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What You Need to Know about Story Intelligence Before Your Next Presentation

Everybody loves a good story. And at work, whoever tells the best story wins. But most of us feel stuck and stymied when we try to integrate story elements into our work. Somehow, it usually doesn’t feel natural, right or even effective.

Until now. Once you understand the levers that make a great story work – the innate story intelligence beneath every great tale – you can begin. And once you do, you’ll continue to build your own story intelligence – what I like to call your SI Quotient – over time.

Here are the five writing-world tips that will transform your presentations, conversations, results and recommendations into SI winners:


Think about your next PowerPoint, project wrap-up or budget review. Your presentation will be conveying something that you want others to understand, buy into and appreciate. Writers know that every good story must have an inciting incident in the first 10 pages (some would even say on page one) to grab people’s attention. So, will you drone on with slide after slide of set-up data and analysis? Or will you now immediately get their attention – think the beginning of chapter one – through an inciting storyline that makes them instantly grasp the risk and possibility of failure if they don’t act? To do so, remember to always weave a story from the most compelling data points so others can relate.


As best you can, be sure to know the story of whoever you’re going to be in conversation with or presenting to (and their brand or agency if it’s external). As part of your own pre-meeting discovery process, grab hold of their big picture narrative and positioning from the “About Us” tab on their website; read their press releases; dig for their distinct brand identity, ethos and character; and search for their business development and strategic marketing initiatives – from content to sponsorships to brand partners – to gain more context. Information, as they say, is always power, and will help to move your story forward in the way that you want.


Include real-world stories like testimonials or team member bios to give credence to what you are communicating, as well as powerful quotes to underscore your points. For example, the unsettling Netflix documentary about technology, The Social Dilemma, uses thought-provoking quotes to reinforce its themes, including the opening Sophocles line, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” Provocative lines continue throughout, such as, “There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software” that heighten any viewer’s understanding. Make it personal, when appropriate, by pulling from your own backstory to show how you came to believe in the work you do. Also, remember to include “You, we and us” wherever possible so others can be part of the story you’re telling.


Just like a book cover, whatever materials you produce at work need to have a distinct look, feel and design that enhances your story. For your next presentation, combine a few keywords with striking visuals to convey your central theme, the tension of the problem and the solution. Think about how a plot advances and let the ending that you want to achieve be the through-line that guides your presentation’s beginning and middle. Open with a high-level expression of the current scenario or problem and follow with the plot points that can move you toward a solution. Always close with benefits and an “ask” – a call-to-action that will get you to the finish line or the next steps.


Every presentation or conversation has a rhythm, just like the best dialogue in any story. To make any discussion successful, try to harmonize with the other person by being alert and aware of cues. Pause to listen after any statement you make to pay close attention to the other person’s response. You can then insert their answer, along with any insight it sparked, into what you say next. Be sure to live in the moment of the conversation, make your questions open-ended throughout and always be in active listening mode. What the other person says will always inform and advance your own path forward.

Do This One Thing Today

Reflect on these three questions as you try to propel action and move the plot points in your work story forward:

  • Do I make it easy for anyone to understand the situation, and then to act?
  • Do I make it a practice to never present a problem without a germ of a solution?
  • Do I make my boss’s life easier at every turn – in fact, do I make everyone’s life easier?

Finally, for today, commit to making any communication more fascinating and engaging by infusing story intelligence into the work that you do.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected]. And to read more from our Spring 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention. She’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media chief innovation officer (CIO), a leader of brands like ELLE Décor and Metropolitan Home, an industry consultant and throughout a creative pivot that led to the award-winning memoir, “Saturday’s Child.”

The experience of becoming an author illuminated the path to her second book, “Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life.” Now, Deborah combines her business and creative expertise in professional development workshops that improve outcomes and help everyone invent, reinvent and live up to their career potential.

You can connect with Deborah on LinkedIn or at her website. You can also read all of Deborah’s previous Featured Contributor blogs here.

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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Great tips! The pacing section really resonates with me. I attended a meeting recently where the facilitator checked in with attendees, paused to hear responses and kept good pacing. Had he not done that, I don’t know if the meeting would have been as substantive or effective.