Secrets of great storylines


July 27, 2022

A great story hooks an audience from start to finish. 

The same can be said for a compelling presentation. An engaging message builds a bridge between you and the audience, and crafting a storyline makes it easier to do just that. 

There's no right or wrong way to write a storyline, but the most compelling stories and presentations are planned using tools like structures and storyboards. From Hollywood heavyweights to strategy leaders, storyline techniques are used to craft effective messages and drive them home to an audience. 

In this article, we'll examine these techniques and how to use them to create a great storyline for your next presentation. 

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

How strategy leaders create great presentation storylines

Great stories aren't accidents—they're planned, crafted, and edited until the creator is happy with the end product. 

But they also leave enough space for the audience to engage with a story in their own way. As American philosopher Hannah Ardent once said, storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. 

To pull your audience in, every presentation should start with a structure. Audiences need a sense of what your presentation is about and what they'll learn so they can follow the story. A solid structure will include four key components:

  • Context
  • Actions
  • Results
  • Insights 

Let's look a little deeper at each of them.

1. Context

Give your audience a background of what your presentation is about. 

Set the context in the first few slides by presenting situational analysis and addressing the major points the presentation will cover. Your audience can then understand the story you're trying to tell throughout the presentation. 

2. Actions

Explain the actions in your presentation succinctly and focus on what matters most to the audience. 

Nancy Duarte, the author of  DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, recommends setting a baseline of what is (i.e. what your audience already knows) and then introducing your vision of what could be. 

"The gap between the two will throw the audience a bit off balance, and that’s a good thing — it jars them out of complacency," she says.  

Here's an example. If sales were low and a lot of customers churned in the first six months of the year, talk about it to create some common ground with your team. Then, introduce a vision of what could be with a line like:

"What if we could boost sales and keep customers happy so they stick around? Well, we can. This presentation is going to explain how."

Once a goal is established, use a storyline throughout your presentation to show your team how to reach it. 

3. Results

Next, highlight the results. 

Here's where you prove to the audience that you can walk the talk. Using the example from point two, this section can include results from previous campaigns that have turned around low sales or improved customer retention.

Results deliver the punchline of a presentation and help instill confidence in your audience. 

4. Insights

The final part of a presentation will share actionable insights and lessons with your audience. 

This is the presentation equivalent of a call to action and gives your audience marching orders for what's expected next. Once again, if we take the example of improving sales and cutting churn, this could be something like: 

"It will take extra work from you all to increase sales and retain customers over the next six months, but we can improve and keep our customers happy with our fantastic team."

Duarte recommends adding an inspirational message to end the presentation on a positive and forward-thinking note. For this example, a statement like this would work:

"I know the first half of the year has been tough, and everyone is a little drained. But I know we can do this. The next six months are our chance to pull together and prove to our customers that we deserve their business. Plus, if we reach our sales and retention goals, the reward will be bonuses and extra time off for your hard work."

Next time you create a presentation, use a structure to map it out and create a story to engage your audience. 

The art of storyboarding (and what we can learn from Hollywood) 

Storyboarding is the first draft of any successful presentation. 

It creates an outline for the final product of a presentation and gives you a blueprint to follow, so every important message is included. More importantly, it acts as a baseline for a presentation to ensure it flows and will be engaging for the audience. 

American film director Martin Scorsese famously creates storyboards before every film he shoots. He says storyboards allow him to visualize an entire movie in advance and referred to it as drawing a film as he wanted to see it. 

A storyboard from Scorsese's famous film, Raging Bull. Image source

Scorsese isn't the only Hollywood director that swears by storyboarding. Before filming The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson hired voice actors to role-play over storyboards so he could visualize the entire series. Although the trilogy took over eight years to shoot, storyboards provided (much-needed) clarity for what the end product would look like before shooting began. 

Strategy experts use the same technique of storyboarding to design impactful presentations in five steps: 

  1. Prepare a rough presentation outline: A storyboard should convey the key messages of the deck. 
  2. Remove weak elements: Delete any redundant parts of a presentation. Don't get emotionally attached to a slide—if it doesn't help get your message across, cut it and move on. 
  3. Cement the outline: Finalize the presentation outline by adding headers and key messages for every slide. (Remember the Golden Rule—no more than one message per slide!)  
  4. Sketch it up: Draw rough sketches of each slide. They should be neat enough for collaborators to read, so it's easy to check if key messages and titles hit the mark. 
  5. Turn sketches into slides: Convert your sketches into polished, professional slides ready for your presentation. 

Steal these seven storytelling secrets from Pixar

Pixar knows a thing or two about great storytelling. The company has won 13 Academy Awards and nine Golden Globes, and has grossed nearly $15 billion at the box office

Former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared Pixar's secrets in a widely circulated Twitter thread called 22 Secrets of storytelling. Coats later described the list as a mix of lessons from directors and coworkers at Pixar, listening to writers and directors talk about their craft and trial and error when making her own films.

Here are the top seven secrets from Coats' list:

1. Keep it simple. Creators naturally want to include as much information as possible in their stories, but adding layers complicates the story. Share your story with a friend or colleague to check its flow and ask for feedback on how to make it better. 

2. Get your ideas down on paper. We tend to hang on to things in our minds. Extract them and work with your team to discuss them. From there, you can eliminate bad ideas and work on improving the good ones. 

3. Remember why you're telling the story. What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off? Creators should recognize the internal motivation behind telling a story and understand why it's important to the audience. 

4. Make a list. Don't procrastinate on one idea—juggle several at once. List out everything, no matter how crazy or unexpected it is. There may be a golden nugget hiding somewhere. 

5. Define the essence of the story. How can you tell your story in an economical way that tells a key message? Start from a bare minimum, and build it out depending on time limits and budget.

6. Work is never wasted.
If an idea isn't working, let it go and move on. If it's useful, it'll resurface throughout the storytelling process. 

7. Decide on your ending before writing your story. Remember your audience and what their ideal experience is. Visualize the end of your presentation and what you want your message to be before building out the middle. 

Keep the story simple, share your ideas and understand why you're telling the story. 

Expert Corner: How Shivanku Misra adds value to presentations

Shivanku Misra heads up the consumer engagement and retention department at USA Today, and he knows a thing or two about telling a compelling story. 

Misra stresses there are two ways to tell a story: by asking your audience to trust you, or showing them why they should trust you. 

"Think of it as going to a cardiologist who is going to operate. Instead of telling you "I'm going to fix your heart", they take out a piece of paper and draw a rough diagram to show you where the problem is. This gives you more trust in that cardiologist over the one that just says, don't worry, I'll take care of you," Misra says.  

"That's the exact same situation when you interact with the leadership—you need them to trust you with their millions of dollars. For them to appreciate what you have done, you need to tell them why what you've done is important and robust."

Misra says it's also crucial to finish a story with next steps, not just a happy ending.

"It's very important to pitch like a CMO or a CEO and present the story in their context," he says. 

"You have this habit of presenting to your boss, and your boss appreciates the models. They appreciate what you've done in the analysis. But when presenting to a CMO, it will work wonders if you speak simply and keep it relevant."

Use storylines to craft unforgettable presentations

Powerful presentations have a strong message running through them—and it's no accident. 

It all comes down to planning. If the best storytellers in the game use storyboards and structures to engage their audiences—you should too. Craft presentations that speak to your audience and deliver engaging messages.

A little planning goes a long way. 

Want to learn more about telling compelling stories and presentations? Check out Prezent's detailed guide on structuring storylines.