A Presentation without Stories is a Lecture — Lessons from TV Commercials

A presentation, a conversation or a lecture, which would you prefer to take part in? In my experience a great number of presentations in business feel far more like lectures because of the absence of stories and the essential elements of a great conversation.

My son left University almost a year ago and when I reflect on his education it seems to me as though he has spent most of his young life being lectured to. For the most part it’s served him well in terms of his academic achievements but yet I can’t help but wonder how much more engaged students and the rest of the world would be with a little storytelling.

I remember when he was little more than 4 years old and my wife and I took him with us to visit his first school just before the beginning of the new term. All of the parents and children were invited to listen to a speech given by the Headmaster in the huge assembly hall where he spoke for 40 minutes non-stop to a room full of adults and 4 year old children.

Just 10 minutes into his talk, my son sitting next to me in the front row tugged the sleeve of my jacket as he looked up at me with his hand on his forehead and a tear in his eye as he said, ‘This story is giving me headache daddy, when will it end?’

He wasn’t the only one with a headache; I suspect the entire room was subtly massaging their temples.

That was 19 years ago and still today in schools, businesses, conference and meeting rooms across the entire globe each day people are sitting in presentations wondering ‘When will it end’.

Before any of us learned to read or write we learned to connect with the world around us through stories. It goes as far back to when we lived in caves. Cave paintings dating back as far as 15,000 BC have been found telling stories of rituals, hunting practices and gifts from god.

Thousands of years later Aesop’s fables captured the imagination of thousands and are still used to teach us lessons today.

The Bible told stories, so did Shakespeare, Churchill, Martin-Luther -King, Gandhi and even one of the most admired presenters of recent times, the late Steve Jobs. In fact, for thousands of years all the great leaders and all of the great thinkers have been connecting with the world around them through stories.

Fast forward to today and even this morning whilst watching breakfast television getting ready for work I noticed all of the best commercials telling stories, of course, even that’s not new they’ve been doing it for years. In fact, some are so memorable I can still recall them decades later:

I still remember the original Heinz Baked Beans advert which left me more interested in eating beans than travelling around the world as a small boy.

There was the Cadbury’s Milk Tray advert back in the late 60’s where the mysterious Milk Tray man risked his life to hand deliver a box of chocolates. They didn’t talk about the ingredients, how many boxes they made or even why you should buy them. They simply told a 30 second story ending with a headline which said it all, ‘The lady loves Cadbury’s Milk Tray’.

How about the PG Tips commercial which told the story of the power of tea when you need it the most. I soon realised why my parents drank so much tea.

Then there was the Shake n Vac TV Ad With Jenny Logan which told a story through a catchy tune showing a lady vacuuming her carpet with ‘Shake n Vac’ which would leave her house smelling ‘clean and fresh’. I still remember the smell..

More recently there was belVita who told a 30 second story through a catchy tune showing a lady’s busy morning supported by another great headline, ‘ Steady energy all morning’.

Or the fabulous Headrin commercial where the mother sends her 3 children to school wearing a bucket, rubber glove and horses head on their heads. The headline, ‘Parents in the know protect and go.’

As someone who grew up with a family dog and still loves dogs even the advert I saw this morning told a powerful story which connected with me in a big way.

Next time you sit in front of the television rather than fast forward through the commercials or head out to make a cup of tea take a few moments to see how memorable they are through the power of story.

Stories can help us in so many ways especially when it comes to presenting our ideas with impact and making our message more memorable. A good story well told can animate and bring a message to life, teach us lessons, give us insight, entertain us and engage us.

Most importantly, stories connect us to the speaker and give listeners a reason to care about and remember what you are saying.

We all crave stories and we all have them to tell so share yours the next time you present.

A presentation without stories really is a lecture and nobody likes to be lectured. Adopting the following principles each of these adverts have demonstrated so beautifully for decades will serve you extremely well.

Be clear and focused

Start with a very strong, simple, clear and compelling message:

‘Beans meanz Heinz’

‘The lady loves Cadbury’s Milk Tray’

‘It’s the tea you can really taste’

‘Do the Shake n Vac and put the freshness back’

‘Steady energy all morning long’

‘Parents in the know protect and go’

‘Hundreds of dogs are still waiting for their special someone’

For a business presentation the principle is exactly the same. Find your key message that you will build your story upon.

Perhaps it’s:

‘Our software gives our customers access to their records which save you time and increases margins by 5%.’

‘Third-quarter numbers are down; and to stay in the game every department needs to support the sales initiative.’

‘How we will improve efficiency by 10% in the next 6 months’

‘Why we are letting our customers down and how to fix it quickly’

‘ The recruitment strategy we need to attract the very best people’

‘Let’s stop saying we need to communicate better and do it, here’s how.’

Be real and imaginative

In the Heinz advert we are reminded how adventurous young children are but also how fickle they can be.

The team at Cadburys Chocolate remind us how history is full of stories of men doing whatever it takes to capture the heart of the woman he loves. Most men won’t be tempted to run across a moving train of course but it does spark the imagination.

PG Tips understand that tea is one of the UK’s favourite drinks but also know that simply showing a couple of people sitting drinking tea would be boring to watch.

The Shake n Vac marketing team begin immediately by reminding us that bad smells can emanate from our carpets and they give a couple of examples. Everyone knows the solution and the vast number of carpet cleaning products that are available but having a woman dance and sing a catchy tune as she vacuums hers is far more memorable.

belVita also understand the power of mirroring human behaviour but doing so with energy, a catchy tune and a clear message that will make people who don’t have time for breakfast see things a little differently.

Head lice presents a significant challenge for parents and their children and the team at Hedrin remind us of the issue in a memorable and lighthearted way.

Even if you are not a dog lover I’m sure you’ll agree that the Dogs Trust advert is hard to dismiss without feeling something first.

If you are preparing to present soon please remember that a presentation without stories really does sound and feel far more like a lecture.

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

Image: Courtesy of flickr.com



Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.