How Storytelling Makes a Presentation More Influential

May 18, 2017    |    Brad Holst

Has this ever happened to you?You’re presenting an idea—one you know is really good. You worked hard preparing your content and you’ve got the facts down. You’re delivering them clearly and concisely. The business value of your idea is undeniable. The data clearly supports it.

And, yet, the decision makers you’re trying to influence show only mild interest. Ultimately, your recommendation is NOT approved. You’re left frustrated and wondering what you could have done differently.

Can you relate?

I recently delivered a 90-minute keynote talk on the power of storytelling to 300 employees of a well-known, fast-growing tech company. When I asked them the same question, nearly every head in the room nodded in unison.

When this happens, it’s quite possible that your presentation content, while rational and logical, suffered from a lack of memorable, emotionally connected storytelling.

You spoke to your audience’s brains but didn’t connect with their hearts.  In turn, they never experienced that gut feeling of “Yes, this is exactly what needs to happen—and now, not later.”


What is storytelling?
The word “story” can be used to describe a wide variety of business communications. What I'm talking about here is classical storytelling: The kind of story that, if you were telling it to a small child, would start with “Once upon a time....” 

In the business world, this usually means a short human-driven narrative designed to emotionally connect with and influence the listener, usually told in about 2 minutes or less.


Fire ignited our love of storytelling.
Before humans learned to control fire, nights were cold and frightening. Fire gave us not only warmth and protection—but also meaning and connection. After a hard day of hunting and gathering, we huddled around the fire to share stories.

Anthropologists believe we started telling stories around ancient campfires some 400,000 years ago. Storytelling connected humans to one another, to their histories and to their future.

Stories informed, educated, and enlightened. The ideas we shared through storytelling spread innovation and accelerated the adoption of change.


Our brains are hard-wired for storytelling.
Neuroscience tells us that storytelling is not something we humans just happen to do—it's part of what makes us human. Countless studies confirm that our brains are hard-wired to receive information in the form of storytelling.

Storytelling speaks to the two systems in our brains that together process information and ultimately make decisions:

Neocortex: This is the home of high-level thinking—logic, analysis, problem-solving, academic learning, language, and short-term memory.

Limbic: This is the home of feelings and emotions. This is where we feel things in our heart and in our gut. This is where decision making happens. A part of the limbic system, the hippocampus is associated with long-term memory.

All too often, business recommendations target the neocortex but ignore the limbic system. This is why so many good ideas fail to win the hearts (and minds!) of others.


Storytelling takes your ideas to places you can’t go.
Because emotionally connected stories are memorable (thanks hippocampus!), people tend share them.

It’s almost as if people can’t resist sharing a good story with others. If your story is emotional and memorable (and ideally told in two minutes or less), your ideas will spread faster and to an exponentially larger audience.

What’s really cool about this is that when people remember a story, they also tend to remember the key facts connected with it—and will share those too.


Observe and learn from the great storytellers.
All humans tell stories, but few are really great storytellers.  And the ones who are, tend to be very successful.

What do Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Howard Schultz, Tony Robbins, Peter Gruber, and Richard Branson all have in common?  They all use their expertise in storytelling to differentiate themselves and their ideas. They successfully influence others by speaking not just to the head, but also to the heart.

I encourage you to learn from them, and other great storytellers, by watching them in action on sites like YouTube and TED.com. Observe how they craft their stories, where they place them in their presentations, and how they deliver them.

Experience the impact for yourself. Then, start to add storytelling to your own presentations. See how it enhances your ability to influence people and outcomes. I suspect you’ll be happily surprised.


Storytelling may be an art, but there’s also a science to it. 
If you find yourself struggling with how to tell a great story, know this: storytelling is a skill that anyone can learn.

To better understand the science behind what great storytellers seem to know intuitively, download the whitepaper: Storytelling Essentials. And to help you become a better storyteller, watch this Harvard Business Publishing video.



Looking for a fun, high-impact session at your next leadership offsite, sales kickoff, or annual all-hands meeting?  Schedule a Storytelling Session with Mandel—and help your team become more influential by harnessing the epic power of stories. Contact us to learn how.