The Importance of The Narrative

Posted on May 17, 2011 | 71 comments


I went to undergrad at UCSD, which is not a place known for its Greek institutions and my father grew up in South America and had no idea what a fraternity was.

So I went to college with no expectation that I would ever join a fraternity let alone aspire to become president one day. Yet being in a fraternity was one of the most transformative experiences I had in college and prepared me better for becoming an entrepreneur than any class that I took.

I didn’t pledge until the spring quarter of my freshman year and even then I only did it because of the free beer. I pledged what was then the best fraternity on our campus, Phi Delta Theta.

By sophomore year I got the inspiration to hold leadership positions in the fraternity. I started off by running some lower-level roles like community service. By the end of my sophomore year I had taken on the role of education for our new freshman pledges and by the first quarter of my junior year I led the pledge class entirely. I then led our “rush” initiative, which is basically “recruiting,” followed by becoming “social chairman,” which, yes, meant I threw great parties. I still do.

During this period of time I learned how to raise money, collect dues, recruit new members, plan & hold events with hundreds of people as well as deal with security and legal exposure. Having held all of the major operational functions of the fraternity I was ready for “real leadership.”

I heard that Dean Holter was running for President and I knew he was too popular to beat so I set my sights on Vice Presidency. It’s pretty easy to be liked after you’ve just held a successful tenure as social chairman. So I came to our weekly chapter meeting where the election was to be held. I was up against Gregory Solomon, who joined later than I did, had less operational roles than I and who wasn’t in the uber popular crowd. Easy peasy.

I told the chapter the roles I had held and why I was ready to be Vice President. It was factual, short and designed to show that I had done all of the requisite jobs.

Gregory was into theater. He understood how to create emotional responses. I presented behind a lectern.  Gregory sat on a table in the middle of the circle and rolled up his sleeves. He spoke of broader themes, of better times of what his hopes were for the fraternity. He spoke on human terms. At a base level. He kicked my ass.

I was devastated. I had never lost anything like this that I had set out my ambitions of accomplishing. I was sure I’d win. It was humiliating. But I walked away with a big lesson that I carry to this day.

When you speak to crowds – whether 5 or 500 – you need to tell a story. Your speech needs to have a cohesive narrative to it. You need a thesis. You need to speak in human terms. You need emotion. You need to CONNECT.

Fast forward a year. I decided to run for President. Dean Holter had served out his term. I was to run against Rick Meyreles (who was as popular as Dean Holter) and Craig Hickox (who had just finished as social chairman). Dean called me and asked me not to run. He said I didn’t have a chance to win. He asked if I would run for Vice President. Then Gregory called me and asked the same.

I thought – no fucking way. If I’m going to put in the effort I’m going to run the fraternity. I had the experience and leadership skills. It was go big or go home. I prepared this time. I prepared and practiced my speech. It was an emotional one. I talked in themes. I talked about how all of my peers kept saying, “The fraternity had changed, it’s not what it used to be when Dave Friend was a leader. When Robertson was president. When Stedman ran the pledge class. It was going down hill.”

Me:

“Of course we’re not going down hill.  Don’t you see that when we were young those leaders thought the fraternity had changed from the days when their elders were running it? Don’t you get it? It’s now us. They are we. It’s time for us to step up and assume the mantle. It’s time for us to honor their traditions and make new ones.

There is a generation of young Phi’s who are looking up to us. This fraternity is as great as the day I joined it. Better. And my presidency will be about upholding all that our elders entrusted in us when they selected us to join Phi Delta Theta.”

The big question was which of the two of us would be in a run off since with 3 qualified candidates nobody would be able to secure the 50% + 1 required to win the candidacy outright.

Except that I did. I won in a landslide with no runoff required. I was no better than they were (in fact, Rick succeeded me as president). But by then I understood the power of the narrative to prove a point and persuade a crowd.

And I hope that this narrative will help reinforce the point for you. Whether you’re presenting to a small group of people or a large audience your presentation must have a narrative to effectively get your points across. 2 hours after you’ve left the room the people you met will already have forgotten much of the details. Yet if you’ve painted enough of a picture, if you’ve used enough analogies, if your story is cohesive and has themes then people will remember the general sense of the points you wanted to make.

