Alexei Kapterev is the author of "Death by PowerPoint," the world's most popular presentation on presentations, with over 18 million views to date. He runs a consulting practice in addition to working with Mercator, Russia's leading business graphics company. He also teaches visual communication at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Moscow State University. In 2012 he was awarded honorary membership in the UK Speechwriting Guild. And his course for Coursera about Presenting Skills is ranked among the top 100 best MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Alexei was a speaker at Present to Succeed 2021, and his talk called "The Dangers of Storytelling" was one of the most thought-provoking.

In this episode with him, we talked about storytelling and how to navigate its perils, presenting virtually, knowing your audience, and deciding when you need storytelling.

How did he get involved with the world of presentations

Alexei shared that he had been in consulting for quite a while. He said that in consultancy you have to present your ideas, and then sell those ideas to the audience.

He has read quite a few books for two years to improve his presentations and when he had some spare days, he summarized those books in the Death by PowerPoint presentation, which was in 2007.

This presentation had been his entrance into the presentation industry. A few years after, he made presentations his full-time job.

Warning: Stories Included and his session at Present to Succeed 2021

Everyone says that storytelling is a powerful weapon that we should utilize, but with his session, Alexei educated about the risks of storytelling.

According to him, there are a few problems with storytelling. The first problem is that stories are very polarizing. You cannot have a story without a villain and a hero – there is always someone responsible. Stories can make us assign blame, which is not always helpful. The world is not black and white, unlike how stories make people think it is.

Alexei quoted a Russian master of storytelling saying that a hero should have a problem that he cannot live with. So a story should be that bad. If it is not bad enough, nobody cares. That’s why we make the stories bigger than they are by creating more contrast.

Problem number two is the oversimplification. The world is complex and multi-faceted, and stories cannot handle that complexity. In stories, there is one clear cause.

Should you include a story in your presentation

Alexei highlights that first, you should understand the product you are selling. Stories might work for the first part of the sales funnel. They can attract initial attention, but later they might backfire when people find out that it is not that simple. Fewer individuals will convert if you start complicated, but they will have made their decision without your influence.

For example, when it comes to the Covid vaccine, the government and health officials focus on the advantages and side effects rather than stories. There’s no plot here; simply a logical breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages. If you’re trying to market something as complicated as a vaccine, you might want to stick to facts and statistics.

If you are selling something simpler, storytelling can be your weapon of choice to attract attention safely.

Stories also make your presentation more accessible, when needed

If you’re a financial professional giving a presentation to a non-finance audience, Alexei recommends starting with stories to make the material more approachable.

However, if you present to your peer group, other financial people, you have to check with them. If they have enough intrinsic motivation, you don’t have to stimulate them from the outside with storytelling.

How to really know your audience

Alexei says that he uses a two by two matrix to measure the audience’s motivation and expertise. If both motivation and expertise are low – you should try to entertain your audience.

You should lecture if there is a lot of motivation, but not a lot of expertise. If you have a lot of expertise in your audience, but no motivation – then you are selling. And if both motivation and expertise are high – you should create a discussion space.

The degree of knowledge is easy to determine, but motivation is not always so clear. Alexei stated that he puts it to the test. He asks them what questions they want to have answered, and if he receives only three questions from a hundred individuals, it is evident that they are not that interested. However, if he receives a lot of enthusiasm and questions – he knows he is with the right crowd.

Some tips for presenting virtually

It’s simpler to talk to four individuals out of a hundred than to talk to black squares, so ask your audience to switch on their cameras. Talking to no one is disempowering. Also, invest in a decent microphone; sound quality is crucial.

Finally, take advantage of the chatbox. For example, make your audience type 0 if they do not understand or 1 if they agree with you, and tell them when to do it. Or ask them to tell you in two words how they feel. It enables you to gain real-time engagement and knowledge about your audience.


Follow Alexei Kapterev on his Twitter. Check out his website or his book Presentation Secrets here.

Listen to the full episode!

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