If people are interesting, why are so many presentations boring?

GUEST BLOG: Alastair McCall, communicator and presentation coach, looks at why storytelling is such a vital part of connecting with your audience. 

Steinar Skipsnes, from Seattle, spent 2016 meeting 366 new people. His Instagram account, (@dailyhello) documents Steinar’s selfies with every one of these people. It struck me as a fun thing to do, a good way of getting some social media coverage, and an undoubtedly interesting experience for Steinar, and the people who he met over the year.  Have a quick glance through the pictures and you’ll see that Skipsnes found something out about each of the people he met.  They told him a little bit about themselves, and, I would imagine, they went away with a cool story about a crazy dude who’s trying to meet a new person every day.  

People are, on the whole, interesting, so why are so many presentations so boring? We’ve come to expect and accept that a presentation can be an “oral report”, full of facts, figures, and finance and devoid of personality, presence and pizazz.

One of the hardest, yet crucial jobs of a performer is to connect with their audience on an emotional level.  The characters we like the most in our favourite films, TV shows and plays are the ones that we can relate to or identify with. In fact, this connection is so important, that it still exists even if that character is undesirable.  If you watched the TV show “Breaking Bad” (don’t worry, no spoilers coming!) you will have found yourself rooting for a ruthless drugs manufacturer. The writers and actors had so deftly set him up as a man who simply wants to ensure the financial future of his family, something that most of us can relate to, that we, the audience, wanted him to succeed.

It is imperative for any presenter to try and achieve a similar emotional connection with their audience. The goal of a presentation is to persuade the audience to change in some way. It may be a simple change like agreeing that your new sales strategy is the right one, or it may be a more extreme change such as accepting that there will be job losses in your company. How can you expect any audience to be persuaded by somebody that they don’t relate to?

Humans are naturally averse to change, especially if that change is risky to them in some way. It’s up to you to show them that you understand, share, and even fear that risk.  They need to see that you are human too, so you need to share a piece of yourself with them.  As personal as it sounds, as a presenter, you must allow a small window into your soul that will allow your audience to trust you enough to commit to the change that you are asking.

I’m not suggesting you need to share your innermost secrets, but a short, personal story will help to break down the wall between you and your audience.  In fact, the story doesn’t even need to be personal. As a species, humans have the unique ability to empathise with others. Our “theory of mind” allows us to put ourselves in others’ positions and take on their emotions.  The ancient Greeks used the term “pathos”, and it is a highly effective tool for getting an audience on your side. A well-placed story about human interaction will allow you to show that you have that empathy, that you are not just a soulless, data-spewing automaton and that you can be trusted. Harness the power of stories, and with it the power of pathos and you will find your audience much more willing to make that leap of faith with you.