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Persuasion Theory: Power of Storytelling


I’ve always found that presentations are most effective when they are heavy on images, have just enough content to hint to the audience as to the context, but mostly rely on the speaker to tell the story.

Think about some of the best presentations you’ve seen.  These presentations are often based on slide decks with more images than words. They use anecdotes to make points.

Odwyer’s PR published a link in its daily newsletter to a Wall Street Journal piece titled: To Persuade People, Tell Them a Story. The article recounts the tale of a marketer pitching a high-powered CEO for a research budget with a 30 slide presentation.  The CEO paid no attention to the slides – rather he focused on the speaker.

“The experience prompted Mr. Smith to alter his approach. These days, he uses far fewer slides and a lot more anecdotes, turning his presentations into stories his audience can relate to instead of lecturing them on what needs changing. As a result, Mr. Smith says, he’s subsequently had much greater success getting his ideas across. In four subsequent presentations to Mr. Lafley and his team, they’ve followed along more closely, asked more questions and given better feedback, says Mr. Smith.”

Painful as it might be, think back for a moment to the first nationally televised debate between the President and his opponent.  Hands down Romney won; he handed such a sound victory even the publications conservatives classify as liberal named the red candidate the winner.

Why?  He had anecdotes. And lots of them.  The President answered every question or opposing point by rattling off statistics.  Useful, interesting, but wholly unmemorable. By contrast, Romney began every response with something like, “When I was on the campaign trail, I talked to a young mother who couldn’t find a job and she said…”

He had a story. This resonated with the audience and people remembered the stories as the Journal pointed out:

“Move beyond facts and figures, which aren’t as memorable as narratives, says Cliff Atkinson, a communications consultant from Kensington, Calif., and author of ‘Beyond Bullet Points.’

Many people in business think raw data is persuasive. But when you’re dealing with people from other departments and in different fields who don’t understand how you got that data, you can lose them pretty quickly.”

The Journal article closes with a piece of advice:

“Whatever you do, don’t preface your story with an apology or ask permission to tell it. Be confident that your story has enough relevance to be told and just launch into it, says Mr. Smith. Confidence and authority, he says, help to sell the idea to your audience.”

The reality is somewhere in the middle and largely depends on the audience.

PR pros today are likely to need both anecdotes and data.  Put the data on the slide for sure, but be sure to articulate a memorable story.  A client might ask for a copy of your slide deck by email later, but they’ll be able to retell your story immediately following your presentation.

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Photo credit: Flickr, David Veksler, Campfire songs and stories (CC BY 2.0)

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