12/05/2014 12:41 EST | Updated 02/04/2015 05:59 EST

Is "Your Story" Helping or Hurting Your Presentation?

Without a thorough understanding of your audience, an understanding of who they are, what their challenges are, and why they've come to hear you speak, your story -- and your speech -- will fall short of having the impact that can really engage them. The best content, the best stories, the best experience means nothing if the audience doesn't relate to it.


Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it "to whom it may concern" - Ken Haemer

Several months ago, a man who was very successful in business was invited to speak to a group of entrepreneurs -- all women -- to share the story of his success. I attended, and was very eager to hear what he was going to say. And when he started speaking, he was so engaging, so full-of-life, and so charismatic. His stories were fun and interesting to listen to, he told them with excitement and energy, and the audience loved it.

But after several minutes, the audience started fading. The stories, while told with the same intensity, smile, and enthusiasm, just didn't hit the mark anymore. As I felt the energy in the room fade, I wondered...

"What went wrong?"

The Potential Problem with Stories

Stories add colour and life to presentations, make them more entertaining to listen to, and can help you engage, connect with and captivate your audience. On the flip side, they can also be self-serving, cause you to go off on tangents, and create a disconnect with your audience. Without a thorough understanding of your audience, an understanding of WHO they are, WHAT their challenges are, and WHY they've come to hear you speak, your story -- and your speech -- will fall short of having the impact that can really engage them. The best content, the best stories, the best experience means nothing if the audience doesn't RELATE to it.

So going back to uber-successful dude: What went wrong? I mean, he had an authentic, engaging energy about him. A definite plus. His stories were actually quite interesting. Another plus. He was really passionate about the work he did. Awesome. But an outstanding presentation filled with interesting stories needs to be sustained not only by energy, but by structured content that's relevant to the audience.

So here's what went wrong:

1. They couldn't relate. The audience was composed of entrepreneurs, all women, many of whom were balancing their businesses, their families, their friends, their homes, their health, and other demands on their time. They were, in all likelihood, not always able to bring their businesses to its fullest potential because of these many demands, despite the passion and love for what they do. So maybe it was when he was talking about leaving his family to live in another city for a couple of years, hopping on a plane to Asia with three hours notice, or being able to jump every opportunity thrown at him, most women in the audience couldn't relate to the "drop everything and go" stories. And once they couldn't relate, it was a slippery slope to disengagement.

2. The I/You ratio wasn't balanced. There was a lot of "I did this," "I went here," "I worked there." Not a lot of "you" until the very end, when he left us with "three pieces of advice that I learned along the way that could really help you build your business." Which was actually quite valuable, but they only came all the way at the end. Keeping in mind that any audience is always asking "What's in it for me?" and "Why should I care?" it would have been very beneficial if he scattered "you-related" information throughout the presentation.

3. He was the hero of all the stories. Just about every decision he made turned out well. Great people came his way. Great opportunities came his way. Then even BETTER opportunities came his way. Stories about success on top of success can be a little less engaging than those that share some of the struggles or challenges faced along the way. What mistakes can he share that we can all learn from? Where are the juicy details of difficulties that he faced and possibly overcame, or things that didn't go as planned (but maybe turned out OK anyway...or at least provided a great learning opportunity)?

Ultimately, uber-successful dude was invited to speak to "tell his story." And we WANT to hear his story. We WANT to hear how he got to where his is in life. His was a real success story, and he had a LOT of knowledge and experience to share with those who hadn't yet attained his level of success.

So what COULD he have done differently, using those SAME stories?

So let's say he shared the SAME stories -- because after all, his stories are his stories, and they reflect how he got to where he is in life -- but halfway through the speech he said something like this:

"I know that many of you in the audience aren't necessarily positioned to follow a career path like I had. I was lucky to have my wife and kids support me when I had to live in another city, and they accepted that I wouldn't be there for many holidays and weekends. I was lucky to be able to hop on a plane at a moment's notice. I was lucky to be given so many opportunities. But many of you might not be in that same position, and I get that. But whatever your current situation, or however you're balancing all the aspects of your life, there are certain things that I've learned along the way that were CRUCIAL in to growing my business and attracting opportunities, regardless of whatever else might have been pulling at my attention at the time. So I'll share the top three things I learned along the way that you can use in your business, no matter where you're at or what other priorities you're balancing in your life."

Had he just acknowledging that, it could have been an amazingly effective way to share his story, relate to the audience, address the "what's in it for me?" and "why should I care?" questions, recognize our life situations, challenges and motivations, and keep us engaged the whole way through.

You can stay true to your long as you stay true to delivering the right kind of value, and the right kind of relevance, for your audience.


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