Start Your Presentation Off With a Story: How and Why

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Author: David Lee | Source: HCI | Published: July 13, 2015

When you present in front of a group, you want to communicate as quickly as possible:

  • “This is relevant to your problem, needs, and interests…so it’s worth paying attention to.”
  • “This is not the typical dry, pedantic presentation you’re accustomed to.”

Sending this signal in the beginning not only helps you grab the audience’s attention, it helps shift their emotional state to a more learning-friendly one, and…it helps them bond to you.

Whether you are presenting at a conference, a seminar, or a company meeting, starting out with a story helps you create this effect.

The Pain and Promise Story is one of the best ways to start off your presentation.

It packs a punch because it pokes the listener where it hurts. It reminds them of the pain that plagues them around the problem you are about to discuss. Thus, it grabs them in a very visceral, emotional way.

The Promise component of the Pain and Promise Story paints a picture of what’s possible if the audience listens and applies the  ideas, solution, or product you are about to discuss.

The combination of Pain and Promise also helps them bond to you because it says “I feel your pain. I understand the challenges you face, and…I’m here to help.”

In a way, the Pain and Promise Story is like the “before and after pictures” you see in infomercials or weight loss ads. It makes them acutely aware of the “before picture” of their situation, and then shows them an “after picture” of what can happen if they listen.

In this 3 minute video, you will see an example of a Pain and Promise Story. This was how I opened a program titled Tell a Better Story. Become More Interesting. Grow Your Business. My audience was entrepreneurs, consultants, and small business owners. As you watch the video, ask yourself:


  1. Why did he start off with this story?
  2. What common Pain experienced by most, if not all, of the audience, does the story tap into?
  3. What’s the Promise, the “why you should listen to me”?



But Wait…There’s More

When I thought about how to best pique the audience’s interest, I decided to add one more opening story. It was about a recent experience involving someone engaging me in a one-on-one presentation about his business solution. His presentation left me feeling bored and frustrated, because he presented all kinds of intricate details about his product and process—which I didn’t need to know nor cared to know.

What he didn’t do was tell me a story about what important problem his solution helped and the difference it made—i.e. he didn’t tell a Pain and Promise Story.

 Here are two questions for you to add to the above questions:

  1. Why do you think I included that story in the beginning, rather than only tell the presentation story?
  2. What might my telling that story accomplish?


Putting This Into Action

Make a list of Pain and Promise Stories you could use to open up your presentations, whether they are to a group or one-on-one. Then, run them by someone you respect and ask them which ones best communicate the value of your message and are most likely to hook the audience.

Note: for an example of starting off a presentation with a Promise Story and an example that shows teaching stories are everywhere, check out How I Got a Skunk to Start Off My Presentation