The Narrative Backbone

Stop thinking of PowerPoint as a visual tool and you will dramatically improve your visuals, not to mention the quality of the entire communication experience.

Backbone My friend Frank Blair invited me to be a guest speaker last night at his UCLA Extension course in business planning, and I thought it would be fun to work with students in real-time to write a story template for a business plan and then transform it into a storyboard.

"Steve" volunteered his presentation, which was intended to raise investment capital for a dog-walking business. Together with the class we wrote the statements of his story template while they were projected on the screen – the first five slides of Act I went something like this:

  1. Los Angeles today is an affluent area ripe with opportunity
  2. Investors are always looking for ways to tap into this market
  3. Busy professionals feel guilty that they can’t care for their pets
  4. They will feel liberated when they don’t have to worry anymore
  5. Invest in my venture and we can tap into this growing market

After we finished the rest of the story template we turned it into a PowerPoint storyboard like Jim’s, consisting of only plain white slides with headlines.  Then I handed Steve the remote control and asked him to give us an impromptu presentation using only the headlines of the PowerPoint slides as he advanced one to the next.

HeadlineThe results?  Although it was a first-time presentation, it was fantastic. The simple headlines on a plain white background guided Steve through what he was going to say. Once he glanced at the headline, there was no more text for Steve to read so he turned to the audience and engaged them. He told funny stories. The audience laughed. He was natural and relaxed. The audience was very clear about what he wanted them to understand.

Importantly, all this happened without graphics on the slides. We would’ve gotten to that later if we had more time, trying out a range of creative options such as using a headline with a full-screen photograph to serve as a backdrop, or using screen captures or clip art. But in the meantime, only a simple headline, a speaker and an audience produced clear communication, goodwill and enjoyment. 

What carried the experience through was a strong narrative backbone in the form of the headlines from the story template. Without a visual to be seen on the slides, an engaging story emerged.  What we would’ve added to the slides later in the form of graphics would’ve only contributed levels of improvement to something that was already rock-solid.

When you treat PowerPoint first as a story structure tool, and later as a visual tool, you too can build a more beautiful body of communication experiences.

Tip: When you transform your story template into a PowerPoint storyboard, rehearse it with your very simple slides that feature only a headline. Stand up to give the presentation, and gather some co-workers as an audience if you can. As you advance to the next slide, read the headline and look at the audience and improvise what you want to say at this point. If a transition between slides is rough, or you need to change the wording of a headline, make a note. Then click to the next slide. You’ll find that at this early stage you will have a solid level of confidence in the ability of your headlines to serve as the backbone of a very solid story.

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One Response to “The Narrative Backbone”

  1. JD on MX says:

    Nouveau Powerpoint

    Nouveau Powerpoint: Cliff Atkinson has a whole bunch of articles here on ways to make Powerpoint presentations which don’t drive people as crazy as most Powerpoint presentations. One of his recurring themes is to use images to reinforce your speech,…

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