  then say,”forgive me.” It always gets a laugh.

I do use PowerPoint, but mostly I just put up a photo of a person that I’m telling you about. If it’s a marketing audience, then I may add a page of “takeaways” on my last slide. But I know the audience won’t take away those closing bullet points.

They’ll take away the stories of people whose faces I showed them. They will have certain key points that stay in their memory, even if I did not make those points, and those words never appeared in bullet point fashion.

Hopefully, one of my stories will contain information or insights that is useful or interesting to audience members and will help them adjust course where they work. I find telling stories let’s people get inspired. I’m certain that demonstrating what I know does not.

Marketers today really have two courses to take in talking to customers. It doesn’t matter if those customers are business people or consumers. The can make claims and deliver talking points, or they can tell stories.

Stories work in traditional marketing forms such as advertising and PR and they most certainly work in new marketing forms such as blogs and video.

It is something in our nature as humans that makes us lovers of stories. Story-telling is how we remember our ancestors. It probably goes all the way back to caves.

When Org and Morb came back from the hunt and the tribe held a great feast. At the end our hunters used grunts and gesture to tell the story of their adventure. Maybe they enhanced their effort by drawing little pictures with sticks in the dirt.

The next morning, while they slept, perhaps another member of the tribe, one not as adept at hunting, went to the wall of the cave, and using blood and berries, drew pictures on the cave that told the story of the great hunt.

This was story telling, but it was also–in some ways–the beginning of the marketing of that tribe continuity. It was the beginning of making representations that led to a common knowledge and it was an early dot on a continuum that gives us TV and YouTube.

Can you picture how it would have gone, if that first story teller had drawn bullet points to explain how the project was planned, executed and the return on investment along with lessons learned? Can you imagine a world, whose history is shaped by 10,000 years of PowerPoint.

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David Polinchock June 18, 2010 at 4:10 am


Many years ago, I started as a character at Walt Disney World and it was really where I saw story become a critical part of business. As a performer who started in children’s theater, I see what happens when you tell a great story vs. what happens when you have no story at all. In fact, I still use an exercise where I tell corporate clients to tell their brand story as if they’re telling their story to a group of 1st graders. You’d be surprised at how few companies really understand the power of storytelling. I also added cave drawings to my business card and wrote about cave drawings and place-based storytelling at Thought that you’d enjoy reading it. As I say, people want to hear a great story, people want to tell a great story and people want to participate in a great story.

Peter Orton June 17, 2010 at 4:50 am

Thank you, Shel, for articulating what most of us know but some of us in the business world are afraid to acknowledge. And Jim is right that stories are “more fun and interesting so we pay more attention.” But the big part of a story’s power is that it connects with what narrative scholars call our “story schema,” the cognitive structure in our brains that helps us process and retain story elements. From years of reading, listening to and watching stories, we have a embedded in our minds a receptive system or “schema” for organizing the elements of a story, and it’s the reason why cognitive scientists believe our “episodic memory” is much better at retaining information about episodes and events than our “semantic memory” for retaining lists of items.
That said, why is PowerPoint so ubiquitous in business communication and stories are not? Likely because it’s so fast and easy to create a PowerPoint deck of bullet-point screens and not so fast and easy to find the right story to articulate our point. Of course, when we do have the right story and tell it well, the result — audience connection and retention — is powerful.

Jim June 16, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I agree. Stories are more fun and interesting so we pay more attention. Stories are richer and can stimulate several senses. Stories evoke more emotional response. We can relate to stories and so can “share” in the experience. These combine to help us comprehend and lock the message in our brain much better than a list – even if it’s animated with fly-ins!

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