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Book Review: Storytelling with You: Plan, Create, and Deliver a Stellar Presentation, by Cole Nussba

Storytelling with You: Plan, Create, and Deliver a Stellar Presentation by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic is the current #1 Bestseller in Business Communication on Amazon, following her bestselling book Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals. Knaflic is a popular writer with the ability to break down complicated processes into simple steps.


Knaflic deconstructs presentations into three easy-to-remember phases: Plan, Create, and Deliver. She covers the complete presentation process from understanding the audience to post-presentation review and assessment. Her process is software agnostic and refreshingly low-tech. She reinforces the concepts of each chapter with a sample business case for TRIX snack mix.


Plan


During the Plan phase, readers are urged to resist the temptation to sit down and start creating slides. Knaflic takes a more thoughtful approach, where you consider your audience, craft your message, compile the pieces, and form a story … all before making the first slide.


Almost everyone in the presentation literature emphasizes the importance of understanding your audience, but few provide the specifics on how to do this. Knaflic gives specific guidance. The process is simple when you are dealing with a specific decision-maker, but more difficult with mixed, virtual, or unknown audiences. The author addresses all these situations.


Crafting your message revolves around developing a “Big Idea,” where you articulate your point of view, convey the stakes, and form it in a single complete sentence. She addresses the reader’s questions about the challenge of formulating the “Big Idea.” Knaflic then encourages presenters to get feedback on their idea. Feedback is a recurring theme throughout the book.


The author takes a low-tech approach to compile the presentation pieces. The process starts with brainstorming ideas on sticky notes. Brainstorming is intended to capture a wide range of content without a great investment in time. This makes it easier to reject ideas that don’t necessarily fit later in the process. Knaflic also urges the presenter to get feedback at this stage, noting that this can be done by a team, as well as by an individual.


Once your ideas are documented, you can form them into a story. The author introduces story structure and settles on the five-part structure based on Freytag’s Pyramid, with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This approach can be woven into more complex structures. Knaflic explains how to effectively weave personal and illustrative stories in the process. Storytelling is powerful, but Knaflic also identifies situations where it may not be the best solution.


Create


Knaflic stresses a thoughtful, structured approach to presentation creation. It begins by setting the style and structure and then delves into the words, graphs, and images on your slides. This section will be familiar to PowerPoint users but is valuable for those using other software as well.


She stresses the importance of color, font, and layout of a slide presentation. You may be delivering a branded presentation for your organization, following a conference slide design, or developing your style. In any event, the process starts with the development of a template to encode your style.


After making these selections, you should develop a slide master before designing your theme and content slides. This will establish the look and feel of your presentation. At this point, you can title your slides and create your presentation navigation scheme. The author recommends vetting your slides in the slide sorter view to ensure that the presentation flow makes sense.


Words on slides play a critical role in our visual communications. They can pique interest, set expectations, illuminate, explain, and reinforce. Words can also overwhelm, complicate, irritate, and distract.

Knaflic starts the chapter on “Words” with the presentation title. She prefers an active title that foreshadows your key takeaway over a generic, descriptive title. For example, rather than saying “Supplier Analysis,” you should say something like “Changing our supplier strategy could reduce costs,” a more active title.

Slide titles should give each slide’s takeaway message. The audience should be able to understand the presentation outline from the slide titles. Presenters should close by reiterating their message or concentrating on a call to action. The number of words on all slides must be kept to a minimum … you want the audience to focus on you and not focus on reading the slides.


Executed well, a graph brings an awesome “aha” moment of understanding, turning data into information that can be used to make a smarter decision, have a more robust conversation, or act with greater confidence.

Knaflic disputes the claim that numbers speak for themselves. Rather, she suggests using a well-developed graph. She focuses on bar charts and line graphs, as they are basic and most easily understood.

For titling graphs, she reiterates her advice from “Words,” using the title to present the key slide takeaway and not a regurgitation of the graph’s data. All graphs should include axis titles, direct labels for the data (rather than a separate legend), as well as a visual hierarchy that makes the most important content the most visible and focuses attention on the key material.

Some graphs are too complex for the audience to grasp at once. In this case, Knaflic advocates building a graph in steps, starting with an explanation of the axes, and then adding the data incrementally, and emphasizing key points, until the graph is complete.


Pictures used well are extremely powerful. They can help you explain concepts, increase understanding, maintain attention, reinforce content, improve memorability, and more.

Knaflic demonstrates how pictures can aid memorability, set the tone of the presentation, and improve the overall design. Photographs, illustrations, and diagrams can greatly enhance a presentation when done right but can be a distraction and reduce the presenter’s credibility when done poorly.

Deliver


Once you have planned and created your presentation, it is time to get ready for your delivery. The Deliver phase focuses on the presenter, emphasizing a disciplined practice routine, techniques to improve your confidence, presentation introductions, and the presentation.


Knaflic is a strong believer in practicing your presentation out loud. This improves your confidence and greatly simplifies the actual presentation. She advises practicing using your slide sorter view, slide-by-slide, and without your slides. She emphasizes the importance of extra practice for the beginning and end of your presentation, as the beginning sets the tone, and a powerful final ending makes your presentation memorable. If possible, it is best to do a dry run where you can emulate the presentation environment.


To build confidence, Knaflic recommends recording yourself. While this may be awkward at first, you can assess your presence and identify verbal tics. Knaflic encourages you to “look like someone people want to watch” by standing up, maintaining good posture, and moving with intention. Again, the process of practice, feedback, and refinement is key to being prepared.


She suggests assembling a personal presenter pack with supplies to help you be ready for any environment. Finally, it is helpful to visit the location where you will be presenting in advance, if possible, so you can be familiar with the setup and computing environment as well as practice your presentation.


Knaflic devotes an entire chapter to your introduction, as this establishes your credibility and helps the audience relate to you. This process is similar to the “Big Idea” described earlier, where you want to identify the key elements, brainstorm the process, form a story, practice, and get feedback.


Your preparation and hard work serve you well during your presentation Not only should you envision your success, but you can help by enlisting support from others. On the day of your presentation, arrive early and take a moment to reflect before speaking. Throughout your presentation, watch your audience, connect with them, and adapt to meet the situation.


Knaflic identifies eight pet peeves she has with presenters … things every speaker should avoid. Most importantly, she explains how to respond gracefully to unanticipated problems. Anyone who has faced technical issues when presenting will appreciate this advice. When the presentation is complete, you should look back and assess it, highlighting what went right or wrong, so you can improve your next presentation.


Summary


This book will help anyone improve their presentation skills and is especially relevant for slide presentations. The author outlines a step-by-step process for planning, creating, and delivering PowerPoint-style business presentations, but the process is easily adapted to other presentations. Knaflic has strong opinions on the importance of preparation, the thoughtful development of key ideas, and the significance of feedback throughout the process. She takes a modern approach to presenting, one that will make your presentations fresh, interesting, and effective.


Resources


Storytelling with Data Website


Storytelling with You – Storytelling with Data Podcast #57


Storytelling with Data YouTube Channel


Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic – PolicyViz Podcast, Episode #223


Cole Knaflic on Twitter (@storywithdata)

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