The Art of Storytelling


The story goes that Tom is whitewashing a fence and hating every minute of it.  Ben comes by, free as a bird, no chores to do.  Ben comments on the work Tom’s doing. And here is what happens:


Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:


“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”


Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:


“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”


The brush continued to move.


“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”


That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:


“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”


Now, Mark Twain may not have written your job description, but things haven’t changed all that much in the 125 years since he created Tom Sawyer.  The fact is that in any business, if you want somebody to do a job, you probably have to make it interesting, attractive.


It’s the same thing with presentations.  The interest factor needs to be there.  And that interest factor is created when your presentation has a storyline that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.


Consider this: as in  live theater, presentations normally take place on a stage, in front of an audience. Somebody is performing, and somebody is watching. The lights are up on the stage and down in the audience.


Is this by chance? No! A good presentation, like a good play, tells a good story. And nobody forgets a good story. Who doesn’t remember the tale of Little Red Riding Hood? Instead of taking the shortest route, the girl chooses to go through the forest. In the forest she meets a wolf. The wolf looks nice and offers to help her. But the reader already knows this is not a good thing. Disaster is sure to follow.  The reader is clued-in: If you don’t listen to your mother, the consequences can be disastrous.


Now, this moral is never explicitly told in the story. Instead, a storyline has been created that’s full of excitement and suspense, and so it holds the  the audience and leads them to the conclusion it wants them to reach.


In corporate life the challenges may be different, but the point is the same. To sell a product, to motivate a sales team, to get a project approved, to convince a group of investors to make a buy —  the presentation has to be so engaging that people just want to pay attention. Yes, there needs to be solid content and reason, but there also needs to be the entertainment and excitement factor.


Tom got Ben to do his job for him 125 years ago by making the work sound and look fascinating and interesting.  He made Ben curious by tantalizing him.  He was creative in his approach.  He was slow and careful, the way a fisherman lures a catch: He got Ben interested (beginning), then he pretended not to care (middle), then he reeled him in (end).




If Mark Twain were creating your presentation, how would it go?