PRESENT TO SUCCEED LESSONS LEARNED

The Dangers of Storytelling with Alexei Kapterev

PRESENT TO SUCCEED LESSONS LEARNED

The Dangers of Storytelling with Alexei Kapterev

In our Present to Succeed Lessons Learned series, we include all the fascinating, valuable, and wow moments from the sessions of our debut 2021 conference. We aim to share with you the best takeaways and help you improve your presentation craft every day.

Alexei Kapterev is the author of the world’s most popular presentation on presentations, “Death by PowerPoint” with over 18 million views to date. Since 2007, he has been a Presentation Skills Coach and Consultant. He also teaches visual communication at Moscow State University’s Graduate School of Business Administration, and his Coursera course on Presenting Skills is among the top 100 greatest MOOCs. Oh, and last summer he was also a guest in our The World of Presentations podcast, go check it out!

Alexei gave a talk named “The Dangers of Storytelling” at Present to Succeed 2021, and it was one of the most thought-provoking sessions at the conference. He drew the audience’s attention to the hazards, limits, risks, and pitfalls of storytelling.

Stories are engaging and persuasive, and the audience loves a good story. But where is the catch? Continue reading to find out more.

When stories work too well

In order to illustrate the power of storytelling, Alexei gave an example with the world-famous platform for speakers presenting “ideas worth spreading,” TED. Back in 2012 Amy Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, delivered a presentation on body language, nonverbal displays, and their influence on presentations and various life situations. This presentation has generated over 60 million views and is TED’s second most popular ever. Alexei said that the talk is excellent and still gives him shivers, but the original science presented in the talk has never been validated and has no impact.

What’s fascinating about this talk, Alexei says, is that it’s both a stunning achievement of storytelling and a scientific failure. But not science per se, because science is a self-correcting enterprise, because the error is a natural part of discovery, and it was not a huge error.

The failure, Alexei continues, is that the talk was not taken down. Instead, TED has kept it up, albeit they had promised to keep their talks always up to date. They are not taking it down because 60 million views are valuable, Alexei argues.

To TED’s credit, Amy Cuddy’s research was updated in the following years after her talk with new data that keeps the discussion alive.

But in all cases, Alexei raises an extremely important question – what happens when fantastic storytelling completely overshadows facts? This is when storytelling gets dangerous — when we become less concerned with the facts and more concerned with entertainment than the value of the message. What Alexei is concerned about is when the story takes precedence over the substance.

The real danger is not that stories don't work; the real danger is that they work too well

Alexei distinguished two kinds of storytelling for his session at Present to Succeed 2021:

Anecdotes

Anecdotes are the stories used to illustrate or entertain. Because they are not particularly persuasive, they are usually harmless.

It is very hard to change people’s minds, but anecdotal evidence could be more persuasive than statistical when the emotional engagement is high, such as when the issues involve a severe threat, health, or oneself. But Alexei stated that studies show that the difference is not that significant.

The second reason why anecdotes are not dangerous is that they are often accurate. They are a weaker form of evidence, but they are evidence. A story can be distorted, of course, but this is how stories work, they get twisted. It is the same with statistics; you can manipulate numbers in such a way as to make them convey the story you want them to tell. Not always, but it is frequently possible.

Anecdotes are stories that should not be dismissed but examined. Alexei quoted Jeff Bezos that when anecdotes and data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right and that there is something wrong with the way you’re measuring.

Here, Alexei emphasized when he thinks storytelling can be very dangerous, which is when it is so good that it overshadows science or the truth.

Narrative

The narrative is storytelling that uses the principles of drama. It contains a bunch of stories.

As a continuing narrative, Alexei used the decisive operation in the Middle Eastern battlefield as an example. The narrative of ISIS is that the Americans came to the Middle East to replace Islam with Christianity. And these kinds of grand narratives take place and describe events over decades, centuries, sometimes even millennia. Anecdotes describe events that have taken place over lunch, over days, maybe months. The timespan and the impact are different.