So some quick guides although building a narrative is a very hard thing to teach (at least for me). I talked specifically about it in the context of raising VC / establishing credibility over on the Sales School blog where there’s a video & a transcript. They’re going t0 publish all 4 parts of my talk. Today is the only day I’ll be linking so if you’re interested make sure to check back there.

Below are some separate thoughts.

1. Have a thesis from which to build your story – If you don’t start by knowing what the central point(s) you’re trying to make are then you can’t construct a storyline that supports them. For today’s post, for example, my thesis was that story telling and narrative are some of the most important tools you can use for persuasion in meetings, to connect with an audience and to ensure that recipients retain the knowledge you present. My story was to tell the example of Gregory’s speech and my subsequent one. I hope that this story of loss, set back, reflection and ultimately triumph will help you remember the importance of the narrative.

2. Have supporting evidence -You can’t just tell a story in business. That’s for theater. You need facts that support your storyline. In any great argument you have the central thesis and then 3+ supportive facts that build the story out from the thesis. Think of it this way: assertion, proof point, proof point, proof point. If you want to make a second assertion you follow it up with more supporting evidence.

3. Use analogies -I love analogies because they stick in people’s brains and form a short hand for deeper knowledge.

These are all analogies designed to make broader points and help you remember the thesis.

4. Keep it human -Far too many presentations, keynote speeches, conference panels or blog posts seem wooden. We live in the era of authenticity. Be human. Don’t take that to mean you should take liberties in meetings and be buddy-buddy with people. Unless invited to, you should not. But don’t try to sound too smart. Don’t be too rigid. Show that you have creativity, humor, emotion, ability to build rapport and that you’d be fun to hang out with. In a business sort of way ;-) People like to work with people they like. That’s a fact. Or at least an assertion.

5. Reinforce the storyline at the end -I know that there’s a tired rule for presentations that says: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. So here’s my updated version of the same point. Give people a map up front that tells them the general content you’re going to cover. Then give them the content. Then summarize in a non-cheesy way at the end and draw it all together with your central thesis.

See what worked for getting Gregory to trounce me for Vice President and me in turn to win the Presidency was the same thing. We had good underlying products, we told a compelling and human story about why we were great products and then we wrapped up by reinforcing our key messages to drive retention just before the constituency had to vote on whether to back us or not.

Appendix:

I spoke recently at NYU at the SalesCrunch presentation day and Gregory Solomon was in the audience. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. What a delight to catch up. I was there to talk about how to give great presentations so what a wonderful way to open my presentation by telling the story above. If you have any interest at all the 8-minute YouTube of me telling my story about Gregory is here.

  • Guest

     Was this typed on an iPad with lots of auto corrects or something? Seems like a lot of accidental typos or incorrect words.

  • http://www.stevesdrop.com steve liu

    Great insight.  I’ve had the opposite experience where I gave a very impassioned speech at our fraternity elections talking about big themes and higher hopes. Really hit home for a few people, but then otherwise turned into a popularity contest.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    No. It was typed at 1.30am with bleary eyes and little patience for proof reading ;-) 

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LOL. I guess you need a bit of both. 

  • http://www.stevesdrop.com steve liu

     :’(

  • Martin P

    Sound advice indeed.  For more of the same (in more depth) I’d recommend the book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” by Carmine Gallo.

  • http://anyessays.com/ buy essay

    Wow, this was a really great post! I enjoyed reading it and although each point was short and to the point, they were all factual and very helpful!

  • http://www.affenstunde.com James Barnes

    On analogies: yes, they’re great, but piled on top of each other they become cliches or worse: BS. Use sparingly

  • http://wildirishguy.com Damon Oldcorn

    You seem like one of the good guys …keep going even if on the late shift. Trying to do the same here in London UK for the All Ireland crowd. 

  • muratcannoyan

    Great post Mark, thanks! Your ability to humanize each post is remarkable. I’ve been putting together marketing collateral that will need to be seen through a re-focused lense.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    as TechStars has started recruiting the next class of applicants, i’ve been helping a few teams with the process.

    the #1 thing i’ve been saying is “be human and tell a story!”  they’re so quick to rattle off stats and facts and pitch their business, that i have no idea who i’m talking to and why i should listen to them.

    once you understand a character, you then have a starting point from which to form an arc.

    great post, Mark. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/tedinoue Ted Inoue

     Mark, thanks for reinforcing that message. As a geek, it’s far too easy to get sucked into technical specifications and mechanics when making presentations so my wife frequently reminds me of the same points – make an emotional connection with your audience and speak from the heart. 

