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5 Proven Tips to Tell a Compelling Story Virtually

Valerie Nadi

June 05, 2020

On presenting, United States President Woodrow Wilson said, “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation... if an hour, I am ready now.” How long do you think he would have needed to prepare for a virtual presentation?


If the thought of adapting to video meetings feels daunting, we have some good news: the storytelling skills you use in person are still essential online. In fact, they’re even more critical when presenting virtually. But there are other skills — such as data visualization — that can transform staring at a screen to a captivating experience.


In this blog we’ll walk through five fundamentals to tell a compelling story virtually. And while you still need to invest time preparing for an iconic presentation, this guide will get you there faster.



1: Build Your Story Framework

When faced with a new presentation, it might be tempting to immediately open your slide deck software. But that’s a good way to get lost in collecting — and eventually presenting — your research. If you want to share a story, rather than a thesis, then avoid this itch.

Start with a story framework to define at a high level who you’re talking to, what you need to communicate, and how you can make your audience care. There are three microsteps to the framework process:


  • Know your audience. Your presentation is a gift — it should be thoughtful and just what your customer wants. Pause and consider what pain points your contact is dealing with. You’ll want to do your homework, understand what’s on their mind, and show empathy. Remember, if they don’t want your present, it will sit unused, or be thrown in the trash.
  • Define your big idea. What is your goal — the idea you want your audience to latch onto, or the action you want them to take? Consider what makes your perspective or offering unique. What will happen to your customer if they follow your idea — or alternatively, if they don’t?
  • Map out the storyline. Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. Present the audience’s current situation and what they could achieve by adopting your solution at each of these stages. This creates interest, builds tension, and pulls the audience toward your idea. And be intentional about your final words! People will remember the last thing they hear before they remember anything else.

This might seem like extra work, but it will set you up for success. So enjoy the process! Pull from personal experience, be creative, have fun. If you don’t enjoy what you’re working on, then your audience won’t enjoy hearing about it.


2: Visualize Your Data

Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text. And when someone is meeting with you on screen, you have great real estate to leverage.


According to Forbes➚, we see 4,000 to 10,000 ads a day. We might not realize the numbers are so high because our brains are constantly filtering through visual messaging to understand what we need. Your presentation must clearly contain something your customer needs. Be the ad your audience remembers today!


To get started, try blue boxing your presentation — a practice of mapping out what sort of visuals you need to convey your idea. This should only be tackled after your storyline is drafted. Blue boxing will help you focus on the meat of the message rather than making things pretty. Here’s an example below.

Next, remember to keep it simple. You’re not intricately painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Eliminate every non-essential in your image. For example, if sharing a bar chart, then remove the borders, grid lines, and backgrounds. 


You can also use design principles to focus attention. For example, use a gray fill for bars that aren’t the emphasis of your talk track, and blue where you need your customer to focus. In the example below, the conversation might be around what is unique about Mondays and how that success can be emulated throughout the rest of the week.

3: Be Thoughtful and Inclusive

Being thoughtful and empathetic is more important than ever before. Be vulnerable and if you feel comfortable, share some challenges you may be facing during this time. This creates a space to have brave, authentic conversations. Also consider starting your calls with a check-in to understand how everyone is doing. Some people may enter the conversation preoccupied with other concerns. Acknowledging these can set minds at ease, help you to relate, and even anticipate interruptions — for example, parents stepping away as they juggle childcare ➚duties or take time to take care of elderly relatives.

Practicing empathy can also help you be an inclusive meeting presenter. In this sense, inclusivity means a variety of things, for example:


  • Cater your presentation to different learning styles. Include a mixture of spoken words, messages on screen, pictures, etc.
  • Be mindful of those with visual or hearing impairments. Use accessible color combinations➚ on slides, leverage software that enables closed captioning, and be camera-on so people can lip read. You may also consider typing high-level points into the group chat as you speak.
  • Consider everyone’s unique backgrounds. Use examples that are well known by your audience. Consider photos that reflect the societies in which you and your audience live and work.

The list above should get your wheels turning, but it’s not comprehensive.


4: Anticipate Distractions

This may sound like an obvious tip, but when you can’t rely on a “fallback” of face-to-face conversations, it’s imperative to test your technology before the meeting and resolve any technical issues.


You may also benefit from establishing clear roles, such as meeting facilitator, who can create order and help engage those on the other end. In a face-to-face meeting, one can read body language to determine who’s about to speak, how someone is feeling, and whether participants are engaged. This can be more challenging via video conference. The facilitator can mitigate these challenges by communicating best practices, such as turning one’s video camera on, muting notifications, and asking others to mute when not speaking.


5: Engage the Audience

To grab and maintain your audience’s interest, it’s important that your presentation feel like a two-way conversation. Review your agenda at the beginning and confirm everyone can stay for the entirety — if not, you may want to skip over non-essential items. Pause and check in throughout to invite questions, ask questions, and get a pulse check. And keep in mind that even asking rhetorical questions can help keep the audience engaged.


Sharing a doc through a tool like Quip➚, our real-time collaborative tool, can serve as a virtual white board of notes, feedback, and items to circle back on later. 


Within your delivery, paraphrase for emphasis. This can amplify your impact and also ensure those who missed a point earlier are aligned. And finally — remember to add thoughtful levity and have fun!


You have incredible ideas to share with the world, and by incorporating these best practices into your storytelling approach, those ideas will take flight:


  1. Build Your Story Framework
  2. Visualize Your Data
  3. Be Thoughtful and Inclusive
  4. Anticipate Distractions
  5. Engage the Audience


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