Powerful examples and stories

Have you ever noticed the way that examples and stories can add power to a message? Examples and stories make abstract concepts concrete.They grab attention, encourage readers/listeners to get caught up in the content, and make messages seem real and relevant. They’re also highly memorable.

In their short paper ‘Making your presentation stick’, Chip and Dan Health describe stories and examples as the building blocks of a presentation. They argue that stories and examples make the big picture understandable and plausible, because they provide evidence for readers and listeners.

The power of stories was brought home to me last Thursday, when I attended a short lecture by Brisbane-based journalist Madonna King. She had her audience enthralled with her stories about real people and how they’ve demonstrated leadership. It’s the stories (and her style of telling them) that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten her more abstract comments about women in leadership.

Chip and Dan Heath argue that a presentation should be a sequence of concrete examples and stories that snap together to form a compelling argument. Of course, they make their point through a series of stories showing how this works in action. They take their own advice, and lead with examples before moving on to the abstract point that they want to make.

It’s the combination of examples and stories with the higher-level abstraction that makes for a powerful message. Without the examples and stories, abstract messages are mind-numbingly boring. But without the higher-level abstraction, examples and stories become entertainment – place-fillers with no underlying purpose.