  • http://twitter.com/soumitra1 Soumitra Paul

     This is a wonderful post. I’m almost obsessed to give nice presentations. But never pitched to a VC yet. 
                  I completely agree with you on the point that story-telling is a very important part of any presentation. But I think a pinch of humor at regular intervals during the presentation keep the audience more attentive, generally speaking. I try to keep a humor-element in all my presentations (Oral or maybe a funny slide).

    However, I’m little skeptical about a humor-element while pitching to a VC.  Do VCs appreciate a mild essence of humor in presentations? Or is it better to not take the risk?

  • http://twitter.com/soumitra1 Soumitra Paul

     This is a wonderful post. I’m almost obsessed to give nice presentations. But never pitched to a VC yet. 
                  I completely agree with you on the point that story-telling is a very important part of any presentation. But I think a pinch of humor at regular intervals during the presentation keep the audience more attentive, generally speaking. I try to keep a humor-element in all my presentations (Oral or maybe a funny slide).

    However, I’m little skeptical about a humor-element while pitching to a VC.  Do VCs appreciate a mild essence of humor in presentations? Or is it better to not take the risk?

  • http://twitter.com/normarcher norm archer

    Spot on, Mark, and thanks as always for the candor.  I often look back at what might have been had I not pledged a fraternity. Ulitmately, though, as an only child from a small Maine town, learning to cope with 40 adrenaline-junked rugby players who wanted to (literally) light my room on fire in “the house” taught me far more than any Philosophy class ever could.  I had to figure out how to win these guys over.  I learned a ton about connecting with people, finding common ground, propelling a group forward. (As social chair I managed to bring more girls to the parties simply by getting the majority to forego Pantera and Megadeath on the mix tape for  some Young MC and faded disco tracks — a total coup.)   

    Humility and authenticity move you much faster along the path towards success than telling people what you think they might want to hear.  And it’s a lot easier to sleep at night…though frat life did teach me to sleep with one eye open, not a bad skill either!   

  • http://www.justanentrrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    Ha.  Brother in the Bond.  Penn Zeta.   I am convinced there was something in the water (or more likely kegolator) from how many CEO’s of high tech companies we have in my cohort.

  • Paul Dimoh

     Great advice Mark (this post and the previous)……..And after having been involved in re-founding a fraternity when I was a freshman in undergrad, I can definitely see how the experience of operating a fraternity prepares someone for becoming an entrepreneur, more so than any class.  Probably one of the most entrepreneurial activities in which I had ever been involved, and we built almost from the ground up.  In addition to the other lessons you mentioned, just the recruitment aspect alone, taught me valuable lessons in selling, marketing, getting others to buy into the idea, etc.

  • Paul Dimoh

    and by the way, that was almost 10 years ago. We have a reunion within several days. 

  • http://analytikainc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    Great story and underlying points! One of the most memorable aspects of your blog is the analogies – they stick around well past the original article.

    I remember when I discovered the power of what you are describing as it was a turning point in my presentation style. It was my final presentation in business school – I had literally turned off my originally prepared slide deck and just spoke from the heart with a few core points. It was my best presentation at that time, was well received, and changed my method going forward.

    Great stuff.

  • http://www.ticktocking.com Steve Hallock

    In my current job, I do quite a bit of presenting, whether it be to clients (retailers), customers, or press.  You have, unfortunately, just divulged my secret to the masses ;)

    I talk very little about the nitty-gritty of the product (although I know it well and am prepared for any question).  Instead I tell a story of my passion, and why I feel whatever I’m talking about is important.  On that level, I can connect with anyone.  It is all inclusive – those who want more nuts and bolts will always ask for it, but those who don’t leave remembering what I said and the (true) passion with which I said it.  If the people you are talking to leave inspired and excited, you’re going to get much better results than if they just left “knowing all the facts”.

    There is a caveat.  You have to really know the ins and outs of what you’re pitching/selling, truly believe in it, and be comfortable speaking about it.  A monotonous detail guy selling a widget he doesn’t care about is going to come across as awkward or insincere.

  • http://jeffmcneill.com/blog/ Jeff McNeill

     Great stuff!

