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Storytelling For Professional Presentations Training Workshop Hand-Out

Workshop design and facilitation by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT

Professional presentations that use well-crafted stories to frame and explain important concepts engage listeners in ways that add color, imagination and emotional significance to a lecture or data-heavy power point and in this way make the content memorable and meaningful. "The story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda," writes Jonathan Gotschall in “Why Storytelling Is The Ultimate Weapon”. "A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind. Research shows that our attitudes, values, hopes and fears are strongly influenced by story...The more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them." 

One would think that because stories are expressed through language that they engage the parts of the brain that process it, but neuroscience shows us something more. Research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that when the brain hears an action word, it responds as if the listener is engaged in that action. So when a storyteller says “I waltz to the door,” the motor cortex lights up. “I straighten the collar of my velvety silk blouse” ignites the sensory cortex. “My heart races with a mix of wild excitement and anxiety as I open the door” triggers these emotions in the listener. When a storyteller steps into the character of raging father, reassuring mother, high school crush, or any of the other characters that populate a story, the listener can experience the rush of fear an abused child endures, but from the safety of an observer’s role. When the brain experiences rich imagery and emotionally compelling moments the story has the greatest impact and is more likely to be remembered. (from my article "When Stories Kill: Its The Brain Science That Did It" on

"Stories frame and even construct social experience," writes the NeuroHumanities Research Group, a collaboration between neuroscientists at Princeton and DukeUniversities. Their work - specifically research led by Dr. Uri Hasson of Princeton University and described in the article "Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication" in the Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences - has produced scientific evidence for the appeal of stories but more importantly for their social, emotional and psychological impact. Through neuroimaging, researchers found a "synching up" between the brains of listeners and storytellers when there is deep engagement in the story. The neuroimaging allows them to "see" cognitive reception of the story. According to this evidence, the effect occurs only when communication is achieved. If the story is not engaging the listener - as when there is a barrier to communication, or the story does not emotionally connect to the listener - this effect is lost. When a story "lands" on a listener and has genuine impact, it can motivate and inspire without any prompting by the storyteller. According to Dr. Hasson, "a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience."

Researcher Paul Zak has spent the last several years searching for the reasons stories "can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better."
His work reveals that:
1) Stories engage emotions, imagination and information all at once, which is
why we can easily give our full attention to a well-told narrative;
2) The art of a storyteller is in the ability to increase and sustain the tension through the entire tale. When we to relate to the struggles and challenges of the story's main character, we can better understand our own and learn about how someone else got through them.
3) Stories bring brains together. There is an effortless and important empathic connection developed through listening to others' stories and being listened to when we tell our own. Neuroscience shows that this connection is what makes human beings able to collaborate in all the ways that allowed human begins to survive and go on to build massive cities, develop sophisticated technologies, and land a probe on a comet tearing through space.
4) Stories transport us into worlds and realities so we can learn about life beyond our own direct experience.
5) Stories connect strangers through what neuroscientists call "empathic transportation" which binds listeners in an intangible but powerful way.

Watch this video of Dr. Paul Zak talking about the neurochemistry behind the impact of story on behavior in this talk from The Future Of Storytelling 2012

Three types of stories used in professional presentation:
  • Communicate a vision. Use vision stories to empower listeners to connect with a larger reality than their own, to imagine a different kind of future for themselves.
  • Success – should emphasize the obstacles, the adversity, the reason that this success was, at one time, unlikely or unforeseeable;
  • Failures – emphasizes the "want," the dream and the journey toward a goal, what inspired and went into achieving it, and the obstacles, mistakes, or adversity that blocked it. Failure stories are about lessons learned, revelations that come through tough experiences, and resilience.
  • Transcendent – something that is beyond normal experience, e.g. stories about important life-changing figures like Nelson Mandela or Harriet Tubman, what it takes to climb Mt. Everest, surviving a trauma;
MOTIVATIONAL STORIESpull people toward a change. They are a call to action. The tension is in the stakes involved. These stories link actions to a specific, valuable, and worthy outcome. Motivation-oriented stories focus on the things that prompt people to act:
  • Reward – if you do this, you will get that
  • Fear – if you do this, you can avoid a bad thing that will otherwise happen
  • Competency – achievement – if you do this
  • Recognition – getting it or not getting it and carrying on
  • Desire to grow
  • Power – ways to gain influence and greater control over events
  • Social factors – desire to contribute to the lives of others, desire to make a difference
EDUCATIONAL STORIESthe story is used to frame information, a concept, facts, data, or research, e.g. “There are 15000 more gun shops in the United States than there are grocery stores. My home town in Kentucky, population 5, 450 had 5 gun shops, 12 bars and 8 churches. It was easier to create an arsenal than to buy groceries.” TED talks are ideal examples of ways to use stories to frame facts. A fact gets into a person’s head more efficiently when embedded in a narrative. Our role model for this might be physicist Brian Greene who uses stories, music and imagery to express complex, difficult-to-comprehend scientific concepts. Listen to an interview with Brian Greene about his story Icarus On The Edge Of Time, which deals with the Theory of Relativity and the way gravity stretches time.

