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Speaking for Geeks: Tell a Story

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Your talk should tell a story. It’s easier for an audience to follow if the transitions flow from topic to topic in a logical manner.

A story sets up a situation, creates a conflict, then resolves that conflict. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Stories are easy to tell and easy to remember. A good story keeps your audience engaged, keeps them from looking at their email. Once they look at their email, you’ve lost them for good.

Stories are better than a recitation of facts and a bunch of code samples and demos throw up in random order. Stories make your audience want to hear what’s coming next. They provide structure. They draw the audience in.

Everyone knows how to tell a story. You don’t find yourself grasping for information when you’re telling a great story. The next facts come to you as you’re telling the previous ones, because the topics flow logically from one thing to the next. The sequence is clear in your head and you remember the details as you move through the sequence.

How do you start a story?

Surely you’ve had someone tell you a story where they spend so much time explaining the backstory and including unimportant details that you’re practically begging for them to get to the point? Don’t do that. Thinking of a presentation as a story will help you stay focused and get to the point quickly. Introduce the topic, the setting, and the main characters, then get on with the story.

If you’re talking about improving monitoring on your operations team by implementing Ganglia, the characters are your operations staff. The setting is your web site. Use the first words of your talk to get these out of the way as quickly as possible and to hook your audience. Opening right up with an anecdote can be a great start. I like to get the punchy opening in even before I introduce myself. You take the stage and say “At 2:31 AM on Sunday May 5th, we were hit by a DDoS attack that lasted 16 hours. Our monitoring system sent no alerts. We didn’t know it until 8am on Monday when a we opened our email and saw a flood of customer complaints.”

The audience is hooked. They want to know what happened. They want to know why you were so incompetent you didn’t know about it until Monday. They want to know how to make sure they don’t end up being right there with you. Then you introduce yourself.

Another opening gambit is to start with a statistic. “62% of web sites experience a failure without knowing exactly when it happened or what was going on when it occurred."

A classic bit of presentation advice is to start with a joke. Don’t. You’re probably not that funny. You certainly aren’t that funny when you’re nervous, talking to a room of people you don’t know, and half of them didn’t learn English as their first language. Unless you’re experienced with comedy, leave the jokes out of our presentation. I used to be a professional clown (no, seriously), and I never start a presentation with a joke. When your joke falls flat it makes you more nervous and your audience uncomfortable.

The middle part of the presentation sets up the conflict. What’s the problem that the characters are experiencing? In the Implementing Ganglia story, the conflict is the problems that your team has run into and the solutions they’ve tried to solve them. Here’s what we saw, here’s what we tried, here’s how it almost worked, but here’s the big downside to that. Now here’s another thing.

The end is the climax of the story, followed by detail supporting that climax, followed by a call to action. We implemented Ganglia. It solved problem A like so, and problem B like so. Here’s the specific steps we took to solve this one hairy issue, and here’s the things we still need to learn more about. You can read about Ganglia at these fine URLs.

A great way to see lots of other speakers weave storytelling into their talks is to watch TED talks online. The TED format is almost all about a story. Joshua Foer’s Feats of memory anyone can do is a great example. Throughout the talk, he interweaves elements of storytelling and facts. There’s stories within stories, stories about different memory techniques embedded in his larger story about improving his own memory.

Telling a story keeps your presentation focused, keeps your audience interested, and makes it easier for you to remember your talk.

This is part of a series on becoming a better public speaker. Read the rest of the series.

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