The title was just to grab your attention. The tl;dr version of this post is: get good at story telling. It’ll help you with two things:

  1. Becoming a better presenter.
  2. Improving your memory.

I urge you though, to read this post in it’s entirety. You might some of the stories interesting:

Presentations are generally looked at with much anxiety and trepidation (within the tech community at least). There are two ways to combat this:

  1. Practice like crazy (joining a group like Toastmasters helps)
  2. Have something interesting to say.

Obviously, you have to do both to become a good presenter, but I want to focus more on the latter point. You know what most human beings find interesting? Stories! Even crappy ones. We’re wired from birth to like stories. If i heard two presentations, both of mediocre quality, i would definitely prefer the one that had a story to tell. I think stories make your presentations more personal and relatable. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be your own. People relate more easily to stories because they feel they can associate themselves with your pain/experience. A post on ninjasandrobots (how cool is that domain name!) talks about leading with pain. It boils down to telling a story.

Using stories to captivate

If you tell a great story, then it sticks. I have a professor here in CMU, that uses this tactic and boy is it mesmorizing. It totally helps that he’s got the experience (MIT, previous CTO of the research dev labs of a tech giant that makes phones etc. Hint: if you’ve used a mobile phone in the past 5-8 years, you have definitely used his ex-company’s phones). We were working on a project with him on collecting sensor data. He gave us an example of how data is always valuable. The only problem, is that the value of that data is realized at a different time.

He gave us this example: the fire department had a service where people could call in emergencies, along with pictures of the site. You can’t really control the inflow of data with the public, so you had people sending in pictures of dead cats around the city. Yes this was tragic, but there isn’t really much a fire department can do now with this info right? Yes and No. A few weeks later, there was an anthrax scare in the city and it was extremely important for the HAZMAT department to find the source of the outbreak. You know which creatures are most sensitive to anthrax? cats. Suddenly those dead cat pictures became tremendously useful, in tackling a major disease outbreak. That story was one of the many, that our professor told and mesmorized us into working on his project (note to self: write more posts about those stories).

Improving your memory

I gave this goofy presentation on Roshambo 2.0 (the lizard-spock variant popularized by The Big Bang theory) once and obviously the presentation required that I get the sequence right. It’s pretty tricky, even Sheldon got it wrong… multiple times. This was sort of a lightening talk I had to give at school and it was a casual setting, which meant the audience were my friends and they would totally rip me apart if I got it wrong. I thankfully got it right in one shot :D and it didn’t really matter if my delivery style, poise, body language etc. was great. My presentation was a success mostly because I got it right in one swoop. People came up to me and asked if i had a photographic memory? It’s actually quite the opposite. I have a horrible memory. Close friends know that I have the admirable feat of genuinely forgetting my own birthday one year (if my dear folks and brother hadn’t reminded me at 12:00am, I would have probably gone through the whole day not realizing I clocked another year). Digression aside, the way I managed to get Roshambo 2.0 right was that I weaved a crazy story in my head to follow the sequence. If you aren’t interested in the story that I came up with, skip the next paragraph (why did you start reading this post though?).

I imagined myself starting with a pair of scissors cutting paper.I look at the paper and then realized i had used that to cover a rock once, the same rock that I used to chuck at a lizard. That pesky lizard was a blue necked one, similar to the one that poisons Spock in a fictional Star Trek episode. In that fictional episode, Spock was so mad with Kirk’s tomfoolery, that he chucks a scissor at Kirk, but misses and lands up breaking it. Kirk to make up for his actions, decides to kill/decaptiate the same blue necked Lizard(that poisoned Spock), with a scissor. During the battle, the Lizard needed nutrition, so it decides to eat paper. In a crazy twist of serendipitous circumstances, the paper consumed was the same one that Kirk initially wrote to disprove Spock, in an experiment Spock was doing, to vaporize Rock. Oh and Rock beats Scissors. The key here is to make your own story cause this might make no sense at all, but in my head I can see the whole story playing out crystal clear.

It’s magical how stories can greatly help improve memory. I’m pretty sure there are scientific studies conducted by people far more experienced and knowledgeable than me, proving this point but Roshambo 2.0 was proof enough for me.

If you’re not as excited as you were led to believe reading this post, I leave you with links to presentations given by the masters. You cannot not be impressed after this.

Sir Ken Robinson

Doesn’t use slides, has a great sense of humor, comes up on stage and just tells his story (with an impressive British accent):

Steve Jobs

You know he was going to be mentioned somehwere in the post…

Randy Pausch

Besides the amazing stories he tells, his story alone is impressive and moving enough to captivate the audience.

For the techies:

Tech presentations can also be made interesting. Here are some random examples that are favorites of mine:

Rock on!