Dear CMO:

“When you do a Power Point presentation, you hide everything negative behind your statistics and your quotes from authority. You hide all the problems, everything that didn’t work. When you tell a story, the whole gist is to admit the negative side, then dramatize the positive side of how the courageous little company overcame all the negatives. To get executives to admit they ever made a mistake – that they didn’t predict what would happen, that surprises came from out of the blue… that means they were not in control. That really scares the shit out of them. A great leader knows how to do this.”

This, from screenwriter, author and teacher Robert McKee. I attended McKee’s seminar a few years ago and had the chance to talk to him recently about storytelling in general. I wasn’t expecting a sideline discussion on Power Point to happen. Given that our conversation began on the William Goldman quote, “give the audience what they want – just not how they expect it,” it was only fitting that we’d end up in an unexpected place.

On the larger stage of persuasion within the corporate world, and corporate life in general, I can tell you from considerable personal experience that Power Point presentations rarely persuade anyone to do anything. This is largely true due to two powerful forces. First, while many have natural skill in storytelling, few of us do this well on purpose. Second, the corporate environment – particularly today – rewards the “afraid.” Most of my contacts in the corporate world would readily admit that they are, in fact, paid to not make mistakes more than they are to conceive of breakthroughs. So asking the presenter to do something out of their usual comfort zone is often paralyzing. It is somewhat ironic, though, that while uncomfortable to the frightened presenter, it is exactly how a tired audience wants and expects to be talked to. We like stories. We hate presentations. And what you have to present is too important not to lead with your best foot.

When viewed together, we see a two-headed monster that deals out Death by Power Point: flat, uninspired recitations of biased evidence hiding any element of fault or uncertainty.  What’s wrong with this, you ask?

Dramatising doesn’t mean Broadway. So relax, already. Adding humanity, a narrative and even a touch of humility won’t kill you or your project. We’re not suggesting you turn your quarterly review into Moulin Rouge. Just tell us the story of what happened. Take us from here to there, clearly and concisely.

If its purpose is to persuade, then we’re woefully behind. Critic Edmund Burke is quoted as saying, “Stories are equipment for life.” Mckee emphasizes this point in a corporate setting, saying, “Everybody loves it when the underdog gets off his back and back on his feet and wins. But to do that you have to admit that something happened you couldn’t predict or that you made a mistake. And then you had to fix it. That’s why the storytelling for a lot of people is terrifying. They don’t have the ability to admit they ever misjudged anything any person or any situation. And to tell a story, you have to do that.” We have to tell credible, human stories to be believed.

We’re all good at bullshit detection. And the board of directors has heard every lie ever told. They know you’re hiding the truth and they will pigeon hole you as a liar for trying. Again, from Mckee, “The whole idea is to persuade. What persuades is the truth. People know when you’re bullshitting. You can’t persuade anyone who thinks they’re being lied to. People who are raised in a culture like ours – a culture of salesmanship – selling things that don’t exist or putting lipstick on a lie… the cynicism is that that’s how it works out there.” We were often asked in graduate school to discuss in detail the options we considered and rejected when presenting a case. This was good advice.

We build credibility by pointing out the flaws in ourselves first. Building on the previous point, we learn from Robert Cialdini that credibility – a critical component of his authority principle – is built by building trustworthiness, and nothing does that more convincingly than pointing out what went wrong, continues to go wrong, and will likely go wrong in the future. Arguing against your own self-interest is actually a good thing, because your audience will be doing it anyway. Get there first and defuse their internal argument.

Presentations that work are built like stories:

  • They have more in common with movie trailers than they would with novels. They have a “bang” quality to them.  They are vivid in word and in image.
  • Good presentations have an arc. They take the viewer from here to there – and make no mistake, there’s a “there” there. There’s an emotional place you want your audience to go, and the facts and figures are there to support what your audience already intuitively has grasped through the construction of your story.
  • Emphasize what you considered, what you rejected, what and why you chose what you chose, and all the different twists and turns, misfortunes and redirections you took. It’s about overcoming adversity, not being omnipotent from the start. The CEO knows that only he is the only truly omnipotent one in the room, after all.
  • By the way, not every presentation needs to be Power Point. You’d be amazed at how powerful sitting at a table and talking can be, especially when your audience is expecting to be lulled to sleep.

The art of presentations is the art of storytelling. Give them what they want, just not the way they expect it.


PS: Robert McKee’s STORY seminar is worth your time if you are engaged in a role that involves persuading people to do something. If we can agree that “stories are equipment for life,” then we can agree that improving your awareness of good storytelling can dramatically improve how you communicate your story to an otherwise bored audience.

His book, STORY, upon which the seminar is based, can be found here. Again, understanding the arc of a story and how we like to receive them is the first order of business in presenting yourself with credibility and passion.

Lastly, thank you, Robert, for sharing your insights and time with me – I appreciate the length and breadth of your lesson and hope that others see what I did.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.