Lean On Your Narrative

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Would you notice a gorilla in the midst of a basketball game? That’s what participants saw in an experiment mentioned by Manohla Dargis in her article from the New York Times entitled “What You See is What You Get.” 

She describes a phenomenom called “Inattentional Blindness.” In terms of film, it’s when we don’t notice things like continuity gaffes or a misplaced crew member on a period film set because we are so captivated by the story. She says, “The stronger the pull a narrative has on us, the more we’re hooked.”

Darghis speaks of how heavily reliant we are, visually, on the narrative, to hold our attention and to allow us to process and enjoy what we see. She quotes film theorist and author David Bordwell who wrote, “Narrative is our ultimate top-down strategy in watching a movie…” and “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost.” He says a skillful filmmaker can retune our perception, yet judging from comments I hear about some “esoteric” films, not everyone is able to appreciate less familiar forms of communication.

I was thinking of how this applies to a presentation.

First of all, I believe the following:

 1. The stronger the pull of a narrative, the more we’re hooked and

2. Relating to the narrative is a primary means for us to take in information

Assuming those are true, we need to focus on story telling in a presentation if we want to reach the broadest audience and if we want to pull them in right away.

There are two dimensions to the story/narrative: actual anecdotes, examples and stories, and the bigger picture story line for the presentation.

I highly recommend beginning a presentation with a compelling example or story – of course relevant and supportive of your main message — that hooks the audience emotionally and compels them to follow you on your 20-minute journey. And there should be an overarching story line to the presentation as well, that works hand-in-hand with the main message. All your points, all your anecdotes, etc. then fill in that larger narrative. And if the entire thing ends with some reference to the first anecdote, you will give the presentation a circular form and reinforce on a primary level, what the audience has just learned.

The smaller points along the way, the data, and all those words up on a PowerPoint slide become secondary to the bigger picture, the real-life examples…in short…the narrative. They can always refer to the data later, for example if you give a handout, but they will remember your main message if you focus on the bigger picture narrative and stories, examples, analogies, etc.

I used to be a musical theater performer and one singing coach/director recounted a story about a show he directed. He invited a friend he really wanted to impress. In one dance number one dancer’s long ponytail wig flew off her head and landed in the back of the house with a thud. My coach was mortified. When he hesitantly asked his friend what he thought of the production, the guy loved it. When he asked if the wig incident was disturbing, the friend said, “what wig incident?” He was so caught up in the narrative, the bigger picture, that this small detail was irrelevant.

And so it is in presentations. Yes, facts and data are important, but it is the narrative, the story, that will capture our attention and keep us interested throughout.

Until the next time…


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