First Things First: What Is an Anecdote and What Is a Story?
An anecdote is a simple retelling of something that happened. A story paints a narrative journey with a beginning, middle and end. Stories contain elements like conflict, rising tension and resolution, all woven together by a villain and hero that an audience can understand, relate to and ultimately root for. Storytelling is a craft that incorporates a number of elements to captivate and connect speaker and audience beyond a superficial exchange of static data and information. And anecdotes can be told by... well... Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
Here's an example of an anecdote:
My parents forced me to go to college, but I wasn't really interested in anything, so I just took a few random classes to keep up appearances and make them happy, while couch surfing with friends trying to have some fun. Eventually my buddy and I started a little business in a garage, and it took off and I made a lot of money and was in charge of the company, but then I was forced out and fired from the company I started. I was devastated, but eventually I started a few more companies, made more money, and was able to take back my original company, which is now more successful than ever.
You may or may not recognize the anecdote as the origin story of Apple. While the anecdote does technically outline what happened, it doesn't do much to bring the legend to life, and it doesn't really sound all that interesting or remarkable when taken at face value. In his now iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs began the speech by taking graduates on a journey through time to his creative beginnings as an aimless student who happened to randomly find himself taking a calligraphy class, which would become the underpinning for his famous aesthetic and dedication to design purity.
He could have recited Apple's yearly revenue. He could have recapped a list of product features and benefits. But instead, he brought the audience along for a ride through the company's origin story, and the speech resounded around the world and received millions of views online, taking it well beyond the Stanford campus.
The Benefits of Storytelling in Business Presentations
Stories engage your audience and take them on a journey in which they become invested in the outcome (or actually play the role of hero themselves). The best stories foster an emotional connection, which can, in turn, build awareness and loyalty for your idea in a way that merely presenting data in a slide deck does not. Stories provide context. For executives and entrepreneurs, the deck itself is the anecdote. It can show your audience what happened, but it most likely won't get them to care.
The best presenters weave their content into engaging narratives in which the audience plays the role of the hero. There's a clear villain or force of opposition, and there's a winner. Whether the villain is a punishing market environment, a ruthless competitor or impatient investors, your data is only a means to an end and will come across as anticlimactic for your audience if you don't offer context and take them on a journey.
Anecdotes can have a role in your presentation, and they can add impact and levity and help form a connection with the audience. But if you rely on simple retellings alone, you risk leaving your audience unengaged and uninterested. Tell a story and weave your audience into it to create a lasting impression that will remain long after your presentation has concluded.
Can your team weave powerful narratives of their own? Can you?