If you want to make an impact in your profession and stand out from your competitors, tell more stories--and not just any story, but emotionally engaging ones. If you're stuck on how to tell stories, look to Ken Burns for tips.

I always look forward to a new Ken Burns documentary like "The Vietnam War" because it gives me another opportunity to hear more about the creative process from 'America's Storyteller.' As humans, "The thing we do most of all is tell stories to each other. And in the telling of stories, in the making of things, we create a kind of immortality," Burns said in a recent interview.

Storytelling is not something that we do; storytellers are who we are. The power of story helps us make sense of the world and gives us a powerful tool to articulate our ideas. In business, however, we seem to have lost that essential component that binds us together.

Here are three techniques that you can borrow from Ken Burns to add emotional and visual punch to your next presentation:

1. Look everywhere for stories.

"Great stories are everywhere," Burns once said. He should know. Ken Burns' first documentary for PBS was about the Brooklyn Bridge. Not too many people would find a bridge exciting, but Burns said, "it is one of the most dramatic stories in American history."

I once worked with an executive for one of the world's largest retailers who wanted help on her monthly presentations to employees. Her PowerPoint was full of tables, charts and revenue goals, and completely devoid of emotion.

"Why don't you include some personal stories," I asked?

"I don't have any interesting ones," she quickly responded.

I didn't let her off the hook. After some prodding, she told a story that left everyone in the room in tears. Before she was hired at the retailer, a family member had a rare disease and she shopped at the store to save money on the many items needed for his care. I encouraged the executive to tell the story at her next meeting.

After the presentation she was bombarded with emails. "I've never been so inspired to work for a company," one person wrote. It was the most impactful presentation this executive had made at the brand. Employees talked about it for months.

Stories are everywhere. You just have to look for them.

2. Let other people tell the story.

The first voice you hear in in Ken Burns' ten-part documentary on Vietnam is the voice of Max Cleland, who fought in the war and lost both of his legs and an arm. "To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering. For those of us who have suffered because of Vietnam, that's been our quest ever since," he says.

Cleland is one of 79 witnesses from all sides of the war who appear in the film. Burns and his co-director, Lynn Novick wanted to capture the story of Vietnam told through the real experts--ordinary people who experienced it.

In a business presentation intended to inspire audiences and motivate change in behavior, let other people share in the storytelling. At the German software giant SAP, I spoke to a marketing executive who holds the title of chief storytelling officer. She told me how SAP is building a case-study library--videos of real customers telling their stories. An SAP salesperson anywhere in the world can call up a video on a mobile computer to show a prospective client.

You might be the chief storyteller for your brand, but give other people a voice.

3. Use photos, letters, and multimedia to enhance the story.

The 'Ken Burns Effect' refers to the panning and zooming effect on still photographs that gives Ken Burns films their signature style. You can do something similar in presentations, too.

In PowerPoint, you can use a simple animation feature called 'morph.' In Apple's keynote software, the effect is called 'magic move.' Search for video tutorials on YouTube if you'd like to learn more.

Why Burns uses the effect is more important than the how. He animates photos to bring them alive. By adding sound effects, video clips, period music and first-person voices, Burns says that, for a fraction of a second, you might feel what it was like to be there.

Multimedia will enhance your presentation, too.

You might not be taking on the weighty subjects as Ken Burns does, but your stories matter to your company and your career. Tell great ones.

Published on: Sep 20, 2017
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