Structuring storylines


July 27, 2022

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

But a story's structure is what really brings it to life. In a presentation, a compelling story distills thoughts into ideas and uses arguments to lead the audience to the speaker's conclusion. Presenters often underestimate the power of storytelling, but it can be a great tool to win over audiences and persuade them to follow your recommendation.

In this guide, we'll examine how to create storyline structures from scratch to help you create a convincing presentation.

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

How to use Governing Thought to organize presentations

Every presentation has the same goal: to win over your audience. 

Whether teaching something new or selling a product, a presentation attempts to convince your audience that you're trustworthy and your ideas are valid. 

When Barbara Minto worked at McKinsey & Company in the 1970s, her job was to train recruits and turn them into expert consultants in rapid time. Over the years, she created The Minto Pyramid Principle, a system for recruits to use to help structure arguments and present information to their audience. 

The Pyramid Principle condenses sentences to help a speaker sound more authoritative. Here's an example: 

The bottom section is easier to follow than the top because it follows three core rules set out in the Pyramid Principle:

  1. The idea should form a thought hierarchy
  2. Relationships between ideas and thoughts matter, so they need to be linked
  3. Governing thought combines these ideas and connects them in a concise manner

Here's what that principle looks like when it's used in a real-life scenario.

How The Boring Company used governing thought to make decisions

Several factors were considered when Elon Musk investigated how to build an underground tunnel network.

The first problem to tackle was cost reduction. Using governing thought, The Boring Company split the goal (cutting total cost by 10x) into three different areas:

Using hierarchy to structure the decision-making process makes it easier to see how each thought is related to the final goal. Each element is combined to create a governing thought at a higher level of abstraction. 

The thoughts are split to see if they are feasible, and some are eliminated. Flying cars are a safety hazard, and building more roads in Los Angeles isn't realistic. The governing thought helps lead The Boring Company to the most plausible solution: building a network of underground tunnels.

⚡ Prezent Pro Tip:
Governing thoughts should always be built around ideas, not labels or topics. Cutting the cost of tunneling is a label, but doing it per mile by more than 10x is an idea. 

The relationship between labels and ideas matters. Thoughts need to be distilled into an idea to make them worthwhile. 

The nuts and bolts of structuring effective storylines

At its heart, great business communication improves your argument. Arguments and grouping are two ways to construct a storyline for a successful business presentation.  

Let's take an in-depth look at both:

1. Logical argument

A logical argument is based on a progression of thoughts, from premise to conclusion. The argument's chain of reasoning helps each thought grow from the previous one and leads the audience to the conclusion. 

2. Logical grouping

Logical grouping combines each thought of the argument and uses them to support the speaker's overall conclusion. It allows presenters to use separate thoughts and evidence together.

The structure you use for your presentation depends on your audience:

  • Logical arguments work best when trying to persuade an audience that's resistant to your idea. It uses more of a storytelling technique to guide your audience on a journey of why you've come to a certain conclusion. But there are also downsides—audiences need to remember a lot of information and follow each step of your argument if you convince them. 
  • Logical groupings are a good choice for detailed discussions where the audience needs recommendations, not persuading. This method is less likely to overload audiences and allows speakers to emphasize individual presentation elements. Yet logical groupings create more space for debate, so this structure won't be suitable if you try to persuade an audience. 

Remember, there are only two logical ways to construct a storyline or business presentation, so choose wisely. 

How to write compelling slide titles

A slide title is much more than the first thing your audience will read on a slide. 

It's your best chance to grab their attention and set the scene for what you'll discuss in a section of your presentation. Each slide title should link to your story and conclusion to strengthen your argument.

Elon Musk used the same tactic to convince his audience that building tunnels underneath LA was a fiscally responsible idea. First, he had to prove that underground tunnels were significantly cheaper than constructing subway extensions using traditional methods. He used a logical storyline to map out his argument: 

Musk's idea was presented as a viable option by talking about a well-known problem (congestion in LA) with a solution (an underground network of tunnels). Each slide was connected to the story, allowing Musk to build on his idea and use supporting data to make his argument more convincing. 

Prezent Pro Tip: Staying consistent will help you deliver a coherent and engaging presentation. In addition to the two best practices, always write your title first (content later) and choose between sentence or title case. Finally, decide between active and passive voice before you start writing, so the presentation flows better.

Expert Corner: How Stella Low handled communication for the biggest merger in tech history

In 2015, Stella Low found herself in charge of communications for a $74 billion merger—the biggest deal in tech history. 

At the time, Low was Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Dell, and the company had just negotiated a deal to acquire EMC. Her job was to bring together around 140,000 employees across Dell and EMC and keep everyone updated on the progression of the merger. 

"There was uncertainty and all of the things you'd expect. In those times and excitement, we had to think about all our different audiences, like the press, industry analysts, financial community and of course, the employees," she says. "However, no one wants to be bored to death by communications. It's so easy to say, let's send out an email. But that's not inspiring. I don't hear anyone say I need more emails. So,  think about the different audiences and what's the best and most interesting ways to get to people."

This thinking allowed Low to reach different audiences within the companies and engage with them. For example, if sales reps were on the road and were too busy to read emails, a podcast was an easier way of delivering an update. She says it's crucial for every leader to consider their audience and use data to figure out what engagement efforts are working.

"Be creative in the way you tell those stories because it doesn't necessarily just need to be a download of information. Think about what we want to say, think about all the different audiences we want to communicate with first, and then think about the best ways to get to those audiences." 

The best presentations are convincing stories

Your audience won't sit through a 100-slide presentation if there isn't a compelling reason to do so.

Tying the presentation to a story helps you create logical arguments and makes it easier for your audience to follow along. Break down your main topics and talking points using structures, and then use arguments or grouping to make a (logical) case for your audience. 

Be prepared and choose the best presentation structure to win over your audience. 

Want to learn more about structuring presentations? Check out Prezent's detailed guide on holding an audience's attention.