Giving a great presentation is really about figuring out how to tell a great story. What is the narrative of your product? Your company? Your idea?

We know that the human brain is especially attuned to stories. Author and behavioral scientist Dr. Susan Weinschenk says, “you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.” More enjoyment, deeper understanding, and longer retention? Sounds pretty much like a formula for presentation success.

That means we have to keep looking for ways to make our presentation narratives more compelling. In his classic work, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster tells us that all great narratives take us on a quest. He says there are five elements that must be present: the quester, a place to go, the stated reason to go, challenges and trials along the way, the real reason to go. These five elements can help us shape more engaging presentation content.

1. The quester

One of the first things you need to decide is who to feature as the quester of your presentation. If it’s you, you’ll be telling your story and explaining your relationship to the presentation. It might also be the audience. As a presenter, you want the audience to place themselves in your presentation. So it’s important that you help them understand how your presentation intersects with their journey. It might also be a third party who has expertise or experience with your presentation topic. This comes down to perspective. Through whose perspective will you tell the story? Most of the time, you’ll want to use the character to whom the audience will most strongly relate. One note: Foster notes that the quester doesn’t have to sign up for a journey at the beginning of the story (or of the presentation). Sometimes the journey begins without the quester realizing it, but down the road, he looks back and realizes he somehow embarked on an adventure. When you develop a narrative quest for your presentation, don’t announce it. Just start the adventure.

2. A place to go

We sometimes refer to a great narrative or speech as being “moving.” This alludes to the fact that, if the speaker has done her job, the listener should be somewhere different at the end of the presentation. It’s important that you know where that “place” is by having a clearly defined presentation objective. Taking on the quest language, you might put it in this format. During my presentation, I will take my audience from _____________ to  ______________. One such example could be: I will take my audience from being uninformed and uninterested about their life insurance options to being knowledgeable and interested in the options available to them by the end of my talk.

3. The stated reason to go

This element of the quest is the most obvious reason you are giving the presentation. It might be called the main purpose or goal, it’s what you hope to accomplish. Usually, messages fall under the category of one of these general purposes of speaking: to inform, to persuade, or to entertain. You might hope that your audience will hire your company or purchase your product. It can also be the solution part of a problem/solution format. The quester goes on a quest because there’s a problem for which he needs to find a solution. Make sure your narrative quest has a clearly defined reason for moving, changing, or setting out.

4. Challenges and trials along the way

Audience members know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You have to be upfront about the challenges of the quest in your presentation content. While you don’t want to spend too much of your overall time on the hiccups and hardships, audience members of today want speakers to be honest and vulnerable. They also want to have a chance to celebrate triumph. Harry Potter, Frodo, Anne of Green Gables, Jean Valjean. All of our favorite characters encounter trials along their quests. Without the trials, there’s not much to the narrative, right? So don’t forget the challenges have an important part to play in your presentations just like they do in literature.

5. The real reason to go

The stated reason to go (#3 in the list) answers the question of “what?” What is it that you are hoping to accomplish? However, the real reason to go answers the question “why?” Why is it important that the quester (hero, speaker, audience) embark on this quest? Why is it important that your audience listens and understands your presentation? Another word for “real” might be “underlying.” What is the underlying purpose of your presentation?

Looking at your presentation content through a quest narrative lens can help you take your audience on a truly moving journey. As you develop your next presentation, keep Foster’s 5 elements of the quest in mind. Who is on the quest? Where do they need to go? What is the reason they need to go? What challenges might they face? And what is their underlying purpose for the quest?

At Ethos3, we use research from many different fields—science and literature and psychology, just to name a few—to help us learn how to communicate better. Check out our full line of presentation resources now.


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