  • M Marks

    Great post!
    It’s a priceless skill.
    If you’re interested in an in-depth study. Pick up. Tell to Win by Peter Guber

    Peter is the founder of Mandalay Entertainment. His book is Outstanding.
    The title says it all. Tell to Win

  • Anonymous

    More great advice and common sense. The greatest enemy of presentations that flow and capture an audience’s imagination is the Power Point trap. (yes, I know Steve Jobs presents with slides using Keynote, but 1. It’s his product 2. he’s a maestro presenting his emotionally captivating product design creations)

    My main point is you can captivate an audience without ‘a deck’. And like in music, the performances that leave you speechless are those where all eyes and ears are on the performing artist – not a bunch of people hypnotically staring at slides full of bullet points;)

  • http://mattreport.com Matt Medeiros

     Awesome tips here!

    Analogies are always key to getting people to “click.”

  • http://twitter.com/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

     This is a great post.  Very rarely do people get emotional about facts or stats, rather people become connected to and are moved by stories.   Set the stage, create the conflict and overcome it.  Build your audience into the story.   Good stuff.

  • Guest

    FaF 

  • Satish

    What’s worked for me in my past business development life is to use a deck as a backdrop, but really find a way to connect with your audience, read their reactions, and adapt on the fly. To do that, the absolute essential is that you have to know your subject matter inside out so you can tap dance around the subject but still make your point (along the lines of point #1). Second, you are passionate about it – this seems obvious, but many times there are presenters who focus on the bullet points rather than the people who are listening to those points. 

    On the other hand, sometimes, your audience comes in with a predisposed notion, and even when you try your best, they refuse to connect as they just focus on the bullet points and not you (this is something I faced in my new entrepreneurial life when I met some VC’s, usually through a weaker introduction).

  • Satish

    What’s worked for me in my past business development life is to use a deck as a backdrop, but really find a way to connect with your audience, read their reactions, and adapt on the fly. To do that, the absolute essential is that you have to know your subject matter inside out so you can tap dance around the subject but still make your point (along the lines of point #1). Second, you are passionate about it – this seems obvious, but many times there are presenters who focus on the bullet points rather than the people who are listening to those points. 

    On the other hand, sometimes, your audience comes in with a predisposed notion, and even when you try your best, they refuse to connect as they just focus on the bullet points and not you (this is something I faced in my new entrepreneurial life when I met some VC’s, usually through a weaker introduction).

  • http://twitter.com/NickyChips Nik Souris

    And a great corollary to 5/15 post here on @msuster:disqus ‘s blog with the non-screen presentation.  It’s a story.  Case in point – how many multi-million dollar deals get done there in LA or on/off Broadway with just a story?

    And the more authentic, deliverable and easier your audience can retell it to other the better the chances of that story coming to life.

  • Margaret Johns

     Great advice.  I forwarded it to my 14 year old step daughter.  And printed out a copy for myself as a checklist in my next client pitch:-)

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Great post!  It is important to keep it easy and be humble, for that will gain you respect later when you have to prove a point/idea.

    On the note of Fraternity, I tried sending to a couple of guys via Twitter a link to a funny commercial regarding Tequilla…it was forwarded to me over a year ago.  Turns out it goes to the gmail, so it probably didn’t work on a mobile.  I’m placing it here (it still is via gmail), because (though many of you may have seen it) it is a good one. 

    https://mail.google.com/mail/?ui=2&ik=1d94e6fcc6&view=att&th=12ff57a034ab7af3&attid=0.1&disp=safe&zw 

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Great advice Mark, once again my university professors should probably re-read this, weekly. It also sounds like this post is a “charismatic leader” extension to point #5 here - http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2009/12/19/what-makes-an-entrepreneur-511-inspiration/

    Thank you for writing!

  • http://www.coreideas.com Harriet Meth, Core Ideas

    Narratives are powerful communication tools because our human brains
    internalize and process information as narratives or stories. So you are
    spot-on when you talk about how a narrative allows us to humanize our
    message. It’s about relevance and hopefully a message that gets woven
    into the fabric of the narrative that reaches out and touches everyone
    on some level.

    A good analogy is a fantastic tool for demystifying complex ideas and creating a common denominator for the audience. Your “startups should flip burgers” is a great example of how a broader idea can be visualized quickly and internalized as part of your storyline.

