How story arcs help you design a better presentation.

Will you choose the standard boring structure or challenge yourself to a better presentation?

Infographic designed by Maya Eilam

Standard template: Topic, subtopic, blah blah, blah.

Every day you’re exposed to presentations and speakers in meetings, at conferences, in workshops, and events of all shapes and sizes.

Do you remember the key message of any of these? Most of the time we forget the person’s name let alone the statistics, data-points, or formula they share even if these items can change our lives for the better.

I know you don’t want your message to be lost in the sea of data points. So what can you do?

Go from a boring, structured, bullet point data heavy presentations that put people to sleep (sometimes even the speaker) and transform your talks to have impact.

Whether you’re trying to get someone to take action, approve a project, buy your stuff, or simply think differently about something – your best bet is to reach them through emotions and data together.

How do you blend emotion and data in a way that makes sense?

Through storytelling.

I’m not trying to make preparing for your talk more complicated – just the opposite.

If you start with one of the 6 story arcs discovered through data mining, you’ll have a predefined structure. One that will resonate with your audience and help you build a narrative around your data.

I’ve worked with scientists, engineers, financial executives, and entrepreneurs – all who have mountains of data to share. I can tell you this approach worked for them and it can work for you.

I’m not asking you to be a professional storyteller or to minimize the importance of your data. I am asking you to understand that your audience does not have all of the history and knowledge of living with your data that you do. You need to take us on a journey so we understand your data’s importance and meaning.

What are the 6 story arcs?

You data lovers will be happy to know the story arc has recently seen an increase in popularity because of an interesting data mining project from Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory. (a really cool resource)

This study looked at the emotional mood changes within a story which resulted in the following 6 common story arcs (shapes of stories):

  • Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune. Example: The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1308-1320)
  • Riches to rags – a fall from good to bad, a tragedy. Example: Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert, 1856)
  • Icarus – a rise then a fall in fortune. Example: Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare, 1597)
  • Oedipus – a fall, a rise then a fall again. Example: Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
  • Cinderella – rise, fall, rise. Example: Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)
  • Man in a hole – fall, rise. Example: Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

I know you love data so you can see more about these individual story arcs in this BBC article. And if that’s not enough, take a look at the actual data for specific books! (Updated 2020 May: This information is no longer available.)

It’s not as important to use a particular arc, but rather to understand that stories have shapes! As Kurt Vonnegut explains in this video.

Why Story Shapes Matter to Your Presentation.

The reason your audience stays engaged is because you are taking them on an emotional journey represented by the shapes of these story arcs. The contrast between the emotions (ups and downs) are what create tension. This tension is what keeps us (your audience) interested in what’s going to happen next.

There’s a reason you’re putting this presentation together. And you need to stand out from all the other information competing for your audience’s attention! Using the story arc will help keep your audience engaged long enough to get your point across.

Questions to Get You Started

Question 1. What do you want to get out of this talk? What’s your objective? Do you want to be seen as an expert? Do you want your project approved? Do you want to let your management know your team is doing an amazing job?

Question 2. How do you want your audience to be different after they hear your talk? Do you want them to take action? Do you want them to know something they didn’t know before? This could be related to question 1 but may also be different.

Question 3. What does your audience need to experience during your talk in order for number 2 to happen? Often this includes taking your audience on the journey you took to get to the conclusion you have with your data. Not every detail, but the high level journey.

Question 4. What type of journey is it? Which story arc aligns with what you experienced? Your journey may not align to one specific arc, but they are great templates to get your started.

Question 5. What events along your journey map to the story arc you selected? Identify not only the data points, but the emotional elements that align with the events.

There are ups and downs of the mood a good story takes – even one related to your specific data. These questions are a way to get started.

Beyond Story Shapes

Your story can be as simple or complex as needed to get your point across. The emotional arcs are but one layer. The narrative your data tells can be even more impactful if it follows the hero’s journey.

Storytelling in business is different than in literature. Translating key story elements into your presentation is one of the many applications for stories.

If you’re ready to take the story challenge, you can:

Learn about the 8 story elements for business and how to craft your own core stories in Everyday Storytelling for Success.

Hire me as your coach to help you design your talk or presentation!

Now it’s time for you to go on an adventure, with your data. Which path will you take?

Infographic designed by Maya Eilam:

Note: if you like the infographic from Maya Eilam I suggest checking out her work and consider buying a print!