Go Deeper with Your Story

At SXSW last month, I attended several presentations that were well practiced but dull. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the topics, the slides were decent, and the presenters communicated their points clearly. Each time, it took me a bit to put my finger on what made them dull presentations. The audience takeaways weren’t original or useful. The points the speakers were making were too obvious, which made the whole presentations trite. This was unfortunate, because the projects these speakers had created were truly incredible. Just a little reworking of the material could have turned these uninspiring presentations into riveting ones, .

If you’re preparing a presentation and are looking for the audience takeaways (i.e. the lessons you wish to impart), don’t opt for the surface lessons. Go deeper. Way deeper. And make it personal too. What’s something that people don’t know or think about, but could really use, something that will directly help them in some way?

For example, if you’re telling a story about the troubles you experienced when creating or launching a project, don’t tell the audience to stick with it or work hard. That’s nothing new, nor is it memorable. Instead, go deeper. Maybe talk about how sticking with it and working hard got the project done, sure, but it also impacted your relationships with your spouse and children, and after the project you needed to spend extra time with them to make up for being gone for so long. Maybe mention a tool, method, or strategy that helped your kids understand why the project was so important or that helped your team members know when to go home because they’d worked enough that day.

Also, “Here’s what we did” is not a compelling talk. A good speaker will only include relevant details and anecdotes. Stuff important to the story. Not your story, but the story. Again, go deeper. What lessons did you really learn? How did you grow? How could that lesson or growth be relevant to the audience? What is that story?

For example, if you’re telling a story about how you started a nonprofit that, say, dug wells in Africa in a new way and it changed people’s lives, don’t just tell us what happened. As in, “First, we got the idea. Then we learned how to make the wells. Then we got some locals to help us build the wells. Then we taught them how to build them on their own without our help. Now the locals have new wells and a thriving well-digging business.” Even filling in the details of that story isn’t interesting. Instead, tell us why it’s important to let the locals have agency in building the wells themselves. Or perhaps how you were humbled into understanding that the locals understood their village, watershed, and economy better than any outsider could. Or even how your experience in Africa taught you how important water conservation is in your hometown; that the experience inspired you to get a PhD in Environmental Science so you can research even better ways to pump, store, and move water; and that you never would have made your discoveries if you hadn’t listened to the real underlying problems the African villagers shared with you about their issues keeping water clean and safe during floods.

I just made up that story and lesson, though it is loosely based on a couple presentations I saw at SXSW. Regardless, you can see how much more compelling a story like that would be compared with simply telling the chronological facts of your time building a nonprofit in Africa.

What are the deeper lessons learned and original thoughts on the story in your presentation? That’s what people come to hear.