Make Your Stories Come Alive

In September 2010 I received a package with a personalized note on crisp executive format paper from Mountain View, California. A place I have (still) never visited. The note was signed Nancy. It said:

“Dear Valeria,

I'm exited to send you a hot-off-the-press copy of Resonate. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Hopefully we can change the world one presentation at a time!”

Changing the world is hard. That is something I know, many of us know from experience. Having an idea is not enough. We need to be able to communicate it, to articulate its merits, to transmit its beauty, its urgency to others.

In my review of why visual stories resonate, I wrote:

Every time you present to a group — whether that be your colleagues, management team, the CEO, company investors, your customers, or conference attendees — you have an opportunity to connect.

However, transmission is only the tip of the iceberg. What all great presenters and communicators have in common is their ability to get you started on a journey — one that will prompt you to do something differently.

Ideas come alive in the creations of others. This is one of those essential books that keeps on giving you new insights every time you open it — and it is a visual bonanza for your coffee table where it can easily become a social object and prompt conversation. You can also access the multimedia version here where companion videos help tell the story of the important aspects to remember about presenting.

About the audience

The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to fit them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there. Your audience will be significantly moved if you send a message that is tuned to their needs and desires. They might even quiver with enthusiasm and act in concert to create beautiful results.

People are interested in stories, and in other people:

“The public is composed of numerous groups that cry out to us: ‘Comfort me.’ ‘Amuse me.’ ‘Touch my sympathies.’ ‘Make me sad.’ ‘Make me dream.’ ‘Make me laugh.’ ‘Make me shiver.’ ‘Make me weep.’ ‘Make me think.’” [Henri René Albert Guy De Maupassant]

A CEO I worked with for several years once told me that if you liked someone, chances are good that they liked you back. Liking the people in your audience is a good first step in getting to know them. Empathy for your audience and compassion for yourself as you tell your stories build the bridge to connection (Diego Garcia conveys connection in Inside my Heart.)

Multisensory is multimedia. I loved learning about Chinese artist Liu Bolin whose image is at the top of this post. He likes to blend into the picture, you can see the whole series here. Yet, for an idea to stand out, for it to be transformative, it needs to stand out — and it can do that through your personal stories and distinct delivery style. As Duarte says, blending in is never a good way to communicate.

This means changing how we show up when we present — standing tall, and yes, being ourselves. Influence is a side effect of interestingness. It may also mean taking risks to connect.

Any kind of transformation requires change:

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” [George Bernard Shaw]

Resonance causes change.

Ethos, pathos, and logos

Ethos, Pathos, Logo - AristotleAristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric we must employ to persuade are ethos, pathos, and logos. Editor and author Shawn Coyne shows you how you can identify them in a big idea book like The Tipping Point. Though we could argue that the principled aspect of ethos is often missing in action, the more challenging to express in business (and nonfiction writing) is pathos:

Pathos is the writer appealing to the emotions of his audience to get them on his side, arousing readers’ anger or appealing to their self-interest or sense of identity. As you’ll surmise, employing a fiction writer’s Story techniques is crucial to being able to make this form of persuasion for a Nonfiction writer. 

Hannah du Plessis uses a powerful expression when she talks about the value of feeling at work to help shape the conversation on value — if good work matters, feeling matters, she says.


You will find Duarte's advice on delivery and impact in a more portable book she authored as part of a series, the HBR Guide on Persuasive Presentations. The guide packs a lot of good advice in a short space. Some highlights from the delivery section:

  • rehearse your material well — roll with the unexpected and fully engage with the audience
  • anticipate technology glitches — odds of malfunction are high
For example, when I presented at re:Think Oslo to an audience whose English was a second language the connector stopped working just when I was getting started… we were on a tight schedule and program, and I did not want the energy in the room to vane, so I started with a story, a kind of prequel to some of my content that did not need any slides to create rapport and connection. When the slides resumed, I adjusted on the fly. This is one of the main reasons I use few words and mostly visuals in my decks — greater flexibility.
  • manage our stage fright — actions like walking outside, breathing, laughing, visualizing are some ways to calm nerves and get in flow

In my case, the story is my salvation. I often start a presentation with a story that sets the stage, brings people right in the middle of the action. This is probably due to my status as bookworm. For years (and still now), I read and studied the language of fiction writers.

  • communicate with your body — physical expression is powerful tool

If you've watched me present, even in photographs, you can see how my hands talk with me — I'm Italian, but I am also a passionate student of stage acting, starting with the sepia-colored photos of my father on stage.

  • make your stories come to life — re-experience them in your telling

Transporting people to the place and circumstances of your tale is an acquired skill. We can use our voice to do that. Julian Treasure says that to speak powerfully, we need to learn to adjust register, timbre — research shows we prefer voices that are rich, smooth like hot chocolate, and have some depth — prosody, pace, pitch, and volume. Silence is a good thing, too. I experienced the power of pause in a talk by Jim Collins at Wharton a few years ago. He had our full attention.

  • work effectively with your interpreter — pay attention to chemistry, pacing, and cultural relevance
Having done more than 1,200 hours of interpreting work from English into Italian and also from Italian into English, I can attest to the value of establishing rapport with your translator. When I spoke at Digital Age 2.0 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the talk was translated for some non-English speaker attendees, and so was the Q&A session. One more good reason to have visual slides and think about cultural references for the images. We may be a global melting pot, but we still live in different communities and think in different languages.
  • build trust with a remote audience — get past technology's barriers

If you've ever done a webinar you know what it feels like having no visual cues form your audience. Your voice is very important here. Standing up to project better from your whole ribcage helps. It also helps to organize strong visuals and text cues to use in lieu of people seeing you to keep interest high throughout.

For example, I recently live presented and recorded a two-hour webinar in Italian on personal branding from an iPad app. It was a trial by fire even though we had set aside time to work out technical details and I had rehearsed abundantly. I had prepared 88 slides and organized the flow with a beginning to set the stage, a middle working section, and an ending with the lessons in point and counter-point format as well as why it matters.

One attendee wrote (translated from Italian): “It was a very interesting webinar. I took away many useful tips on how to present myself and work to define my goals. Valeria was an effective and very pragmatic presenter.”

It was my first presentation in Italian in years — and it was remote. When you have no video, your voice is your most powerful tool, along with the visuals. Keep them interesting, simple, one concept per slide, and find an engaging rhythm to orchestrate sound and visuals.

Did I mention I had no ability to drive the deck? Get to know your tech support, too.

There is much more to say on making stories come alive. I also compiled more resources on the secret lives of talks.


[image of Liu Bolin art]