The Science Behind Presentation Storytelling

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Ever wondered why some decks drift away on the flotsam of your brain brine the moment the final slide fades to black, and some presentations manage to carve their messaging directly onto the pristine pages of your long-term memory? That’s the science of storytelling, yo.

The science of storytelling

As humans, we’re hard-wired for storytelling. Stories foster connection and help us to meaningfully share our human wisdom. (We go into that in more detail about that here.)

If you look at the bigger picture, you can see that storytelling is perhaps one of the crucial components facilitating our evolution into the humans we are today.

Our ancestors used stories to teach and collaborate effectively, to guide younger generations into becoming valuable members of society, and share wisdom between tribes. Dive into this article from Jeffrey Kluger to learn more about the true evolutionary benefits of becoming an expert storyteller.

An interesting thought experiment, led by some clever people attempting to understand why humans are so unequivocally compelled to create and enjoy stories, is Literary Darwinism. Read this brief overview to learn more. (Feel free to skip down to the next section if you couldn’t give two figs about weird literary theories.)

What is Literary Darwinism?

Here’s a little story for you.

Once upon a time, a group of scholars, deeply fascinated by evolution, pondered its connection with literature. They hypothesised that stories, like species, evolve and adapt over time.

While they eagerly attempted to share their findings, **tense music plays** Critics had something to say about all this.

The Critics argued that Literary Darwinism reduces literature to a deterministic and mechanistic process that ignores the agency and creativity of authors throughout history. The Literary Darwinists defended their theory, insisting that it wasn’t prescriptive and formulaic but rather a handy lens to see how literature has functioned in the world.

Everybody continued to argue and will probably continue to argue forever and ever because the thing they’re arguing about can never be “proven” one way or the other. The end.

Seriously, though. We think Literary Darwinism is a fascinating avenue of mental musing. Here’s the foundational belief:


All knowledge about human behaviour, including the products of the human imagination, can and should be subsumed within the evolutionary perspective

Put simply, Literary Darwinism is studying how evolution and human nature have influenced the development and interpretation of literature.

You might wonder what this has to do with presentations. Admittedly, it’s not instantly applicable, it’s just yet another big of proof, as if one were needed, that the most crucial aspect of nailing your next deck is to get the story right. Because stories are the backbone of human connection. They’re what boost the emotion within your presentation, which drives engagement. Learn to the science of storytelling in your deck and you’ll begin to reap the benefits immediately.

Emotional connection is priceless

Emotions drive human connection. And emotions are how your audience are making all their decisions. (Even the ones that look purely rational.)

Told consistently, accessibly and empathetically, presentation stories do more than entertain. They:

  • Humanise your brand and forge a bond between you and your audience
  • Demo the depth of your understanding of your audience’s hopes and fears
  • Vocalise your audience’s challenges, and the challenges facing their industry
  • Draw an emotionally-charged line between their pain point and your perfect solution

Achieving all this can elevate your pitch, convince any investor, put your products on the map and captivate a conference audience. Or whatever else you’re trying to get your deck to do.

And that emotion isn’t actually all that hard to find. Unlocking it starts with understanding the story you’re telling, inside and out. Get a detailed idea of the emotional high notes you’re going to hit and the threatening, villainous low notes you’re reaching for to make storifying simple.

Once you’ve got all that to hand, it can still feel tricky to organise and digest your story unless you make use of a solid framework. And the easiest means of doing exactly that? Yep, it’s storytelling.

The science of storytelling: narrative arcs

A story arc describes the trajectory of a story from beginning to end. There are six that we use, which are outlined in this blog post. Here they are in a neat little list:

  1. The Hero’s Journey
  2. Overcoming the Monster
  3. Rags to Riches
  4. In Medias Res
  5. Sparklines
  6. Man in a Hole

We’re releasing a series of articles over the coming months looking at each arc in detail. Broadly, though, they’re all subtly different variations of the classic three-act story structure. Each arc involves a Hero, a Villain that Hero must overcome, and a triumphant resolution that brings about a transformation.

