Science tells us that humans are hardwired to be storytellers. Our brains light up in unique ways when we hear a tale that engages our interest and our empathy. No wonder most of us spend a good chunk of our lives telling ourselves and others stories to make sense of the world around us. 

Given the fact we're all, on some level, natural storytellers, it's surprising so much professional communication is so dull. Packed with jargon and devoid of emotion, many presentations are more likely to put the audience to sleep than light up their minds. Why is that? And how can we get back to our inherent ability to spin a yarn that grabs an audience's attention? 

As part of a long recent article from First Round Review, Nicole Kahn, a former senior director at famed design studio Ideo, offered a simple but powerful answer to that last question: Before you give your next work presentation, test it out at a bar. 

You do your best storytelling at the local watering hole 

Bars, as we all know, are hotbeds of everyday storytelling. People kibitz with the staff, laugh over funny anecdotes, and try to impress fellow drinkers with tales of their (mis)adventures. It's a place where the human instinct for storytelling is in full flower. It's also about the farthest place in the world from the somber formality of your average conference room. 

That's a mistake, insists Kahn. "Something really important happens when you're at a bar," she explains. "You use really direct language. You make sure that what you're saying is entertaining and engaging. You don't quote tons of data. You don't use overly corporate language -- except maybe in air quotes."

The qualities of concern for clarity, entertainment value, and the enjoyment of the audience are what make sharing a story and a drink with a friend so delightful. They are also what's absent from so many professional presentations. 

How to run 'the bar test' 

To recover these qualities, Kahn suggests you get yourself to a bar before your next presentation, if not literally then at least metaphorically. She recommends that those perfecting professional presentations ask themselves: 

  • How would you give your presentation at a bar? 

  • What if you only had the backs of napkins for graphics? 

  • How would that change the way you related information?

"By bringing the bar test into the work environment, we're more able to answer this question: What's the point?" she explains. "When we're in the middle of a project, the sheer number of stories we could tell about it are as numerous as stars in the sky, and we get really excited to share them all to show what we've done, but we can't do that." The bar test focuses your story so it will grab the attention of your drinking buddy, or your boss. 

At Ideo, designers often literally take someone who knows nothing about a project out for a drink (if they're not up for a beer, a coffee is fine). Then, over a pint or a cappuccino, the designer tries not just to convey their essential point but to also actively entertain their conversation partner, to keep them nodding, leaning in, and ignoring their phone. 

The joy of this technique isn't just that it forces you to get back to the streamlined fundamentals of a great story. It's also super easy. You need just 15 minutes or so and the price of a round of drinks. Plus, you can run the bar test as many times as needed to hone your presentation to one you'd gladly share across a couple of barstools. 

Intrigued? The complete First Round Review piece is packed with lots more storytelling tips. But the article is far from the only source of great advice. Pixar, a TED speaker coach, and even comedian Bill Murray have all also shared their best storytelling advice.