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Presentation vs. Storytelling: How to Elevate Your Message

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Star-crossed lovers, good vs. evil, heart-stopping action, a surprising twist, an ending that makes you cry… Powerful storytelling draws you in, but it’s not just for fiction and films. Storytelling can help you elevate your influence as a designer and inspire action in your organization. 

What’s the difference between a presentation and storytelling? A presentation might look like sharing facts or a list of deliverables. A good story contains essential elements, like a main character your audience can root for and tension to keep them engaged. 

Components of a Good Story

In an effective story, you’ll see: 

  1. A main character: All good stories make you care about someone or something—and most stories can be told from multiple perspectives. You want to create a character people can understand.
  2. Challenge: Once you introduce your protagonist, you’ll share the problem they’re facing. This can be an internal or external challenge. The audience should connect with the emotional aspects of the story, and more abstractly, it should raise unanswered questions that create an internal conflict in the audience. They want to help the main character find a solution.
  3. Rising action: Here’s how the challenge impacts the main character’s life day by day, hour by hour, or year by year. This action—we think of it as the “ifs, ands, and buts”—builds to the climax.
  4. Climax: This is the tipping point for the character in their journey.  You can think of it as “the big but.” All the rising action has been leading to this point where a decision needs to be made or a change needs to happen.
  5. Resolution: The main character is finally able to achieve their goals.

Presentation vs. Storytelling in Action

Remember: A story isn’t just a list of benefits or outcomes. So, how do you elevate your message from a presentation to a story? By following the formula above to show rather than tell. Here are two sample scenarios:

Example One: A Grocery Delivery Service

A presentation: Your user, a busy working parent, turns to takeout or frozen dinners because they don’t have time for meal planning and shopping. With a grocery delivery service, they can quickly and easily choose the food they want and have it delivered to their doorstep within hours, making it easier to enjoy a homecooked meal with their family.

A possible story arc: In a story using the “ideal future state” arc, the ultimate message is: “Here’s the way life could be,” “This is how we could make our customers’ experience better,” or “Here are some ways we could be more effective.”

The story: Maria is a single working mom with two kids ages 12 and 14. Her time is limited, her resources are stretched, and she’s tired. She struggles to find enough time in the day to shop for groceries or plan healthy meals. Sometimes that means frozen dinners or a quick stop for fast food. Throw a busy soccer season into the mix, and Maria is running from one after-school practice to a game across town—and, of course, her son forgot his cleats! 

The issue comes to a head at the  grocery store on the way home from the game. They get there just after closing, and the next morning everyone is grumpy without their favorite cereal. Maria’s had it. 

Then, a fellow mom recommends a solution: a grocery delivery service. Less stress, easier to plan home-cooked meals, fewer impulse purchases, more time with her kids and no more grumpy mornings.  

Scenario Two: An Annual Review

A presentation: You’re a designer, and you’re up for a promotion. At your annual review, you give your boss a list of the projects you completed this year and highlight the skills you gained. 

A possible story arc: In this instance, the designer chooses the “challenge/opportunity” story arc to highlight a specific project. In this arc, the main message conveys “Here’s what we learned,” “Here’s what we provided,” or “Here’s how I succeeded.”

The story: Meet Kyle, a dentist who owns his own small practice. He doesn’t have the budget for an expensive new billing system. But his team simply can’t continue to do so much of their work manually. There has to be a better way. At the peak of his frustration, Kyle is ready to give up and go to work for a larger practice, leaving behind his dream of entrepreneurship and all that he’s built to date.

Enter our new product—a streamlined platform with a user-friendly interface that dentists can use to automate scheduling and billing. Our team was able to design just the right solution for Kyle’s problem. Today, as a result of our work, Kyle and his team spend less time on paperwork, have a more consistent cash flow, better customer service and, as a result, a healthier business overall. And I can continue supporting clients just like Kyle in a leadership role on the UX team.

To break through and help your audience understand and connect with the messages you want to relay, transforming them into dynamic, relatable stories is a critical skill for any designer.

* * *

Want to discover the elements of a strategic story and get hands-on practice structuring your own design narratives? Sign up for Pragmatic Institute’s Influence Through Storytelling. This course teaches designers how to craft narratives that advocate for user interests, align stakeholders around a common purpose, and inspire teams to action.

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  • Pragmatic Institute is the transformational partner for today’s businesses, providing immediate impact through actionable and practical training for product, design and data teams. Our courses are taught by industry experts with decades of hands-on experience, and include a complete ecosystem of training, resources and community. This focus on dynamic instruction and continued learning has delivered impactful education to over 200,000 alumni worldwide over the last 30 years.

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