How to master the art of strategic storytelling – and why it matters to drive change

David Fish, strategic communication specialist, founder of No Two Fish and author of What it Takes to Create Winning Presentations, shares some tips on how to connect with an audience strategically.

How does one presentation manage to connect with an audience and prompt action, while another leaves listeners confused or just bored? The answer lies in becoming a strategic storyteller. Put simply, we are wired for stories. It is how we receive, process and store what we hear, and how we draw meaning and relevance. 

Daniel Siegel is a professor of psychiatry and founding director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center; his study of how we process information reveals that we remember details much more effectively when embedded in a story, ‘Telling and being moved to action by them is in our DNA. The brain has the capacity to change itself based on experience, and stories are one of the most effective ways to activate the brain and facilitate changes in the mind’. So, what does it take to become a strategic storyteller?

The most effective storytellers are the screenwriters who create blockbuster movies, and they know that you don’t start writing a script until you know whom you are writing for and what matters to them. It is a powerful lesson that holds true for your presentations as well.

When the presenter doesn’t pause sufficiently to consider who exactly the audience is and what they might need to hear right at the outset of designing their presentation, this self-preoccupation leads to an introspective narrative. Instead of drawing the audience in, the presentation can trigger a mindset of seeking to find flaws, agitation as they try to make sense of what this means, and even outright rejection of the idea or concept being shared. 

Knowing who the audience is, however, is just the start. Knowing what matters to them, how they see the current reality and picturing how you can take them on a journey to a better place are fundamental to identifying the true purpose of your presentation. Just like an anchor for a boat, this overriding perspective will hold you steady in one place – regardless of what content might come your way, or what views others might have of what you should or could share or say. 

With this journey in mind, you are now well-placed to craft a compelling story, the next most critical ingredient to connecting with your audience. But a presentation doesn’t just become a story; it needs to be designed around a story arc. And that requires three critical stages. 

  1. Establish why the audience should care 

What could happen without this information? And how bad could things get? Make no mistake; this is much more than a set-up. This is about creating a real feeling of being in it together. Compare it to first hearing of Cinderella’s awful existence, made worse by her evil sisters. This draws us in, and we become completely invested. We now want what she wants – that she escapes her evil sisters for a better life. That’s what it feels like to be in this together and that’s where your presentation should begin; drawing the audience in and taking them on a journey to a better place. 

  1. Navigate through your story

Move from problem to resolution using organised and logical sections. This helps your audience stay completely connected to both you and your content throughout. The moment they are lost, they stop listening or tune out, quick to give up on trying to find their way back in.

  1. Create a resolution

Have you ever seen a movie without a conclusive ending? Feel slightly cheated? It’s hard to believe the number of presentations that still abruptly finish with a ‘thank you’ or ‘next steps’ slide. Your audience and your story need a confident and conclusive resolution: We started here, we have seen this, and now what this means is that we have arrived at a much better place. 

Whenever you find yourself struggling to refine the story, ask yourself what you would say if asked to explain your presentation to someone in under a minute. And say it out loud. As you do this, you will hear the key points you want to make, which underpins the narrative of your story. Always do this away from any slides or prompts. The narrative that emerges will guide your story flow, help order your slides and remove unnecessary content.  This alone will change the impact of your presentation.

Strategic storytellers start with a clear audience in mind. They picture the change they see as being possible and use it to craft a compelling story that takes the audience on a clear and concise journey. This is what it takes to create a winning presentation that won’t just engage; it will change minds and leave a lasting and powerful impact.    

David Fish is a strategic communication specialist, founder of No Two Fish and author of What it Takes to Create Winning Presentations (Publish Central, $39.95). Visit

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About David Fish

David Fish is a strategic communication specialist, founder of No Two Fish.

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