It came in a jug, just like a gallon of milk. No fancy label, no fancy cap. Just a regular old jug.
But inside was liquid from a place that very few humans have ever, or will ever visit: water from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. With this jug, I could test my sensor to see if it worked the same with seawater as it did with the boring old saltwater that I mixed up in the lab every week. Perhaps one day a sensor like mine would be sticking off a submarine robot, deep under the surface, collecting data. But it didn’t have to be a fantastical thought: If I can get this sensor to work, someday this technology could help other scientists better track the ocean currents, predict the weather, and understand climate more.
Days like that kept me working on my science.
When most of us speak with others, we tell stories. We remember stories easily and we can tell them in ways that catch more interest. Lists are efficient, sure, but the fact that we have to write them down tells us how forgettable lists are.
Try this: think of a time that you went to a grocery store to get a lot of things and something strange happened. Have the memory? Okay. Could you tell someone else what happened? In the telling, can you liven it up to pull them into the moment? Could you imagine them telling someone else the story? Great!
Now, can you recall absolutely everything that you bought on that trip and whether what you bought exactly lined up with what you intended to buy? Less confident?
Stories captivate attention and memory. Lists are forgettable.
The goal of a presentation is to activate audiences. From the simplest information brief to the greatest motivational speech, presentations should be delivered with the goal of giving audiences something to use in their future. This requires using techniques that captivate attention so that audiences will remember what they heard and/or saw.
Stories are essential to delivering effective presentations. Regardless of the topic, packaging at least one story into your talk will make your presentation more interesting and thus memorable.
But how do you choose a story to make sure that your audience remembers what you want them to remember? Ask yourself:
What do you want your audience to be talking about after your talk?
The answer to that question is the information that you need to convey in a story. Why? Because in order to make sure that your audience talks about what you want them to talk about it, you need to capture their attention with memorable content. A story does exactly that.
When and how should you use this story? Ideally, you should open with it. Bring them into your presentation with a memorable tidbit that takes advantage of when most of the audience is focused on you. If anyone’s attention drifts, at least you delivered the important content up front for all to remember.
Do not worry if the story is only lightly related to rest of the talk, especially if you’re giving a technical presentation. Also, deliver your story as though you’re speaking with people that you know. Stories tend to use different words and tempos which adds to the engagement. If it’s a story that you’ve told a lot, you’ll probably deliver it in a more conversational tone, and that’s perfectly fine. Possibly better even, depending on your audience. They will curl their attention in as you talk with them, not at them. Exactly the conditions for the content to be better remembered and told again to others.
Including a good story in your talk could have people that you might never meet talking about your ideas.
Say for example that you wanted to give the sense of what it was like to be a scientist in graduate school. You could open with a story on how mundane research has moments of wondrous motivation … like I did at the beginning of this post.
After all, science is done by humans and humans are natural storytellers. Anything that humans do can be transformed into a story that is easily told to other humans. Even if you think your content is so dull that no one could ever be interested. Think of this: if your work is so dull, then why do you keep doing it? There’s a story in that!
If you’re giving a talk, that tells me that you have something that you hope at least someone in that audience will find interesting. If you captivate that one person’s attention with memorable content, they might tell someone else. That doubles your reach. Possibly even more. Now people are talking about what you are talking about.
So tell them a story.