E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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Once Upon a Time … the Power of Storytelling for Business

Carmona's Parador (Seville)Over at StrategyFocusedHR, Ron Thomas put together, just recently, a rather interesting and intriguing blog post, under the suggestive heading “Once Upon a Time: Remember When We Could Tell a Story Without Slides?“, that I can certainly recommend everyone reading through it, specially, if you are a public speaker, and, more importantly, if you like storytelling with a business purpose. But perhaps even much more highly recommended if you feel that slides have taken over your public speaking world and, eventually, they may have become the “crutches” for your narrative. It’s a rather thought provoking read, because, in a way, it’s going to help you challenge the way you use slides for your public speaking gigs to the point where he questions whether we should be using them rather heavily, or, instead, use them as a simple guide, but no more

I guess at this point in time, we are all sensing what he really means and we probably have got an affirmative answer to his reflections; the fact that, whether we like it or not, we pretty much rely on telling stories by using PowerPoint presentations. And perhaps we shouldn’t. At least, we shouldn’t depend on them as much as we do nowadays. Ron is essentially launching a call for action to stop relying so much on slides and instead focus on sharing some good stories to get your messages across. 

I can see his point. In fact, I have probably abused myself that Death by PowerPoint a few times already, far too many, perhaps, that I would care to remember, as I have blogged about in the past, but if there is anything that I have learned in the last 6 months or so, after having been a (keynote) speaker in multiple events, is that sooner rather than later, even you, the public speaker, will burn out from PowerPoint Overload and eventually tune out. And that’s exactly the stage that I am at at the moment. And so far, although I didn’t expect it this soon, I am enjoying it quite a bit!

More than anything because, as Ron mentions on his blog post, it’s allowed me to discover a new facet as to why I’m enjoying it so much more doing all of this public speaking at various different events that I never thought I would be able to experience again anymore. Probably because of how much automation and industrialisation we have incorporated into the overall process altogether when we do presentations that we hardly leave any room, nor space, for something that we are all, human beings, really good at: telling good stories.

That’s why, back in May, I reflected on my Google Plus profile on a new experiment that I thought would be worth while going for to explore how much further along I could bring forward my own creativity when doing presentations, so knowing how buzzing my travelling schedule would be for the following couple of months I thought it would be the perfect ground to take on that new experiment: go and present in a number of various different public events without using any slides, and just delivering my speech trying to capture my main points of interest for the audience in the shape of stories, and see how far creativity would take me along without any of those “crutches for my narrative” (i.e. Slides). 

Little did I know that what eventually turned out to be quite an interesting experiment it developed into something I didn’t expect at all, to the point where it managed to break up my addiction of using slides as a way of protecting my self, my overall presence, my messages, my stories. And it was something so relatively simple, yet so powerful, that it blew off my mind when I realised about it, just as much as it does today: A new learning experience (in real time).

Indeed, there is a lot to be learned on How To Do Everything Wrong In A Presentation, as Mitch Joel would say, but there is a whole lot more to learn from doing a presentation just right and that only starts, as far as I am concerned, and based on plenty of recent experience, on how well you engage your audience. Because in most cases we don’t. I mean, how many times have we been attending a masterly presentation from a speaker only to find out that he / she has run out of time and we, the audience, don’t have a chance to engage, ask questions, share our key learnings, perhaps our very own stories, AND interact? Far too often, I would admit, and I would be guilty as charged, because I have suffered from that myself far too many times, far too often even, as a speaker. Till May 2012. 

That’s when I decided that the main reason why I was running out of time in the vast majority of cases was because my stories, my narrative, were solely based on the visual aids that I was making use of, and perhaps that’s the reason why it took that long to deliver them. Yes, I do know and fully realise that relying too heavily on your slides is not a good thing, not even a healthy one, but we have to admit that we all pretty much overdo it time and time again. So the last couple months of running this experiment of not using slides in public speaking events have taught me a couple of things:

1. Not doing slides for your presentation is Ok. No-one is going to complain about it, and if anything, they would love you for it. That’s how far we have gone into PowerPoint Overload so far… What really matters is your message, your narrative, your stories, even your own charisma as an individual; basically, what you would want the audience to walk away with when you are done, and what method you use for that it won’t matter much, as long as you deliver. 

2. Once you engage with your audience it’s adrenaline you just can’t ignore anymore. This was the major takeaway for me for the last few events that I have participated in, including the very last one I hosted, a full day summer course at the University of Pablo de Olavide, in Carmona, Seville, on “La Empresa y La Administración Pública en la Era de Las Redes Sociales” where I, finally, came to realise what I enjoy the most from public speaking. Not being in front of the audience, not being on stage, not enjoying that public flair, but, essentially, and that’s the kicker, learning from your audience. Because in most cases they are much smarter than whatever you could be.

