Nothing makes me want to master a new skill like falling on my face when I first attempt it. Halfway through my new hire presentation—a get-to-know-the-new-kid-over-beers tradition at IDEO Chicago—I cut my talk short and shamefully closed my laptop.
Far from the client presentations I had previously known, here, the emotional stakes were much higher. This was my personal story, and I was learning the hard way—in front of an audience of my new peers, no less—that I was clueless as to how I might frame a compelling narrative.
In other words, I had no idea how to tell a story.
Feeling awkward as can be, with a bruised ego to boot, I knew I had to improve my public speaking ability. Luckily, I fast became aware that I was surrounded by the best storytellers I had ever known. I began observing, writing down, and absorbing all of the knowledge, coaching, and feedback that was offered up.
It has been nearly seven years since I shut my laptop in shame. In this time, I have compiled a list of my five favorite, go-to tips from the best presenters at IDEO:
Your audience wants to see more than just a portfolio of work or a few case studies they could read on their phones. They want to hear your story. Who are you, how did you get here, and, most importantly, what are you passionate about and why? This latter idea should tie to the work you present.
Your talk should have a fully realized narrative, complete with dramatic tension and resolution. The tension in my personal story arrived when I haphazardly fell into the agency world, where the ideologies that drive me were completely at odds with the work I was doing. Resolution came when I left and made a major change in my career and my work.
A bit of history provides a compelling backdrop for the story of your work. When I talk about IDEO’s efforts in the automotive sector, I first tell the story of Thomas Midgley Jr., a chemist and mechanical engineer who invented leaded gasoline (and CFCs) while working for General Motors in the 1920s and '30s. Understanding the disproportionate, planetary-scale impact of Midgley's work sets up the formidable challenge that designers must now overcome.
OFFF Tel Aviv 2017
Ask yourself, is your story interesting enough that you would tell it to a friend over drinks at a bar? Bonus points: Conduct your bar exam with a friend who works outside of your industry, making it all the more challenging to capture their attention.
Always end on a punchline. Your punchline does not have to be funny, but it will be the overarching idea that people take home with them. In the context of an event with multiple speakers, your audience is endlessly bombarded with competing ideas and inspiration. When you stick your landing, they remember—perhaps even share—precisely what it is you aimed to communicate.
I have now employed the above tips from friends and colleagues at nearly 30 events over five years on four continents. I assure you, they work.
Special thanks to Annette Ferrara, Neil Stevenson, Shoshana Berger, Paul Bennett, Jenn Maer, Tim Brown, and Katie Clark. I owe you each a lifetime’s worth of experiences and airline miles.