Monday, July 6, 2009

Why don’t we hear more stories in presentations? Story of (lack of) storytelling

Some of the oldest surviving ideas have been passed on in the form of stories e.g. Aesop’s fables like “Fox and sour grapes” are more than 2500 years old. In fact, authors of best selling book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath offer following tip in the article: Making presentations that stick. If you use only one tip, this is the one – In a compelling presentation, stories and examples aren’t garnish, they’re the entrée. If this truth were so obvious to all, our life as listeners to various presentations would have been so much more interesting. However, most of the presentations we attend are boring. Why don’t we hear more stories in presentations? Here is a story from researcher Gary Klein that gives us an insight (source: Made to stick).

The organizer of a conference once asked Klein’s firm to sum up results of a conference. The organizer wanted a useful summary of the conference. Klein’s firm assigned one person to monitor each of the conference’s five parallel tracks. The monitors attended each panel and each time someone told a story they jotted it down. Finally the group structured and organized the stories and sent the packet to the conference organizer.

She was ecstatic. She found the packet much more vivid and useful than the typical conference takeaway: a set of dry, jargon filled abstracts. She even requested funds from her organization to convert the notes into a book. As a courtesy, she sent the summary notes to all of the conference presenters. Guess what was the response?

Presenters were furious. They were insulted to have the stories scooped out of their overall structure – they didn’t want to be remembered as people who told a bunch of stories and anecdotes. They felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a serious of recommendations, such as “Keep the lines of communication open” and “Don’t wait too long when problems are building up.”

It is as though you have built an amazing intellectual edifice and Gary’s crew plucks a few bricks from the wall and tries to pass them off as sum of all your labors. The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to transfer an edifice in a 30 or 60 minute presentation. The best you can do is to convey some building blocks. Question is, where do you pluck those blocks from? You can’t pluck building blocks from the roof which is what you are doing with recommendation like “Keep the lines of communication open”. They are too abstract.

As Heath brothers say, “Stories can almost single handedly defeat the Curse of knowledge”. It is time we learn a few tips from Aesop.

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