    These are essential tools of a good storyteller and something I’ve been reinforcing for 17 years as a media and executive coach.

    Good stuff Mark. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/TimHoyt Tim Hoyt

    Love this post. One key aspect to deliver a captivating thesis is to nail the challenge/threat/headache facing your audience. Although it can feel a bit risky, once you paint a picture of the actual challenge the audience is facing, you will capture their attention in a big way. By basing your frat speech narrative around the fear that the frat was going down hill, you were able to cast the current members as the hero of the story that would not let that happen.  Many business presentations (and products) offer an interesting solution, but never nail a real problem. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/easyrevolver Ben Watkins

     Bravo! Encore!

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    So true.  
    We listen to people who really care.
    People who really care speak with passion, and about how the change they want to make in the world makes a difference in the quality of life of somebody.
    I think venturehacks said “investors don’t invest in businesses.  they invest in stories about businesses.”  I like.
    Great story. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G4HCHIBZWSBMGPA5WDJYSRGONE Mark

    People who want to learn how to better speak in public can try out their local Toastmasters groups.  These skills really can be learned.

  • LaVonne

    Excellent post Mark and a great story to illustrate.

    I have found it hard to bring out the narrative when pitching investors. It bewildered me because way back when I was a trial lawyer I was great at it. I just assumed I could summon a narrative better when it was my client’s case and somehow the loss of objectivity when pitching for me was getting in the way.

    One of the comments to this post triggered a different possibility. Getting too caught up in establishing my command of the facts is a challenge I feel in front of investors. In front of a jury I had the credential and it was all about my client. Between your post and that comment I think I’ve saved myself some coaching fees.

    Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/jw512 Jason Wesbecher

    Setting aside all but 1 Dean Wormer reference…

    A mentor educated in behavioral science once told me: “No fact can ever undo any person’s belief.”  I consider it to be profound coaching given the profession we are all in.  We all deal in market sizes, slideware, financial projections, forecasts…  Sometimes we drown the audience in facts, regardless of relevance to our point, the accuracy or the legitimacy.  But you gotta engage the HEART as well as the mind if you want to increase your batting average.  I’ll blog on the “how to” some day when @msuster:disqus  shames me into it.  Meantime, I’m just fat, drunk and stupid.

  • Benjamin Boxer

    Penn zeta as well. Great post. Your insights are inspiring. YITB.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

     Thanks Mark. Reminds me of  ’Reason leads to conclusions while emotions lead to action’.

    Often forgotten. 

  • http://www.mactonweb.com seo bangalore

    Good post,It has a lot of information.

  • http://about.me/johnmccarthy johnmccarthy

     Spot on.  But disappointed  you didn’t reference “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”  That line pretty much sums up the post on several levels. 

  • Jay

    More interesting story-building tips here: http://jaywilliamspr.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/build-your-arc/

  • http://www.knockdownninja.com Dan Voell

     Great post. Actually just had this approach work for me at demo day last week. There tends to be a disconnect between what we are taught in school and what works for garnering emotional attachment. School is all about puking out as many points as possible and proving we are smart. Real life presenting is about emotion and simplicity. 

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

     Leading a fraternity taught me where I fit in the startup ecosystem.  I highly encourage it.

  • Paul Spinrad

    Yes!  As I see it, VC’s are basically story editors.  Remember the title
    character (played by Tim Robbins) from the movie “The Player”?  He was a
    story editor.

     

  • http://twitter.com/jwmares Justin Mares

     Proud to be a Phi. Thanks for the tips! 

  • Anonymous

     I rarely comment on these things but as an ex-rush chair and social chair I’ve always found it difficult to explain to non-greeks how valuable the experience was, and feel it doesn’t get anywhere near the level of respect it deserves. We started our own fraternity so it was even more applicable, having to convince potential members to take a chance on an unknown group of guys. I’m glad to see someone reputable advocating this point of view!

  • Anonymous

    Great advice.  For those interested in further exploration, check out James Humes’s (former speechwriter for four US presidents including Reagan) series of public speaking books.  Gives really good points on narratives.
     
    The best one I found is “Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers”.  These are not textbooks but the real deal on speechwriting and speech delivering, which you can start using even in social settings the same day and notice the difference in responses.
     
    See y’all at the top.