Better Presentations? Stop Telling Your Stories!

CEOs, systems analysts, and civil engineers swear by storytelling these days for a riveting C-suite experience. My point is that presenters should stop telling “stories” that aren’t stories. More often than not, presenters patter along for a few bullet points and then stop occasionally for an anecdote break, under the illusion that they’re telling a story.

Here’s how stories and anecdotes differ:


Anecdotes present a “slice of life.” That is, they describe an interaction, a situation, or a scene.

Stories have a hero struggling to overcome challenges to accomplish a goal. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.


Presenters usually just “narrate” anecdotes. They describe what they heard, saw, said, felt. Most often, the anecdote flows naturally in the past tense because the person is talking about what happened yesterday, last month, or when they were child, a newly wed, or maybe a first-year grad student.

But stories… ah, when someone tells a great story, the listeners feel as though they’re watching a movie. The speaker sets the scene, and then it’s lights, camera, action. The storyteller delivers the dialogue and gestures the action. Listeners envision what’s happening while the story unfolds.


Most often, anecdotes illustrate something-a feeling (frustration, anger, grief) or a situation (poor customer service, stupidity, innocence, helplessness).

Stories may illustrate as well. But they typically add other dimensions-motivation to act, inspiration, emotional tension or relief.


To illustrate the difference in impact, I’ll leave you with examples.


Customer service has deteriorated until I no longer think you can call it “service” in some organizations. The other day I was flying out to Chicago. I’ll admit I haven’t traveled much in the last 12 months, but I felt as if I were in a factory being “processed.” No agents to check me in. Just a computer.

The TSA agents were extremely rude: “Where’s your ticket?”

I had a little trouble finding the email on my phone with my e-ticket to be scanned.

The agent kept saying, “Don’t you have a paper copy? Just give me your paper copy! You’re holding up the line!”

Why do they send e-tickets if they can’t wait a moment for you to access them? The gate agents were equally surly. One even hassled me for “oversized” luggage, which wasn’t! It fit in their sizing container just fine. It’ll be a long time before I fly that airline again.


Customer service has deteriorated until I no longer think you can call it “service” in some organizations. The other day I was flying out to Chicago for a 3:00 pm job interview. I was booked on an 8:00 am flight to arrive at 10:00. Plenty of time-or so I thought. They cancelled the first flight-without notice, no reason given.

Finally, I’m rebooked to arrive at noon. We land. I reach up in the overhead bin for my briefcase, and it’s gone. Then I see a guy heading off the plane ahead of me carrying my laptop! I yell at the flight attendant, “Stop him! He’s got my laptop!”

She acts as if she can’t understand what I’m saying. The guy with my laptop takes off running, so I start after him.

I’m dashing through the airport, but it’s crowded and I lose him before I ever get out of that corridor. Just as I stop to catch my breath, two police officers step up beside me: “Sir, you’ll need to come with us.”

“Me? Why? What’s going on? I have to make my job interview in an hour!”

They slapped handcuffs on me and the officer says, “You’re under arrest for… “

(Wouldn’t you be hooked in at this point? Do you see the difference between a story and an anecdote?)

Don’t get me wrong: Stories make a great presentation even better. Just chose them wisely and tell them well.