Corporate Storytelling Structures: A Toolkit for Beginners

When I was a client-facing business advisor at a Big 4 consulting firm some years ago, I accompanied the senior partner in my group, a slick and prolific salesman, to countless pitch meetings. We were pitching compliance services to banks and investment managers for new financial reporting requirements — complex regulatory stuff. The partner would start his pitch meetings with a sweeping declaration — that the era of bank secrecy was over, and fiscal transparency was the new normal. I am not sure if he realized it, but by starting off naming a big, relevant change in the world he was employing one of the most effective corporate storytelling strategies. Right from the outset he made the material relevant to his audience and broke through the typical audience’s initial “why should I care?” resistance. Having made a meaningful connection, his audience would become invested in his talk. More often than not they would convert on his call to action, which was to hire us as their service provider.

Based on my experience since then, having worked on high-dollar-value pitches for dozens of clients in all types of industries, I find that storytelling is one of the most misunderstood and underutilized tools in corporate communications. It remains murky and mysterious. Why should a speaker care about storytelling in their pitches? It comes down to dollars and cents — there’s ROI to storytelling. Time and time again, I have seen in practice that structuring talks in a way that connects with audiences is the best way to increase conversion.

Too often what passes for storytelling in corporate boardrooms is hitting the audience with a firehose of credentials. Other times the speaker has a deep technical background, in, say, finance or engineering, and launches into a dry recitation of detailed rules without giving the audience a reason to care about what they are saying. I have seen presentations that throw off an audience by opening with an agenda slide that promises a roadmap for discussion, followed by content that doesn’t match; a kind of dissonance sets in. Other times the speaker kicks off a talk with a lame joke that falls flat. I have seen pitches that have no clear call to action, a fatal oversight for persuasive presentations.

So, how can a speaker use storytelling as a tool for persuasion and memorability? I have spent my life in the practice of storytelling in one form or another — I draw from a background in rhetoric and speechmaking, literature and mythology, film theory, trial practice, and corporate communications. The takeaway is that you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to build a little storytelling structure around your presentation. A story structure can be as simple as a beginning, middle, and end.

Below I outline various best practice storytelling approaches for persuasive presentations. Note that here we are not talking about the visual expression of the deck, applying the design principles to slides, brand integration, how many words per slide, the delivery of a speech, managing fonts, etc.; these separate aspects of the discipline of presentation are also critical, and should be looked at closely as well.

A-to-B storytelling

Nancy Duarte’s TED Talk on the structure of great talks — A-to-B storytelling — is the gold standard for effective persuasive communication. In it, through a comparison of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch, she reveals the secret structure of great speeches — that compares what is to what could be. We’re here; we want to be there. These speeches take the audience on a journey of transformation. The audience becomes the hero willing to take up the call to action. A discussion of great storytelling starts here:

Medium.com’s “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen” series

Kudos to Andy Raskin’s article on Medium.com, “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen.” Here the author reveals the five-part structure of a pitch deck for Zuora, an enterprise software company. One time a client specifically asked me to make their pitch deck look like the Zuora deck; what made the Zuora deck effective was not so much the look of the deck as much as its storytelling structure (I actually find the image treatments in this deck a bit muddy, and one designer even redesigned the look of the deck while keeping its storytelling structure and content). Here is the structure of “the greatest sales deck”: 

1. Name a big, relevant change in the world
2. Show there’ll be winners and losers
3. Tease the “Promised Land”
4. Introduce features as ”magic gifts” for overcoming obstacles to the Promised Land
5. Present evidence that you can make the story come true

Medium.com has revisited this topic several times, looking at similar structures in decks for Salesforce and Drift.

Beyond Bullet Points

Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points should be on every presentation designer’s bookshelf. It provides a headline-based storyboard approach in a three act template that is rooted in the classical story structure: Act I sets up the story, Act II develops the action, and Act III frames the resolution. 

Act I is structured in five slides: 

Slide 1:   Establish the setting
Slide 2:  Designate the audience as the main character
Slide 3:  Describe a conflict involving the audience (Point A)
Slide 4:  Explain the audience’s desired state (Point B)
Slide 5:  Recommend a solution

Act II elaborates on key points using a hierarchical structure; each key point has a level of explanatory slides that are, in turn, further developed in more detailed slides that may be scaled down to adjust for time constraints. Act III concludes by tying the story back to Act I. The author provides a wealth of presenter tools on his website

The VC pitch

Guy Kawasaki recommends “The Only 10 Slides You Need in Your Pitch” for any presentation to reach agreement. I think it’s a great approach for seeking venture capital; at the same time, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, so use caution if you are not in a “shark tank” situation. 

  1. Title

  2. Problem / opportunity

  3. Value proposition

  4. Underlying magic

  5. Business model

  6. Go-to-market plan

  7. Competitive analysis

  8. Management team

  9. Financial projections and key metrics

  10. Current status, accomplishments to date, timeline, and use of funds


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