Featured Learning Tool: Transform Office Presentations and Lessons from Mediocre to Awe-Inspiring with Storytelling


September 1989 – A young man is sitting in his office when he receives a strange call from a woman overseas. She questions him aggressively, “Are you Dr. Lombardi?… Are you an infectious disease specialist?… Would you consider yourself to be an expert in viral hemorrhagic fevers?” The man responds, “Who are you?!” She said she represented an important world figure – someone who she thought had a viral hemorrhagic fever. She wanted his help.

The whole thing sounded improbable. He had just opened his office. He recently graduated from medical school. He didn’t even have any patients! Yet, the lady on the other end of the line persisted that she needed his help.

Within 10 minutes he was transported via teleconference to India. He found out for the first time that the patient was Mother Theresa. He spoke to her Indian doctors for a while and then wished them luck. Thinking that was the end…

About an hour later, the woman called back and said she was arranging for him to leave to India tomorrow. “This is impossible!” Dr. Lombardi explained. “My passport has expired.” She responded, “That’s a minor detail!”

So, what happened next that strange weekend in 1989? Did the man get to India without a passport? Was the whole thing a hoax? You’ll just have to hear Dr. Lombardi tell the story himself to find out. You won’t be disappointed. I promise!


They draw us in. They let us experience life as someone else. They bring us to tears (like this story by Peter Aguero telling us what it is like to live with a wife battling serious epilepsy). They make us laugh until our bellies hurt (like this story by Jennifer Sodini where she debates whether to run past a stranger in her undies). They lead us to deep bodily introspection (like this story by Jennifer Kohnhorst where she tells us about a clothes-optional spa in Santa Fe).

As toddlers we wouldn’t have considered going to bed without a story first. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Berenstain Bears. Or, my favorites: There is a Carrot in My Ear and Faye and Dolores. Why is it that we can recall these stories so well even though we read them many decades ago? Yet, when it comes to remembering the name of that lady down the hall, what we ate for breakfast yesterday or the PowerPoint presentation we saw last week, our mind goes blank?

According to The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains:

It’s quite simple. If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, though, things change dramatically, according to researchers in Spain. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too…

When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

Wow! I always had an intuition that storytelling was a powerful teaching, learning and persuasion device. Great to learn that science backs that up too! Just think how impactful a history class would be if told via stories. Students would (in a sense) get to experience (and thus better understand) key periods in history like the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the dawn of modern home computing. Or, in the office, instead of showing dry spreadsheets and endless bullet points of “evidence” to your colleagues as to why the company should invest in your idea, just tell a personal story. This lets them experience firsthand why you are so passionate about it (and give them the facts and figures to read on their own)! Everyone will be entertained and the meeting will be a lot more fun (and likely productive).

Whether you are a teacher, a salesperson, manager or parent (I happen to be all four), the art of storytelling is clearly a skill worth attaining. So, how does one become good at telling stories? Here are a few resources I’ve been exploring recently. I hope you will add to the list too!

  • Listen to great stories. The Moth and TED are filled with them. Or, listen to great comedians. Jerry Seinfeld is a classic!
  • Read up on how to craft a compelling narrative. Resonate by Nancy Duarte explains how to use storytelling to enliven standard PowerPoint presentations. Good in a Room by Stephanie Palmer explains how to sell yourself and your ideas in an elevator pitch, in meetings and in interviews. Also check out these useful storytelling tips from The Moth, Entrepreneur and Fast Company.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Try explaining your ideas in the form of a personal narrative or story. See how people respond. Reflect. Tweak approach. Repeat until you are an ace at engaging audiences. (I am still in the tweaking stage!)

What story are you dying to tell?


Co-Founder, Bon Education

Image credit: Skylines/Shutterstock.com

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2 Responses to “Featured Learning Tool: Transform Office Presentations and Lessons from Mediocre to Awe-Inspiring with Storytelling”

  1. nancy August 19, 2015 at 12:02 am #

    Hi Anna, Thank you for that powerful reminder of the power a story has to engage the listeners. I knew that, but have sort of let it slip in my repertoire of strategies. I will definitely begin to use it in my instruction and keep practicing so I feel more comfortable with it. I wonder if reading a picture book to students which has a great story line would have the same effect. There are so many fantastic books out there. Thanks for sharing! Nancy

  2. Anna August 28, 2015 at 10:39 pm #

    Thanks Nancy. Great question about reading picture books. My intuition says yes, but we’ll need to do a little action research and a literature review to test. Let me know how the storytelling goes! -Anna

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