As a speaker, I like to intersperse stories and recommendations throughout all my keynote speeches. For years, I gave my audiences specific take-always which I believed would help them improve their sales.

But something funny happened: years later, most people only remembered the stories I told -- often times, in vivid detail. Rarely would they recall the list of recommendations I made during my talk. So I switched things up.

Now I embed the key message and take-always in all the stories I tell. The results have been dramatic. People not only remember the stories with amazing clarity, they also remember the actionable advice I give to boost their success. Without even realizing it, I was using research-backed techniques to engage and captivate my audience.

If you want to supercharge your next presentation, here's how science can give you an edge.

Use Stories

For thousands of years, humans have told stories to impart information, explain the inexplicable, entertain an audience and forge social connections. Stories are the common thread that run throughout societies and cultures. They help build trust because they trigger the release of oxytocin, the 'feel good' chemical in our brains that enhance our ability to feel empathy.

Studies shows that when people are presented with facts and figures, smaller areas of the brain are activated which indicates that information is being processed. However, when those same facts and figures are packaged in a story, the entire brain becomes engaged.

"When you tell your audience a story, the brain lights up like a freaking pinball machine," says communication expert Leslie Ehm, who uses the principles of neuroscience in her leadership and presentation training with executives. "Motor cortex, sensory cortex, frontal cortex -- the whole thing just goes nuts."

With that level of brain activity, doesn't it make sense then to use stories in your presentations more of the time?

Create Suspense

But telling a story isn't enough. Research shows it's the way we tell stories that determine how successful we are in getting an audience to pay attention and getting our points across.

We've all heard the speaker who takes too long to get to the point. It's the classic case of "too much runway, not enough plane." But then there are others who give away the punch line too soon.

Bestselling author and speaker-coach extraordinaire, Michael Port, uses the blockbuster movie Star Wars to illustrate the "giving away the farm" faux-pas. He likes to say that Star Wars would not have been such a great movie if the director would have come out at the beginning and said to the audience, "By the way, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father."

"The brain wants to know what's gonna happen next," says Leslie. "A set-up and a pay-off. If it is set-up and a pay-off all together, then you've lost me. I don't care anymore.

In fact, science demonstrates how creating tension and suspense is a key ingredient to effective storytelling.

In this Harvard Business Review article, neuro-economist and researcher Paul Zan writes:

"We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention --a scarce resource in the brain -- by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension, then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in 300.

Character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits."

In short, tension and suspense hold our attention longer and lead to better results.


Sometimes, there's no getting around data. It needs to be shared visually to underscore an important point. Rather than present complex line charts or pages of research, though, illustrations or simple drawings can be just as effective.

Why? Because the brain can't process too much information at once. A simple, visual depiction of what you want to communicate is a way to lighten the load for your audience, so to say.

"That´s the point of illustration, to simplify the point," says Leslie.

Illustrations are also a way to keep an audience engaged and their curiosity piqued.

"From the second you pick up that pen and you start to draw, they are thinking, "Where is this going?" Leslie says. "And they will stay with you until you resolve that."

It's Your Turn

What steps do you will you use stories to supercharge your next presentation? Share your thoughts on Twitter, LinkedIn, or in the comments.