How a story is different from an anecdote:
An anecdote is an account of something that happened. A story is about the internal shifts and/or external transformation that occur throughout, and because of, a specific experience. Stories reveal the process of change in the main character's circumstances, beliefs, understanding him/herself, worldview, or perspective. An anecdote describes an event. A story brings the listener into the action with immediacy and raises the emotional stakes.
A quick example, (from my own life):

ANECDOTE: I submitted a proposal to speak at a major, national conference and it was rejected. I felt like a big loser. But the next year I was invited to present at that conference. That was validating.

STORY: Using the classic 5-beat story structure that neuroscience shows is essential to crafting stories that impact behavior change
Set-Up: (What is the main character's situation or perspective with regard to this story). This annual Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. is spectacular, I always leave feeling so inspired, so proud to be a therapist and to be part of this community who care so much about people. I am in awe of the presenters. What I really love is that there is something called Creativity Day, which offers all sorts of arts-based workshops for therapists to play and express themselves and get refueled through creativity. In 2008 I meet Claudia Black in the elevator at this conference and then spend the day with her at a workshop. Its not like we become friends or anything. We don't actually speak, but we were in the same room for the entire day. I had just read all of her books. I'd been to some of her workshops. So it feels like a sign. Because I have just published a book called Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed Of Life, and want to do workshops on the themes in the book. I am aiming high. Well, more specifically, I want to be on Oprah. I want to replace Dr. Phil. Or be the mental health correspondent on The Daily Show. People who aim high have to take big risks. So I decide to be bold and submit a proposal to do a workshop about improvisation and psychotherapy as part of that pre-conference Creativity Day at the symposium.  I don't see a call for proposals, so I email it to the conference co-ordinator listed on the website. I feel the usual dread and anxiety that comes with putting myself out beyond my comfort zone. I can only get past the fear of failure and extreme self-consciousness by telling myself that its better to try than do nothing. That no matter how it turns out I should feel good about the effort. I settle on the effort idea. I can live with that.

INCITING INCIDENT: (something happens that impacts the main character's situation or perspective, and he/she must respond). Then I hear nothing. For 2 months. Not even a
recognition that the proposal was received. I imagine the conference chairs reading and mocking my proposal. "Who does she think she is? Did she think this is good? What a terribly not-self-aware person this is." TThen I think no one ever read my proposal. No one ever saw the thing. Maybe no one there reads random emails. My proposal is just sitting somewhere in cyber-space. Then an email comes. From Psychotherapy Networker. My stomach drops. My mouth gets a dry. This feels so big, I'm almost embarrassed at how much it means to me. And when I read the email I feel worse. Rejected. No thank you. But see you at the conference!

RISING ACTION: (as a result of the inciting incident, the main character makes some choices and has some internal experiences) I feel ashamed and rejected way out of proportion to the reality here. These people don't know me. They just didn't want this workshop. But I can't shake the feeling I should have known better than to put myself out there like that. I aimed too high. Who am I kidding? I'll never be on Oprah. I'll never beat Dr. Phil. Why do I think like this? Meanwhile, I have to try to get people to read my book, so I am slogging through the equally-embarrassing process of promoting it. Mailing out samples of my book. Trying to get interviewed by media about my book. Blogging. About my book. All of it fills me with same anxiety and dread I felt sending out that proposal. I want to give up. Every now and then I'll sell a book, but the numbers are so low I begin to think this book is yet another project that took years of my life and results in nothing but disappointment. I don't know if I can keep going with this slog of self-promotion that is only reminding me how difficult it is to get anyone interested in it. Then in August 2009 I get a call from Psychotherapy Networker. The editor of the magazine was given a sample copy of my book about 8 months earlier, has been reading it, and wants me to present at the 2010 conference. The guy who calls me on behalf of the editor remembers my proposal from 2009 and says "that was a good proposal. But this conference is invitation-only." All unsolicited proposals are rejected, I learn. 

RESOLUTION/TRANSFORMATION: (what change or shift occurs as a result of what has taken place, what is different now) Almost everything I projected onto the situation was completely wrong. Made-up. And whenever I find myself thinking that I know what someone else is thinking, about my work, or about anything, I know that I'm just making that stuff up. And that when I think nothing is happening, that all my efforts are going nowhere, something I can not yet see might be taking shape. Someone might be reading my book, or my blog and taking it seriously. And if I could be invited to present at this conference because somehow the guy who makes these decisions came across my book, who knows what else could happen? I have to remember that those slogs through the dark can result in unpredictable shifts in our circumstances. A possible future opens up, seemingly out of nowhere if we just keep going. And that what other people are thinking truly is invitation-only. Look out Dr. Phil.

The elements of story:

  • Tension and obstacles: An anecdote is a summing up of an event and how things turned out, even what was learned. A story shares the obstacles, both internal (beliefs, ideas, misperceptions) and external that bring on a struggle.
  • Emotional stakes
  • A clear narrative with a beginning, middle and end
  • Pain and struggle: The way obstacles, adversity and struggle are faced reveal things about the main character and in the best stories, reveal things to the main character. When we identify with the main character's situation and inner life, we take an emotional journey with them and through this journey make discoveries. 
  • Reflection

An effective storyteller will not have to tell the audience what they should take from the story. The story does the work.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc, which is an approved provider of Continuing Education for social workers by New York State. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a live show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life. 


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