The effectiveness of story arcs lies in the way they build anticipation, tension and resolution – ensuring audience engagement and emotional investment.

Because scientific research has shown that well-told stories light up those areas of the brain associated with empathy, social cognition, and reward processing. Even cooler than that (fairly predictable) neurological result is the fact that stories literally change our brains.

The hard science of storytelling

21 students were involved in a 19-day experiment, over the course of which they read Pompeii by Robert Harris. First, daily fMRI scans setup a baseline resting result over five days. Then, over the next nine evenings, the students were given passages of the book to read. Each morning they completed a quiz to ensure they’d read the material, and their brains were then scanned again in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all the reading material, the students then underwent another five days of daily fMRI scans in a resting state.

On the mornings after reading a passage, even though the students weren’t actively reading the book whilst being scanned, the fMRI showed “shadow activity” in the left temporal cortex of the brain. That’s the bit we use for understanding language, learning and remembering verbal information.

These neurological shifts persisted in all five scans in the days after reading the novel, which means that they’re not just an immediate reaction – reading novels literally changes our brains long-term.

Narrative transportation

That same study on how novels affect the brain had a secondary result too. As well as activity in the left temporal cortex, there was also “heightened connectivity… in the central sulcus of the brain”, which is related to our primary motor cortex. This is the bit of an fMRI that lights up if the subject is asked to think about physical movement whilst being scanned. That fMRI activity is down to something called narrative transportation.

In fiction, narrative transportation is what makes narrative arcs so danged effective. Narrative transportation is that feeling you get when you’re so engrossed in a story that your mind is transported to a different world entirely. The same brain activity shows up when fMRI subjects read metaphors (especially when the metaphors are very tactile). That means just a few tactile images across a presentation could be the difference between genuine engagement and humdrum boredom.

    Here are the three key components of narrative transportation, and how you might use them in your decks:

1. Tangible empathy

For any audience to experience a true sense of narrative transportation, there needs to be a high level of empathy between themselves and the characters being portrayed. This demands well-written hero characters who are battling against clearly-defined villains.

In a presentation: Properly cast your presentation audience as the presentation’s Hero and tangible empathy will follow. Ensure every single slide speaks directly to your Hero; and tailor the whole deck towards meeting their needs, killing their fears and drawing out their hopes.

2. Relatability

An audience need to not only empathise with the characters to experience narrative transportation, they need to see themselves reflected in them. We’re more open to accepting the opinion of characters we find relatable, and we’re more likely to see those character’s opinions as fact.

In a presentation: Make your audience the Hero to secure the relatability that’s missing from most decks. Include emotive storytelling, like opening the presentation with a personal anecdote. Perhaps you could use the second act to dive into the deep detail of a time you came close to failure, or close out with facts disguised as relatable opinions.

3. Vivid imagery

Moving beyond characterisation, narrative transportation demands that an audience is fully enthralled by stirring imagery. The more vividly you convey intense information, the less mental work your audience need to do to enter narrative transportation.

In a presentation: Increasing the vibrancy of the language used across a deck ups the likelihood of proper audience immersion. Use metaphors and analogies to verbally paint a picture, and then back that picture up with images, videos and infographics.

All of this means that as we read anything, from lengthy novels to single-line metaphors, the feeling of narrative transportation isn’t mere fiction. Our brains literally think we’re inside the body of the protagonist or speaker. Which is a powerful tool to get someone thinking the way you want them to think.

Still not sure why this matters?

When it comes to your decks, stories aren’t just the icing on the cake, they’re the heartbeat of good presentations. From our evolutionary roots to the neurological architecture of our brains, the profound power of narrative shapes our experiences, emotions and the decisions we make.

The science is undeniable. We are creatures of story, drawn to tales that resonate, characters we see ourselves in, and imagery that captivates our senses.

So before you next need to stand before an audience, slide clicker in hand, recall the ancient science of storytelling. With it part of your arsenal, you won’t just be presenting. You’ll transport your audience to a realm of connection, understanding and transformation.

Embrace the science of storytelling, and watch as your decks transcend mere information transmission and become experiences that inspire. Or just get in touch and let us do it for you.

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