Narratives consist of anecdotes, but also include convenient facts, that confirm their grand chain of logic. All narratives are an us-vs-them situation. For example, Steve Jobs for the larger part of his life was telling the grand narrative of Macs versus PCs and what will prevail. The first problem with narratives is that they are fundamentally adversarial.

Conflict is the defining feature of the narrative. But when you are waging a war in a narrative, it is incredibly hard to admit mistakes.

Here Alexei had illustrated what narrative consists of, which can be anecdotes, studies, facts, and quotes.

The second problem with narratives is that they tend to oversimplify things. For example, why do children turn out the way they do? 50 years ago, the answer was obvious – their upbringing and parents. That was the dominant narrative. Simple and predictable. But then Judith Richard Harris comes along and asks where the evidence is for that? And the evidence was those theories of Freud, lying around since the late 19th century.

The truth is that evidence nowadays shows that genes could account for about 40-50% of the variation in personality, while people’s upbringing is something around 5%. And then there are school and other random life experiences. It is not as simple as a narrative, and it is already far too complex for many people. But it is also an overly complex narrative to maintain because you no longer have the villain.

The third problem with the narrative that Alexei shared is overconfidence. He quoted Mark Twain, who said that all you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. Storytelling may provide both ignorance and confidence.

People seldom talk about ignorance; storytelling is like fast food for our brains since it is simple to digest, but it may be harmful in the long run. That is why Alexei joked that anything that contains storytelling should come with a warning label stating, “This contains storytelling.”

What are the alternatives and the future?

How about something other than war? Maybe a conversation, a dialog, a discussion where the goal is not to persuade or advance your agenda but to get closer to the truth.

According to Alexei, we will not be able to get rid of conflict entirely, nor do we need to. Conflict is a natural part of the universe, but we need to become slightly less emotional and more objective, and detached.

“We’re presenting to succeed,” said Alexei with a smirk to the audience, and then added, “I know.” Rather than focusing on winning, you can focus on co-creation. Stories are wonderful, and we need more stories, but we need better stories. Stories where we care primarily about truth.

Alexei illustrated a disguised model for the Elaboration likelihood model (ELM), as developed by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, and talked in-depth about the Bayesian decision graph as a tool for better storytelling.

Let's summarize

Alexei proposed a distinction between anecdotes and narratives by claiming that the risk with storytelling is that it works too well. Anecdotes are mostly harmless. However, narratives have three issues: they have a propensity to oversimplify complicated issues and can promote ignorance, overconfidence, and a desire to wage war, which can be a hazardous combination.

Alexei then presented a couple of tools for better storytelling based on the Elaboration likelihood model (ELM), established by Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo and the Bayesian decision graph.

He then discussed the next step of storytelling, which is the transition from “What do I want my audience to feel, believe, and do?” to “How can I seek for the truth together with my audience?” It may take a few decades, but we are on our way to achieving it, according to Alexei.

Let us know in the comments what the most intriguing thought from Alexei’s presentation was for you!

Alexei Kapterev’s session was an incredibly thought-provoking one, and it would transform the way you think about storytelling. His session is part of our Storytelling track recordings that you can now get for only €39. And for €79, you can have all the 30+ sessions from Present to Succeed 2021.

VISIT SHOP

Join Present to Succeed - the biggest presentation skills conference in the world

Whether you are part of an organization or running a business, how your slides look will always factor in your success. Learn how to become an influential speaker by joining our 30+ industry-leading speakers’ sessions.

Start engaging your audience better and influencing them to embrace your concepts, hire you, or buy your products. Now is the best moment to get your ticket!

Join Present to Succeed - the biggest presentation skills conference in the world

Whether you are part of an organization or running a business, how your slides look will always factor in your success. Learn how to become an influential speaker by joining our 30+ industry-leading speakers’ sessions.

Start engaging your audience better and influencing them to embrace your concepts, hire you, or buy your products. Now is the best moment to get your ticket!