Don't Look Beyond the First Sentence -- Keys to an Engaging Presentation
By Kristin Kaden Dreyer
"Thank you for coming today."
Countless audiences are lost when they hear these words at the start of a presentation, according to Kelly MacGregor, adjunct professor at Baylor University. "It's a throwaway phrase," says MacGregor, who draws upon research from books such as Own the Room and Robert Cohen's Acting One, as well as her own theater studies and acting experience when she teaches Executive MBA students. "To get a listener engaged, you've got to start a conversation with something important and specific—get their attention from the start," says MacGregor. "A boring opening signals a boring, predictable, tedious presentation."
According to Forbes, business messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than just facts, and can help businesses win the loyalty and affection of audiences. This is one of the reasons why Baylor University has infused a storytelling component into the MBA graduate experience. "We believe that storytelling is a key component of having great executive presence, which is why we teach the skill to our students," said April Rowsey, lecturer of Management Communication in Baylor University's MBA programs.
"Many students are surprised to learn that, while they are confident presenters, they can come across as boring," said MacGregor, who leads Baylor University's Executive MBA storytelling sessions. "I tell students to start their presentation by saying something unexpected, since our brains are hardwired to remember surprise," MacGregor said. "Because we have a short attention span, I remind students to picture their client or audience as having a remote or a mouse that allows them to 'click past' when they have lost interest in what you are saying," she said. "Visually, that gets a student's attention."
Austin Ewing, Strategic Sales Director at Smith and Nephew Orthopaedics in Dallas, Texas, and a Baylor MBA candidate, 2021, frequently presents to customers and internal sales teams. "Before Kelly's class, I had not considered the real power of communicating in the form of a story," said Ewing. "Kelly helped me realize that connecting with the audience on stage is very similar to connecting with your customer during a presentation. Now, I try to find ways to deliver my message through stories when possible, and I am more mindful of my nonverbal communication, like body language and tone of voice."
Why do Stories Matter?
According to the Harvard Business Review, people are attracted to stories because "we are social creatures who want to relate to other people." An article in the Wall Street Journal states that the more powerful, important, and complex your message is, the more important it is to tell a compelling but simple, understandable story. "But be prepared to make the connection quickly and honestly," notes Rowsey.
"I hear people say, 'I'm here to talk about…,' which is an opening phrase that derails efforts to connect with an audience," Rowsey said. "That's like beginning a love letter with 'To whom it may concern,'" she said. "Personalizing your message to meet the needs of your audience is absolutely crucial, and storytelling is a big part of what drives that engagement and connection," said Rowsey, who debuts a new course this summer called "Communicating with Data."
Tyrha Lindsey-Warren, a clinical assistant professor of marketing in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business, agrees. She has coined the phrase empowered storytelling to describe a powerful approach for people and businesses who want a deeper emotional connection with their customers. Warren, who studies the impact of storytelling in advertising and branding, describes this type of storytelling as purposeful. "It means that the creator of the story is making a conscious effort in the narrative development to impact the receiver of the story in a positive and transformational manner," she said. "The same emotional connection could possibly be made through face-to-face storytelling between businesspeople and their customers, where the former shares the same values and authentically shows that they care."
How can one connect with an audience through storytelling to improve executive presence? MacGregor, drawing from her own experience as an actor and a stage director, suggests the following:
Four Keys to Get Your G.O.T.E.
- Goal: Be specific as you tell your story. Have a clear idea of what you want the outcome to be and include a call to action for your audience. Make sure to be clear about what you are communicating and to do so in a manner that focuses on the other person—not you. When done well, business storytelling gives a compelling reason for consumers to buy from you.
- Obstacle/other: Consider what is in the way of accomplishing your goal. Know your audience and what might compel them. Stay away from what might distract the other person from your message.
- Tactics: Think about how your messages benefit the other person. How will you persuade your audience and keep distractions to a minimum?
- Expectations: Remind yourself that you are an authority in your chosen subject, you (not your information!) are infinitely interesting, and that you will succeed. "Authority is persuasive," MacGregor said.
MacGregor finishes her storytelling sessions with an exercise that helps students incorporate storytelling in their elevator pitch. "Students need to have thought through their 30-second sound bite in order to make their messages interesting," she said. "You really don't want to just wing it," she said, further corroborated in an article on elevator pitches in Forbes. "Having great executive presence, networking, and conveying a lot of information in a short amount of time are all about good storytelling."
About Baylor's MBA Programs
Baylor MBA programs are designed strategically for professionals looking to take their careers to the next level in leadership. Rigorous MBA classes taught by dedicated faculty and industry experts offer both theoretical knowledge and the practical skills required to succeed in modern global business. Wherever you are in your career today, Baylor has an MBA program to fit your lifestyle and move you toward your professional goals: Full-Time MBA, Executive MBA in Dallas, Executive MBA in Austin, and an Online MBA.
Prospective candidates can learn more about all Baylor MBA programs by visiting the Baylor MBA website.