Simon Willison’s Weblog


Better presentations through storytelling and STAR moments

10th December 2019

Last week I completed GSBGEN 315: Strategic Communication at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The course has a stellar, well deserved reputation. It’s principally about public speaking, and I gained a huge amount from it despite having over fifteen years of experience speaking at conferences.

Some of the things that really stood out for me (partially in the form of catchy acronyms):

  • Every talk should start with an AIM: Audience, Intent, Message. Who are the audience for the talk? What do you intend to achieve by giving the presentation? With those two things in mind, you can construct the message—the actual content of the talk.
  • Try to include at least one STAR moment—Something They’ll Always Remember. This can be a gimmick, a repeated theme, a well-selected video or audio clip. Something to help the talk stand out.
  • Presentations are most interesting if they are structured with contrasts. These can be emotional high and low points, or content that illustrates what is compared to what could be. Sparklines are a tool that can be used to think about this structure.
  • The human brain is incredibly attuned to stories. If you can find an excuse to tell a story, no matter how thin that excuse is, take it.

That last point about stories is where things get really interesting. We reviewed the classic hero’s journey story structure... but with a twist.

When giving a talk, position your audience as the hero. They start in position of comfort and safety. Your job is to call them to adventure—guide them towards a dangerous and unknown realm, encourage them to take on new challenges, learn new things and finish the adventure in a new, advanced state of mind.

You’re not the hero—you’re more the mentor who they meet along the way.

One of the course texts was Nancy Duarte’s Resonate, which explains this model of presenting in great detail. It’s a really clever and surprising way of thinking about a presentation.

My JSK backstory

The backstory is a core tradition of the JSK fellowship I’m participating in this year at Stanford. Each week, one of the 19 fellows tells the story of their career and how they came to journalism.

Last Wednesday was my turn. The timing couldn’t have been more fortunate, as I got to apply the lessons I’d learned from Strategic Communications in putting together my presentation.

I think it was one of the best pieces of public speaking I’d ever done. Backstories include details that aren’t necessarily intended for a public audience so I won’t be sharing much of it here, but mindfully constructing an emotional sparkline and seeking out STAR moments worked out really well for me.

Since GSBGEN 315 is only available to Stanford GSB students, I’ll throw in a strong recommendation for reading Resonate as an alternative if this has sparked your interest.

Also this week

Preparing my backstory took up much of my time this week. I ended up losing my streaks against both email checking and Datasette contributions, but I’m hoping to pick those back up again now that the presentation is out of the way.

I posted the following museums to Niche Museums—one of which, the Centennial Light, we got to see on Saturday:

I’m getting concerned about how many not-quite-finished Datasette features I have outstanding now (I started exploring another one just the other day). I’m going to try to resist the temptation to pick up any more until I’ve shipped at least some of the 47 currently open feature tickets.

This is Better presentations through storytelling and STAR moments by Simon Willison, posted on 10th December 2019.

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