If you're familiar with the character of Sherlock Holmes -- whether from literature, the BBC's production starring Benedict Cumberbatch or the CBS series, Elementary -- you know that Sherlock is a data junkie. The facts and evidence he collects about a crime are fodder for the story he weaves to communicate his uncannily accurate conclusions. He gives meaning to the assorted bits of data he's collected.
Too frequently we presenters dump mounds of data and analytics on our audience without enough thought as to how we want them to interpret what the data means. We would be well-served to adopt Sherlock's techniques and weave a story for our audience as a way of infusing the data with meaning.
Stories are how we understand the world. They allow us [and our audiences] to interpret data, make sense of what we see and hear and create relevance for ourselves. And they're more memorable. Ideas, scenarios and narrative are much easier to remember than numbers, data and facts.
Our brains are wired to pay more attention to novelty and contrast and emotion -- all elements embedded in stories. According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, emotions are the brain's sticky notes. They help us remember. And since we always want our audiences to remember the key points in our presentations, appealing to their emotions through stories can aid retention.
Our brains are also programmed to ignore things that are routine and predictable and boring. This is by design to save the brain time to focus on more important things. So when your audience sits through yet another PowerPoint presentation with yet more slides filled with bullet points, even if the information is new, the experience is predictable and routine. And you have to ask...what more important things might their brains be focusing on instead of our presentation?
Here are some tips to help you construct a story that has more impact and memorability for your audience than cold, hard facts.
:: Think in terms of issues not a description of the data.
Statistics or numbers themseves are not the message; they are meant to support your key message. A story can tell what the numbers mean, why they're important and how they affect the audience.
:: There must be a point to your story.
It's an utter waste of time to tell a story that isn't clearly related to the message you want your audience to get from your presentation. Make sure your story highlights, supports or reinforces the meaning behind your data.
:: Keep it simple.
Beware of providing too much information or meandering down too many paths in your story. It should be crisp with just enough rich detail that your audience can step into the story and identify with the characters or situation.
:: Look for story sources all around you.
Get story ideas from current events, history, literature, TV and movies. When you see a good story, jot down the gist of it and put it in a file. Then when you need inspiration for your next presentation, the perfect story idea may just be waiting for you in your file.
:: Practice, practice, practice.
Craft your story after you've developed the content for your presentation. Then you'll know exactly where to add a story to drive home a point. Rehearse your story out loud numerous times to hone your timing and your tone. Aim to be conversational as if you were telling the story to a friend.
Stories not data are what move people to action. Stories can excite our imagination. They can change the way we think and inspire us in a way that straight forward facts cannot.
As Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited whereas imagination embraces the whole world."
flickr/Sherlock Holmes C.C. 2.0