That’s exactly right! That’s the new drug that I have gotten so used to in recent times that I can no longer neglect it, nor ignore it. That’s why whenever I am on my way to provide another speech I hardly ever look into putting together slides, but more I try to find out as much as I possibly can what the audience would be like, to then tame my messages, stories and narrative through plenty of scripting, mindmapping and reflection in order to meet their needs. Yes, I know it takes a whole lot more time, effort and energy, but it is totally worth it every penny you spend on such preparations. Basically, I decided that I would want to, on purpose, learn from the audience, just as much as they can possibly do from me, if not even more! Eventually, those presentations have turned themselves upside down from that masterly delivery of a speech, into something that’s just so rewarding that I can certainly encourage everyone to go and experience: open true dialogue. Utterly refreshing and incredibly reenergising. 

Once upon a time, as Ron would say, I used to remember what it was like doing a presentation with slides… Nowadays, though, I prefer to be there on stage, actively learning from the audience, engaging in meaningful dialogue, sharing some terrific stories that I am sure you would all agree with me that we all have deep inside ourselves, after all, we are all born natural storytellers, and eventually finish up the presentation much more energised than when I started it in the first place. Why? Well, because right there, in the audience, there is always going to be that great leader, or leaders, who “throughout history had the power to move people by telling stories. Success is won by creating compelling stories that have the power to move people“. And it looks like I have decided a couple of months back to be moved by people, as my main method of learning as a public speaker to the point that whenever I go and speak at a public event it’s no longer the audience privileged to have the presence of the speaker, but more the speaker is the privileged one to have the unique opportunity of learning from the audience through those interactions that usually happen before, during and after the session. 

And that’s how I feel, and I may well be way beyond my call of duty, that we need to transform conference events and public speaking events to become truly social events where we all do what we know we can do best: share our knowledge, tell our stories, collaborate with one another, learn from each other through conversations, storytelling, open dialogue. Not sure what you would think, but I sense it’s time to re-define the way we engage as speakers with our corresponding audience(s). I think it’s time we ditch for good our masterly slides and, instead, we put to the test our masterly skills on listening, engaging, and interacting with those who we share a common passion with in the first place. And keep up with the learning curve…

After a long, much anticipated, last, I am way all up for that … and you? 

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    1. Hi Joaquim! Seriously, my credit card is starting to complain about our friendship and lovely recommendations! LOL Thanks much for sharing along another superb recommendation that I will be going through on my summer reading! Sounds very intriguing, to say the least! I will let you know how the book goes! 🙂

      Thanks much for dropping by and for sharing it along! Good stuff!

  1. Interesting post Luis…
    At my work-  I am a learning specialist (a corporate trainer) … or now the learning 2.0 (connected learning guy)…

    I use storytelling during my “facilitation” sessions…and it works wonders. Sure A few slides indicate what’s the topic at hand etc… But teaching through storytelling  brings knowledge sharing Opportunities…through stories,  One can make attendees Feel they can relate more to what’s being said… They engage With Anyone because they feel it’s kind of a many to many   exchange , not based on agenda items solely etc… 

    Also, a story can bring so much more than just instructions or data to learn from… Stories bring richness in context, and that’s where folks can better comprehend the intent if the exchange because tie-ins to real life at work are a lot clearer and easier to make to.  Storytelling moves us from being formal (instructed) at 100% (sorry avid PowerPoint users) 

    The Stories need to also be told right (as in the teller having walked the talk to tell the tale).  That said, the true impact of a story will not only teach everyone including the teller, but bring heavy inspiration to others – it ca generate ideas and set the tone for changes etc… 

    The key I guess would be the approach we use to present (talk to others) to much of a formal approach can hinder our chances to get the best out of a learning session… Why? Because of the strong inclination for monologues… To much of a formal approach  strips away opportunities to empower others to engage with each-other –  and personalize their learning – telling stories to me sounds like an informal approach to learning – and it lets folks feel they can be contributors, part of the learning process – informal is the initial stages of empowerment & relationship building – which hopefully , it can be sustained vial social platforms – social learning – making learning more open and relevant …

    1. Hi Ralph! Fascinating insights, indeed! Many many thanks for making the connection of telling stories and narrative with learning. Goodness! That’s probably the main focus area behind all of the stories we get to share across: learn something while interacting with others! And funny enough it’s something that we haven’t gotten started with social technologies, as you well know, but from as far back as humans are humans. We seem to have forgotten and neglect our innate capability of telling a story, of captivating an audience with a tale from which not only can they learn, but also from stories they can relate to through a common context, which is often what is missed from most slide-ware nowadays where the context has already been predefined without looking into the audience first… Kind of one way monologue, as you indicate.

