Posted by: Bill von Achen | July 4, 2011

The Importance of Story-Telling

Two weeks ago, I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, attending the 15th International Conference on Thinking, and talking with business leaders, researchers and teachers from around the world about the insights I’ve gained about thinking from 15 plus years of experience in facilitating CEO peer groups.  It was a great conference and a rich learning experience, and I’ll be sharing in future e-mails some of the many things I learned.

Today, however, I want to talk about the art of presentation and the importance of story-telling.  Throughout our travels in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland (which is technically part of the United Kingdom), we rediscovered the long-standing importance of story-telling to Irish heritage and culture.  We found it in the wonderful museum guard in the National Gallery in Dublin, who responded to a simple query with wonderful stories about the Queen’s recent visit.  We found it in the Catholic taxi driver from East Belfast who drove us through the Catholic and Protestant areas around the city and told us illuminating anecdotes about Belfast’s troubled past and uncertain future.  And we found it even among the wait staff in every bar and restaurant we visited, who regaled us with stories about their families in the United States as if we were old friends,   

Against this rich, colorful backdrop, I was struck with the uniform drabness of the presentations at the Conference.  By that, I’m not referring to the content of the presentations (which ranged from good to over-the-top outstanding), but to the unimaginative use of presentation tools.  Of the 12 to 15 different presentations I attended during the week, only one presenter used Prezi (, the new multidimensional tool for PowerPoint that engages viewers in an unexpected and potentially ground-breaking way.  The rest (including me!) used plain-old PowerPoint (POPP!), which more often served as a crutch for the speaker than a tool to effectively illuminate important concepts for the audience.

(Interestingly, the most compelling presentation was the keynote given by famed educator Edward De Bono.  DeBono used a decidedly low-tech overhead projector, and hand-drew dozens of simple but rich illustrations throughout his 45 minute presentation that amplified his key points as he talked!)

It’s a shame, really, when smart people with so many important things to say end up reading the content on their PowerPoint slides.  We have important stories to tell.  But our use of conventional presentation tools reduces the power and resonance of those stories, and lulls our audiences to sleep in the process.

Upon my return from Ireland, I had lunch with a client who raved about a keynote address given at a recent marketing conference by Nancy Duarte, who runs a presentation consultancy in California.  Nancy’s book, Resonance, addresses this very point about the importance of story-telling in helping to connect people with your ideas.  You can learn more about Nancy and Resonance at

Tools like Prezi and books like Resonance are great resources to spark our thinking about how we can use story-telling to more effectively communicate our ideas.  But what else can we do to become better story tellers?  What tools and techniques can we use to fully engage our audiences?  What’s worked well for you, and what can be improved?  Share your thoughts and ideas by posting your comments here.  Thanks!

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