Throughout our leadership journey, we are constantly reminded of the essential nature of clear communications. We are expected to present on many topics to our teams, leadership, and professional organizations.
We have all experienced mind-numbing presentations, but the few we remember as exceptional have one thing in common – they tell a compelling story.
We all remember the story of the ugly duckling. That story sticks with us because it takes us along on the journey, makes us care, and at the end of the story, we feel better for having taken the trip.
Great presentations tell great stories.
They begin with helping everyone agree on what they see and see it in the same way. From a shared context, a common understanding emerges. People agree on what the situation is and why. They arrive at a collective position and agreement that change is necessary.
From this point, a course of action can be developed that everyone can rally around.
Aristotle teaches us that all stories come in three acts. If the story has subplots, they each have three parts.
Business presentations should follow the same structure. It does not matter whether you are presenting financial results to the street, speaking to a professional organization or conference, or making a pitch. We all make pitches; we all sell.
When we make budget proposals, we sell to senior leadership, and our story needs to be compelling to get our share of the limited capital and operating budgets.
This article explores the three-act structure in pitch decks because we all make them and sit through pitch meetings.
Jeremy Connell-Waite created the following graphic describing the three-act structure.
Mr. Connell-Waite is a Communications Designer at IBM in London and has produced many excellent videos and articles on storytelling that he shares on LinkedIn and other platforms.
Act 1 – The Beginning
The first step is defining the main character.
The main character of your story is an amalgamation of individuals with a vested interest in the outcome.
Economic buyers are the people to have to approve the budget. The business stakeholders are those who are directly impacted by a process change. Initiative leaders will have their performance reviewed based on the results of any actions taken.
The story you tell has to resonate with all of these people. Another reality is that many of them will not be in the room when you present.
Common Mistake No. 1 – Failing to understand the main character. Many only consider the point of view of a single person. Usually, the focus is on the individual we believe is the decision-maker. The actual decision maker is the person with the authority to sign a check.
Common Mistake No. 2 – We have all been in meetings where a vendor comes in and spends ten minutes presenting slides and talking about their firm. How many offices, how many countries, how many customers, blah, blah, blah. Before being allowed to make a pitch, the firm has been vetted. If you didn’t clear that hurdle, there would not be a meeting.
With the main character in mind, it is time to focus on the problem statement.
What is the dilemma? What needs to change and why?
The challenge must be framed in the context of the main character, not the people in the room. The audience will evaluate the pitch in terms of what is best for the organization and what works for them.
The problem statement also needs to be precise and vague at the same time. The statement needs clarity to show that you understand the audience’s needs. Your assertion needs to be flexible so that you can adapt as you learn from discussions without appearing to abandon the original position.
The quality of your problem statement starts the process of building credibility.
Act 2 – The Middle
In Act 1, you build empathy with your audience. You turn to logic and take on the role of guide and trusted advisor. You build credibility as you map out a plan to help the audience move forward. This credibility should focus mainly on the individuals who will be on the team. The firm may be great, but if the wrong team shows up, failure comes along for the ride.
As you prepare your pitch, you will develop a plan based on your research and information gathering. As with the problem statement, this has to be detailed enough to demonstrate capability and flexible enough to incorporate new information. The bulk of any pitch should be spent here. You need to work with the audience to have them understand the plan and believe it will work for them.
Common Mistake No. 3 – Equating methodology with execution. Methodology is about how you approach your work. Execution is all about who will do what and when.
Common Mistake No. 4 – Getting trapped in the presentation. You put much time and effort is preparing your presentation. You know the materials backward and forward. In the heat of the moment, especially when the questions are challenging, it can be hard to deviate from the script.
Act 3 – The End
Everything comes together in Act 3. With the Act 2 plan in mind, the audience believes it is time for a call to action. You need to remind them how the plan solves their problem, how it transforms them, and prepares them for the future.
Common Mistake No. 5 – Making the Call to Action too big. The larger the pitch, the more likely the path to adoption will require multiple stops. Make sure your call to action is one the audience can take on their own. If they cannot do what you ask, you will not gain any momentum.
Common Mistake No. 6 – Overplaying the fear factor. As part of the call to action, it is essential to remind them that “Not to decide, is to decide not to.” (Harvey Cox, Harvard) You cannot paint a dystopian view of inaction.
Common Overall Mistakes
Some common missteps apply to all three acts of storytelling.
Common Mistake No. 7 – Building the presentation before understanding the story. We have all worked with people who say, “I worked on something like this before.” They immediately pull up an old presentation and start updating it for the new audience. When this happens, you end up with yesterday’s story. It would be like trying to get your friends excited about season 4 of Game of Thrones when they are already watched all of season 5.
Common Mistake No. 8 – Creating materials that do not stand on their own. There will be people who need to weigh in on the recommendations of the pitch that were not in the room. If the presentation you leave behind cannot be ready with color commentary, the risk that the call to action will go unanswered increases dramatically. The bigger the pitch, the bigger the risk.
Common Mistake No. 9 – Using slides poorly. Slides need to support what is presented. They should not replace the speaker. The leave-behind materials should be separate documents that tell the whole story.
Common Mistake No. 10 – Failing to ask for time to update the materials. If the pitch went well and resulted in changes to the materials, do not leave the old ones behind. Commit to updating and returning them quickly. This prevents misunderstanding among people not in the room. It also makes the meeting attendees part owners of the materials, increasing the odds of success.
Telling a good story is hard. It takes patience, diligence, and rehearsal. Taking time to do it well improves your reputation as an effective communicator. Telling good stories is essential to leadership success. Through self-evaluation, trusted advisors, and coaches, we must constantly learn from our experiences and the experience of others. We must always push ourselves to expand our horizons and set expectations for ourselves.
Mark Rapier is the Managing Director of The Rapier Group LLC. His book, The Leader With A Thousand Faces, (CLICK HERE to get your copy) describes the leadership journey we all experience and gives perspectives to consider before you find yourself needing the answers.