Note: The entries in this series are adapted from a lectures I’ve been giving to my Apps101 course. It will also form the basis for a presentation that I plan to give at a conference next month. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.
Every Sunday, my wife and I read stories to small children. It started as one of those strange opportunities that life sometimes presents and has grown to become one of the highlights of my week. There is something wonderful about kids. I’m not sure if it’s the innocence, the wide-eyed wonder, or the capacity for faith; but when a child looks at you, it’s possible to believe that a better world might just be possible.
Not to whitewash the whole thing, though. For all of their wonderful qualities, small children can also be difficult. Those wide-eyed moments of innocence are easily shattered. Small children scream, they cry, they tantrum; they hit, bite, claw, push, and shove. They’re very good at taunting, alienating, and belittling others.
Which is to say, small children are much like adults, except … smaller. They have many of the same capacities for good and evil, creativity and destruction, kindness and cruelty. The seeds of the men and women they will become are all present, and you can see interests and passions already at work.
Small children are also notoriously distractible. They’ll move between games, toys, playmates , and activities. They’ll build, break, and bless. You’ll see moments of heartbreaking tenderness, comic relief, and dangerous volatility. A single play session can hold all of the drama and frivolity of a Shakespearean play.
There is one thing, however, which never fails to hold the children’s attention: story time. When the book is opened and the story announced, the effect is magical. The fussing screams quiet, the rowdy sit still, and the distractible engage. An entire room of two and three year olds will sit in a circle, and raptly listen while read to.
The Power of Great Stories
Adults are little different. Since time before memory, we have been enchanted by stories. We use them to understand our place in the world, to educate our young, to resolve conflict, inspire, motivate, move, and entertain. Stories have been used to launch companies and products, to turn nations toward peace or war, and to console and to grieve . When presented well, a story can even help change the direction of history.
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On January 28, 1986, the United States Space Program faced one such moment. Only two minutes into its flight, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded as it took off. This happened live on national television.
I remember the Challenger explosion vividly. I was six years old and at school that day. Along with the other members of my class, we were gathered to watch the launch and thereby witnessed the explosion. It happened, live, before our eyes. One moment, NASA Mission Control was giving the permission to throttle up, and in the next moment, Challenger was gone, disintegrated into a cloud of debris and smoke.
Following the disaster of the Challenger, the US space program was at a cross-roads. There were those who said that manned space flight was too risky and not worth the sacrifices it required. There was disquiet, shock, and anger. And the American public found itself faced with the unthinkable: the brilliant engineers and astronauts of NASA were human and fallible, just as they were. At the same time, there were grieving family members who needed to be comforted and reassured that their loved ones hadn’t died for nothing.
That night, President Ronald Reagan decided to address the nation, and in doing so, faced an impossible task: memorialize the fallen, rally a stunned and grieving populace, overcome the tragedy, and set the dream of space exploration back onto solid footing. And he accomplished these tasks in the only way possible, he told America a story.
It was a story about the challenges of space, the need to explore frontiers, and that it is easy to become complacent in an age of wonders. Reagan reminded America that those who had died in the explosion were American heroes, and that their dedication to their mission had been complete and total. And he concluded with a beautiful memorial:
We will never forget them, nor the last time we same them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God” .
Reagan’s speech has been heralded as one of the greatest ever given. He “played the role of national eulogist. He … [imbued] the event with meaning, [praised] the dead, and [managed] the gamut of emotions accompanying the unforeseen and unaccounted for disaster” [4,5]
Moreover, Reagan’s speech accomplished something incredible: it transformed anger and fear into commitment. He also explained that freedom requires us to risk failure and loss. It showed, in essence, the power that story has to both shape both the memory of the past, and to influence the future.
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Not everyone will be faced with the sort of extreme challenges that Reagan confronted when he addressed the country after Challenger exploded. But we can learn from his example. Stories can help us to communicate more clearly and poignantly. They can be used to educate, elucidate, express, and expound. And they can be used to connect with the youngest of children or the most hardened of opponents. Such stories include accounts of great deeds and anecdotes of everyday life, but also reports we may not think of as stories, such as the inner narratives of data and numbers.
Here, though, I would like to focus one particular type of story: the sorts of presentations created with Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple KeyNote, and other such slide show programs. The sorts of presentations which fill corporate boardrooms, classrooms, and civic meetings; where software has come to be seen as a replacement for human connection.
In the process, I would like to introduce a few story-telling principles that can be of help in structuring such presentations and helping presenters to resonate with their audiences.
- Though in the kids we read to, there isn’t much real play involved. Most of the children play alongside others rather than interact directly. Unless one child happens to want the toy of the other, that is.
- There is a reason why the funeral eulogy is so ubiquitous, found across cultures, civilizations, and time. It is a powerful way to remember those we have loved and lost by recounting the experiences of their lives and reshaping our collective memories.
- Ronald Reagan. Address to the nation on the challenger disaster, July 1986.
- Michael Eidenmuller. Great Speeches For Better Speaking (Book + Audio CD): Listen and Learn from History’s Most Memorable Speeches. McGraw-Hill, 1 edition, June 2008. ISBN 0071472290.
- Nancy Duarte. resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Wiley, September 2010. ISBN 0470632011