A Read-only Friday post by William Smith
Only those in IT would ever get it.
My dad loved listening to a radio broadcaster named Paul Harvey. Wow could that man tell a story! (I’m referring to the radio broadcaster, but my dad knew how to draw a crowd of listeners too.)
Paul Harvey ended his daily broadcasts with a segment called “The Rest of the Story”. He would generally start with a seemingly simple and banal story about something or someone. But as he told the story, the details would take on some life, and the tale would grow bigger until he revealed the one key element he’d been holding back that tied everything together.
A really weak glue was of no use at all ‘til an office secretary found a use for it… “And that’s how Post-It Notes were invented!”
Or an author was shaving one morning and thought of a story but for years no one would buy it… “Until one day Frank Capra decided to produce it as It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Harvey would end every one of these stories with his signature outro, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
A good story can frame your presentation and hook the audience. Let’s start with yours.
Simple stories are the best stories
If you had to summarize the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV – VI) and explain it in one sentence, what would you say? My version would be:
“Star Wars is a space opera about goodness and love
triumphing over evil and hate.”
That’s about it. Everything else is just detail.
IT admins typically have their own story. It usually goes something like:
“The lowly break-fix nerd solves a complex technical problem
plaguing the company and saves it from assured self-destruction
(but only those in IT would ever get it).”
A story like this is pure gold at IT conferences because members of the audience secretly see themselves as the heroes of the same story — or something similar. In the end, the story is about conflict and the struggle to overcome trying circumstances. Tell your 100 percent authentic story and your listeners will smell it on you because it’s their story too.
A great example of technical storytelling is Brad Chapman’s 2017 Jamf Nation User Conference (JNUC) presentation “2017: A Push Odyssey — Journey to the Center of APNs”. The plot: the Apple Push Notification service (APNs) wasn’t working at his new job, and he had to figure out not only his company’s network but how APNs itself worked. And his production values were pretty good too. Watch the first two minutes.
Relate your story to something the audience knows
If you’ve ever watched the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” and heard its iconic music score playing over some of the scenes, you know its story is epic in scope. It spans millennia as well as space. By using the same score in his introduction, Brad immediately related what most IT admins felt about APNs — it’s a big black box that goes deeper than just the surface.
Similarly, strive to relate your story to your audience by using common ground. You can do this by referencing something they already know.
You can compare your story to a well-known tale like “Hansel and Gretel”. Immediately, your audience will associate two children venturing into the woods to find an inviting gingerbread house only to find danger inside. This is a story that tells us things aren’t always as they seem on the outside and to beware something too good to be true.
For my JNUC 2019 presentation “Who's Afraid of the Command Line?”, I referenced the 1967 Audry Hepburn film “Wait Until Dark”. During my introduction I relayed the plot of a blind woman who is terrorized by thugs and has to overcome her fear to save herself. I overdramatically compared it to IT admins’ fear of the command line, but it was a good way to talk about overcoming their own anxieties.
Covid, and the lockdowns that came with it, was a shared experience for the world. But most everyone in your audience who was in IT in March 2020 has their own shared experience, which was having to learn new ways to support remote end users. This was a story of having to react and shift gears in the face of uncertainty and adversity.
What topic have you chosen to present? Does it sound like an epic? A parable? A quest? Something else?
Define the key elements of your story
All good stories have a few key elements:
- Plot: This is what drives the story. It’s the events and what happens.
- Setting: This is the time and place of the story — the scene of events.
- Characters: You, of course, but was anyone else along for the ride? A co-worker? Your end users? Your boss?
- Perspective: Usually, this is your own point of view since you’re the one telling the story. But it could be the perspective of someone like your end users.
- Conflict: This is typically a single, easy to understand struggle that’s usually between you and someone or something else.
Think about what you’ve chosen for your presentation and list these five key elements. If you can’t do it, you may not really have a story and might want to consider presenting something else. Knowing these five elements makes telling your story much easier and might even give it some additional depth or pizzazz.
What IT admin doesn’t like to talk about that user in Sales with the chip on his shoulder who decided to purchase a MacBook Pro at the Apple Store without authorization and how IT had to bring it under management!
Most importantly, whatever story you tell needs a climax or an Ah-ha! moment where your planning was successful, or your lesson learned. Don’t leave your audience hanging!
Storyboard your ideas
Later, I’ll talk about putting your presentation slides together to tell your story, but now’s a good time to storyboard your ideas.
You don’t need to be an artist or even draw your storyboards but consider how your story progresses. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. The middle is what most of your presentation is going to cover. Probably 85 percent.
I generally like to divide my presentation into the same basic parts each time:
- Topic 1
- Topic 2
- Topic 3
If that format looks familiar, you probably learned how to write five-paragraph thesis papers in school the same way I did. The first paragraph introduces the topic and includes a thesis statement in the last sentence or two. The second, third and fourth paragraphs each discuss something that supports the thesis statement. And the fifth paragraph restates the thesis and summarizes the supporting arguments.
Three supporting topics isn’t a hard and fast rule for a presentation. I generally like to present five. In 2019 I presented a Jamf webinar called “Scripting 101 for Apple Admins”. After my introduction, I presented the following agenda:
- Why do we script?
- How Terminal works
- How scripting works
- Using commands and scripts with Jamf Pro
- What next?
It’s not always important that your three, four, or five supporting topics relate to each other. They can stand alone. But I’ve found making them into a sequential set of steps makes the overall presentation feel a bit more fluid. The choice is yours.
Once I have my five or so top-level topics planned, the rest is just about adding details. It’s these five topics of your story that you should plan right now because they’re what you’ll be using next time when we discuss submitting your presentation for a conference!
In a couple weeks, I’ll talk about answering a call for proposals. Until then, work on these things:
- Think of the story you’ll tell that will frame your presentation. This is your story. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated. The simpler, the better.
- Think about what kind of story you have and how you should present it. Does one event lead to another like an epic? Did you learn a valuable lesson like a parable? Is it a story of discovery like a quest? Is it something else?
- Be sure you can name all five key elements of your story. If one or more is missing, you may not have a story, and you might want to consider a different subject for your presentation.
- Ensure your story has a climax near the end to complete the journey.
- Define 3-5 topics you can tell in support of your story. This is when you begin outlining your presentation and what we’ll use next time when creating your proposal to submit to a conference.
Bonus: Remember Paul Harvey was a radio broadcaster, so all he had to keep his listener’s attention was his story and his voice. Listen to him telling his audience about Fridays.