      I’m surely glad we are making that connection between stories and learning, because in the context of business and relying important messages it’s as good as it gets and we are seeing plenty of that inside of the company with a good number of our executives coming along putting together vodcasts where they just share that: stories and no slide-ware. And they love it just as much as we do. Including the dialogue! 🙂

      Thanks much again for the feedback! And for dropping by…

  2. Hola Luis,

    I enjoyed your very interesting article on storytelling for business. It’s a subject that I have taken up recently from a job search perspective, so it was no surprise that during my research, I found your article.

    Am currently writing a book around storytelling and the job search, so I have really found your article very informative.

    BTW, I have had the privilege of having a few clients from IBM here in Canada.

    Thanks again for a great article.

    Hasta luego!


    1. Hi Daisy, thanks much for the feedback and glad to read you are doing some fabulous research on this topic of storytelling and narrative! I was going to suggest, in case you may not have bumped into them just yet, to reach out to the fine and smart folks from Anecdote with Mark Schenk and Shawn Callahan, who have done some tremendous amount of work on storytelling and narrative for business and from whom I am sure you would benefit quite a bit as additional reading materials…

      And glad you also got in touch with fellow colleagues from IBM Canada. Smart bunch!! 🙂

    1. Hiya Nancy!! That’s just such a great question! Thanks much for sharing it along over here on this thread! I would think our visual part here would be, indeed, our physical bodies, our body language, but also very much our very own attitude. One thing is to keep boring people to death with a monotonous pitch, with no excitement and no passion, for instance, and the other one having all of that in every single pore of our body, permeating through! I do think that kind of physical experience is something that the virtual world would never ever be able to replace. And seeing your extensive experience on conducting F2F events on online facilitation and communities I bet that experience is pretty much the same you would be able to relate to, for sure.

      Ohhh, and having witnessed the last few rounds of F2F I have participated in, it’s been those visual cues of the physical body and body language, including the tone, the passion and the excitement which have surely made a huge impact on convincing me why we probably don’t need as much slide-ware as we think we do… We probably just need to resort to just being ourselves: engaging, witty, smart, conversationalist sharing along those stories! 🙂

  3. Luis, I loved your post. Really interesting and I believe I have had the priviledge to watch one of your first attempts at this approach in Seville, at the e20biz.es, right? There you used only your website as the dackdrop for your presentation, a mind map to guide you through it, and you interacted a lot with the audience, encouraging stories and sharing. It worked really well!
    A few things though.
    You still used some visuals and by Nancy’s question she also believes that is important. I tend to use slides with only a photo and no words at all. I use them as a visual background and as a prompt to my memory. What kind of visuals are OK / appropriate? And what should the role of visuals play here?
    I was recently alerted that being able to share slides online after your presentation is an important way to reach out to a wider audience. This somehow hints to a big drawback on not using slides. Any views on this?

    1. Hi Ana! Thanks ever so much for dropping by and for the wonderful feedback comments! Indeed, the event in Seville was the second one where I attempted to be slide-ware-less and I am surely glad to hear, from the audience 😉 , that things worked out all right! Very very encouraging and glad the main premise I had for the session went through all right! W00t!! Much appreciated the feedback!

      With regards to your questions, I agree with you that having visuals is a good thing, but we should not overdo them. I love your approach of just having a picture, snapshot where you can just tame the messages around it. vs. having tons of text that no-one can read at all! I think the magic bullet is on the balancing act of when a slide can help and when it cannot, and when in doubt, do not use it. Drop it altogether. The reason as to why I used that Web site and then the mindmap, was more than anything else to support a background where I didn’t want to have anything blank in that same background… But in follow-up events I realised that I didn’t even needed that, but I can see the point of having some visual aids to help out with the overall message, but I still think the speaker should be at the centre, interacting with the audience, versus letting slides drive it all …

      And with regards to your other thought on having slides as a follow-up, I did that exactly for the Social Business Forum (See blog post over here) and it worked wonders! Although I did realise as well that the amplifying effect is not so much having the slides themselves, but also the recording of both audio and video, if possible, so that folks can see the whole theme captured. Slides can only go up to so far, whereas your speech in context with that recording can make all the difference. Remember we are much much better communicators using oral cues than written ones, so if there is a chance to record it, why not? I have grown very fond of recording myself during events, and although I hardly share the recordings, because I don’t think people would benefit from them, I love them to give me additional tips on those visual aids of body language, passion, enthusiasm, excitement, and so forth and eventually become better at doing those pitches. It works wonders seeing and watching yourself and put yourself in the role of the audience for a change … 🙂

      Thanks much, once again, for the feedback input! Greatly appreciated and hope to see you soon again!!

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