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Opinion: Why I hate powerpoint – but love storytelling

I was at a function the other day at Auckland’s Innovation Precinct, GridAKL. It had the word “disruption” in the title; the word “digital” was in there too. Exciting topics. And it started with a Very Dull PowerPoint.

It kind of reminded me of the opening of the Innovation Precinct – in that very building, a year or so before. The Mayor spoke – worthily. And Steven Joyce. Ditto. And someone from the Innovation Precinct committee. And then they cut a ribbon. Really. They declared the building open. 

Call me superficial and self-serving and hypocritical. After all, I am the editor of a magazine about innovation using a print format.

But in my superficial, self-serving way, I still think there is an important message here. And it’s about the importance of great storytelling. 

I know, storytelling is the buzzword of the day. Conferences. Workshops. Books galore (I recently saw an article entitled “25 essential books on storytelling to read in 2015”).

But then I watch enthusiastic young innovators pitching to potential investors using a 25-slide powerpoint in Times New Roman, with a few free pics from Shutterstock.

Doesn’t do it for me.

I wasn’t at the launch of Peter Beck’s rocket on Great Mercury Island in 2009, but Idealog publisher Vincent Heeringa recently interviewed a few people who were (for that story you’ll need to get hold of a copy of the latest issue of the magazine). I imagine helicopters and bubbly and (after a last minute dash to the hardware store for a spare part) fire and loud bangs. I hope there wasn’t a ribbon or a PowerPoint in sight. 

There’s another example of storytelling as a marketing tool in the aforementioned most excellent print magazine. Joseph Herscher was an unknown Kiwi software guy driving his flatmates crazy making real-life Rube Goldberg machines on the kitchen table in the evening after work, using stuff he got from the $2 shop. 

Then he got the idea to gel his hair mad-man-style, grow an eccentric tash, make videos of his mad machines in action, and stick them on YouTube. His first one, Creme that Egg, got 2.7 million hits.

His second one got over 8 million.

No surprise, he started getting job offers from companies wanting him to make machines for their ad campaigns. He even got invited to the Venice Biennale. 

He was a great story, well told.

Why does Kickstarter work? Because the compulsory video component forces people to tell stories. Why does TED work? Because it’s about people telling their stories.

Professor Paul Zak, writing in the Harvard Business Review, describes an experiment which showed that when people get told compelling stories, their brains release a neurochemical called oxytocin, which enhances someone’s sense of empathy and motivates cooperation with others. 

Another story-telling devotee, Shane Snow, asked 3000 people who they would trust more as their leader: J.K. Rowling or Queen Elizabeth. The landslide winner was the creator of Harry Potter, not the 60-year-reigning monarch. Watch Snow’s TED talk for the reasons, but basically his line is “Those who tell the stories, rule the world”.

If New Zealand is to be full of internationally-successful companies, (rather than locally-successful innovators) we need to get better at storytelling.

And the first thing we should take to market is a PowerPoint vaporiser. 

Nikki Mandow is the editor of Idealog

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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