Beginnings can be beautiful, fun, and most of all, motivating.
But for a data-storyteller crafting a critical presentation, beginnings can also be stressful. When you have a mound of information to share, you can get paralysed by one thought: Where do I begin?
A break from the usual
Welcome to the first edition of 'Story Rules on Saturday' of 2021 - a year that brings in hope and cheer after a gloomy 2020 (although, as my friend Harish quips, the virus doesn't know that yet).
In today's post, I decided to postpone the usual book and other content recommendations, and, paying heed to the occasion, have decided to talk about beginnings...
Specifically, how to begin a critical data story you are presenting or writing.
(On that note, a very happy, safe, healthy and fulfilling 2021 to all readers!)
Beginnings can be tough - for both the presenter and the audience.
Now, there are a bunch of storytelling techniques that you can use to tackle these twin problems... which incidentally, I teach in the Data-Storytelling e-Course starting in a week's time!
But for this post, I will elaborate on just one of those techniques.
A technique that makes your audience think.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
Get the audience's attention - by asking for it!
While there are many ways to get someone's attention, there is one simple, powerful technique: Just ask them a question.
A well-worded question requires them to listen, understand and respond. In other words, pay attention.
Let's take a real-life example. I had a client (let's call him Arun) who had an insurance-tech startup. His firm provided consulting services to health-insurance policy-holders for filing accurate claims. We all know that health-insurance claims can be complex and challenging to fill - with a ton of disallowances mentioned in the fine print. If you don't fill the boxes right, or attach incomplete/wrong documentation, there is a high chance that your claim will be rejected. Arun's startup would help the policy-holders through the claim filing process and ensure that more money reaches their pocket.
Now that's all good. But if he was presenting this to an audience of customers (or even investors), what would be a powerful way to start? Normally, he would start with a variant of: "Hi, I'm Arun, founder and CEO of ABC Co. We provide consulting services to health-insurance policy-holders for filing accurate claims"
Good luck with getting the distracted audience's attention with that line.
Instead, here's what I suggested:
Arun (addressing the audience): Good morning everyone. Can I have a show of hands please - how many of you have filed a health insurance claim for yourselves or a loved one, anytime over the last 5 years?
Audience: (Most hands go up)
Arun: How many of you enjoyed the process?
Audience: (Almost all hands go down)
Arun: Hi, we are ABC, and we help take the pain out of the insurance claim filing process - and get more money into your pocket. Let me tell you how.
That evocatively worded question does two things. It gets your audience's attention right from the get-go, and sets them up for the exact benefit that the firm provides.
Some caveats/tips on the use of this technique
While starting with a question can be impactful, there are pitfalls you need to avoid. Here are some additional tips:
1. Avoid open-ended questions: An open-ended question (like 'What problems do you face when filing health insurance claims') is risky, as the audience's response can be unpredictable and lead to unnecessary digressions. You might lose control of the narrative. Instead…
2. Use close-ended or bounded questions: A close-ended question (answers in Yes or No) is good since it's simple and makes the point clearly. You could also make the question 'bounded' by creating a poll with limited options or giving folks a range. But try and make sure that you...
3. Surprise the audience with the answer: The true impact of a question is when the answer surprises the audience. If, in the example above, you ask them a question like 'How many of you are frustrated with filing your insurance claims', you might get a bunch of hands going up, but it wouldn't nearly be as impactful. It's the contrast between the two questions that creates the impact of surprise. (Incidentally, I've earlier written about surprise - how to use one of the most powerful emotions at a storyteller's disposal).
4. Keep backup responses to all types of situations: Let's face it. When you ask a question, you are relinquishing control of the narrative to the audience - even if it's for a brief few moments. You cannot predict how the audience will respond. What do you do when they don't go the direction you intended?
For instance, in the above example, let's say when you ask for the second show-of-hands question (how many found it frustrating), what do you do if no one responds?
Here's what I would say. "Oh, so most of you haven't faced the frustration of filing health insurance claims - that's great, I'm happy for you! But when we ask this question to most groups the response is ..." and then you rejoin your regular narrative.
Essentially, you need to have a backup response to all sorts of audience replies - and ensure that you are back on your narrative track.
5. Sense the mood of the room: Finally, it's important to sense the audience's mood - are these folks in the mood to respond to questions? Sometimes, if it's a tense situation (the previous presentation didn't go too well, or there was some major argument), the audience may not be in the mood to answer questions. Take a call based on what you sense.
To recap, beginnings are important to get the audience's attention - and one of the best ways to do that is to ask them a well-worded question with a surprising answer. Try it out and let me know how it goes!
Stay safe and healthy!