How to use Story and Struggle in Technical Presentations

Posted by

One of the simplest definitions of what a story is (which is going back to the greek philosopher Aristotle) is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Kendall Haven points out, though, that definition doesn't really help. Otherwise,

John went to the grocery store. He bought some milk, then drank it.

would be a story. It has all the elements listed in Aristotle's definition but doesn't tell us anything about the person or his background. Was he thirsty? Or is he lactose intolerant and was trying to commit suicide? We don't know and we don't really care since we don't know anything about John.

One of the aspects that Kendall Haven comes up with in his book that make a story more powerful is when it is about a struggle. This is something you can make use of in a technical talk.

When you check the schedules of tech conferences, you will often find presentations that talk about how to do x or how to do x with y. These talks are usually reports based on the experiences of the presenters where they tell of their struggle to do something, given certain constraints. They usually follow this structure:

  1. They have a problem (beginning).
  2. In trying to solve it, they try different approaches, all of which fail for one reason or another (middle).
  3. Then they finally find a way that solves the problem (end).

Not only do these stories follow the classic beginning/middle/end structure, they also tell of a struggle (to accomplish something). And they are interesting for the audience because they are familiar with the topic (or the presenter). Which means that the audience will care.

So the next time you're giving a presentation about a technical topic, see if there's a story in there that you can tell. And if it's about solving a technical problem, there's usually some struggle involved. Making that struggle part of your story will help making your talk more interesting and more memorable for your audience.

(Photo of a quick sketch by yours truly)

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.
Creative Commons Licence "How to use Story and Struggle in Technical Presentations" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.