Have a backup story ready; Issue #321 September 30, 2014

While I was working with an executive earlier this year on an important presentation she was delivering at a conference, I realized how important it is to have a backup story ready. If you are relying on a story to illustrate a key point in your presentation, this may be advice you will want to act on today.

The executive was going to use a story that involved the shooting of a young man who was a standout student and athlete. It was about how the relatives of this young man had turned the tragedy into a movement to reduce gun violence. A powerful story without a doubt.

So why did I suggest she prepare a backup story? Because if there was a school shooting incident or a high profile shooting of a young person in the days before her speech, her use of the story of this family could be seen as insensitive or even offensive. She would never intend it that way, but some may take it the wrong way. If the audience reacts that strongly to a story, you have lost them emotionally for the rest of the time and your message will not be heard.

If you use these sorts of powerful stories in your presentations, I encourage you to keep doing so. Don't stop using them, but be prepared to change the story at the last minute if a world event happens. Here's how I think you can prepare.

For each of your key, powerful stories, evaluate what events or scenarios may occur that could cause some people to be offended or hurt by the story. It is good to make a list when you have time to contemplate different reactions, as opposed to being forced to make quick decisions after an event occurs.

Then, for those key stories you feel could be risky, prepare a backup story that could take its place and still deliver the same message. It may not be as powerful as the original story, but the key message is the same. If you use slides for the story, prepare hidden slides for this backup story.

As you are rehearsing your presentation, spend time rehearsing the backup story as well. Make sure you can deliver it with the same passion as the original story. This assures you that the audience won't notice any difference in quality if the backup story is substituted.

On the day of your presentation, scan the local, national, and world events to see if any of the scenarios you had thought of has occurred. If it has, decide whether the backup story should be used. If so, switch your slides, and make sure the new version is loaded onto the presentation computer.

If you do use a backup story, remember that you are the only one who knows. Don't apologize or make any mention of the other story you would usually use for this point. Let the presentation flow and the messages be understood. Stories are powerful communication vehicles, and we need to be willing to change the story if the situation calls for it.