15 January 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 16: Tell a story

Everybody loves a good story. In a very real sense, it's how we make sense of our lives.

Presentations are little one act plays. Anyone giving a presentation should think about who to make it a better story. And that may be easier than you think.

I think there are three story elements can be meaningfully incorporated into almost any presentation.

Character. Who is this presentation about? In a lot of cases, it's about you, so you should try to give the audience a sense of who you are. Your foibles, motivations, background, and so on. A long while back, I read Joe (Babylon 5) Straczynski creator describing a story:
As someone (E.M. Forster - ZF) noted, "The king died, and the queen died" is not a plot or a story; "The king died, and the queen died of grief" IS a story, IS a plot; there is connective tissue.
We recognize "The queen died of grief" is a more effective story, because we get a sense of relationship and therefore character.

Conflict. It's the essence of drama. Chris Carter (The X-Files) was once as saying that all you need for drama are two people, in a room, with different opinions. Any time there are differing opinions, you have the start of a story.

Mystery. We love mysteries, as one of the marks of the best stories is to be asking, "What's going to happen next?" Create puzzles for your audience, and bring them along for the solution. This is where scientific talks can really excel, because the whole scientific process is aimed at uncovering a mystery. Unfortunately, scientific presentations rarely do excel at this, because people are often so poor at laying out why we should care. Here's where understanding character (who the puzzle matters to) and conflict (do people have different ideas about the puzzle solution?) can help bring forth a greater level of intrigue and desire for people to know what will happen next.

In that vein, below is a presentation from J.J. Abrams (creator of the TV series Alias, Lost, and producer of the upcoming film Cloverfield, which I am eagerly anticipating) talking about storytelling and mysteries. I give him minus ten points for veering around a bit from topic to topic, but plus several hundred for energy, humour, enthusiasm, passion, and insight.

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