In the ideal world, a presentation tells a story. But what is a story? And how do you tell it on purpose, and not by accident.

To tell a story on purpose, you need to understand the deep structure of stories. For presenters, the essential structure of stories is Situation, Problem, Solution.

Let's go through this in slightly more detail.

Situation

First, be positive. Congratulate the audience on their current achievements in their specific field of endeavor, whether that be cancer medications or extinguishing fires in outer space vehicles.

Problem Definition

Then, quickly and steeply, disturb their feelings of pride by dragging them down into: the problems that have not yet been solved, the causes of those problems, and the consequences inflicted on those who are suffering or could suffer because of the absence of adequate solutions.

Once you've done that, (and you can take as much as a third of your talk to rub their noses in the problems you've uncovered) you can pause and ask a rhetorical question: "So, what can we do?"

Solutions

At that point, you offer your solutions. You can either:

  • list all of them in short form-starting with the first, and then moving through them in ascending order of importance, beginning with the most trivial and ending with the most profound, or
  • just jump into the solutions-first, second and third, etc.-in no particular order of importance.

Of course you can be your warm and welcoming self at the start, and you can remind them of the problem and your key messages at the end before you provide them with a call to action.

Sounds pretty simple, and it is once you get the hang of it.

Why the Disconnect?

But the sad story is that most business presentations lack the structure of story. They lack drama, tension, mystery, and suspense.

And yet whenever we gather in groups-us human beings-we like to be engaged by drama.

We like to watch TV shows that are dramatic. We like plays and movies that scare us. We like sporting events and shiver with excitement on the couch when our team is winning-or losing.

We like to attend criminal trials to see what sordid details will emerge from the defendant's cross examination.

We like political debates. We cheer our candidate and derogate his or her opponent. It's exciting, arousing, and engaging.

So why, when we gather for business presentations, are most of them lacking in drama?

Procedural vs. Substantive

One reason is that they begin in a procedural manner rather than in a substantive or dramatic manner.

For instance, most begin with a title slide, then an agenda slide and then something like this. "I am going to talk a little bit about the following nine items."

And then the speaker reads the agenda items that appear on the screen.

Now the audience knows exactly what to expect, and perhaps even mentally checks out because they anticipate the march of a thousand slides.

The undrama begins. In fact, it is expected and widely accepted. And it gives business presenting a bad name.

Drama = Solving Problems

As we learned above, all stories are dramas about people solving problems. Isn't business a constant grind to solve problems? The problem of commoditization, lack of innovation, the competition for human talent, and the need to meet budget and revenue targets.

Some in science scorn drama in presentations as unprofessional, which does science a terrible injury, precisely because science needs to tell its story to more people.

Science is one of the most important endeavors of our modern era precisely because it is solving dramatic problems.

In my experience, asking people to begin by describing the situation can make them uncomfortable. It's not the usual thing. They prefer the old way-reading a list of topics to be covered. They don't want to stand out.

I like to remind them of the Gettysburg Address. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Remember that? That's a positive description of the situation at that time- November 19, 1863, congratulating the audience for its noble history.

You know what the next sentence is? It's the problem statement. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war..."

And then President Lincoln offers a solution. He says, we must dedicate ourselves "to a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Let's try something less lofty, like, "Pricing and Market Access has been valiant in keeping up with new requirements, a slew of new products, and an unprecedented degree of complexity in setting rational reasons for the price of innovative drugs."

That's a good Situation-a good opening.

"But our current IT infrastructure needs to be replaced, for several reasons. The current system is neither user friendly, free of bugs, nor fast enough to meet the needs of distributors, payers, and our own finance department."

That's a good beginning to a Problem statement.

And then, "We have been working with an IT vendor who has been trying to patch up the current system. They have developed a program specifically for P&MA that is widely used among our competitors. We would like to have the go-ahead to look at two other vendors. We will pick one of the three. At that point, we will seek budget approval for a new, more powerful, flexible, and faster program that will serve us well many years into the future."

That's a Solution.

The Problem Sandwich

There is nothing particularly showy or dramatic in these talks. There is substance and a very clear structure, which is the structure of story.

There is a law in the science of communication. It's called the Principle of Primacy and Recency. People remember the beginnings and ends of things more than any other part.

This means most speeches and presentations are shaped like hammocks: they sag in the middle.

They sag mostly because the speaker is trying to inform the audience instead of urging them to do something.

They sag because presentations are not great for distributing large amounts of information. They are good for solving problems.

The method I am offering helps a speaker lift the emotions of an audience by...

  • Congratulating them for their accomplishments
  • Dragging them down into the problems, the land of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
  • And then relieving them of their anxiety by offering a range of solutions to their problems.

You could call it The Problem Sandwich. Good news on top, good news on the bottom, and in the middle-a hamburger of bad news-which stimulates curiosity, intellect, and determination.

I am a communications consultant. I learned a long time ago that all stories have structure, that all people love stories, and that all stories are drama.

I have to learn it over and over again. If you want to be heard, understood, remembered and believed, you must speak, like storytellers, dramatically to the emotions.