By Joey Asher

Category: Practice

This article is adapted from Joey Asher’s new book Riveting Data: How to Make Any Presentation Exciting Using Hollywood Storytelling Techniques.

Why do so many data-driven presentations stink?

They’re boring. They’re confusing. They’re stuck in the weeds. They fail to provide context.

They fail to tell a story.

With that in mind, if you want to learn how to give a great presentation using data, you should learn the keys to telling a riveting story. And for that, there’s no better teacher than Steven Spielberg. He directed classics like “Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List,” and many others.

You can watch almost any of his movies and you’ll see a pattern.

  1. Establish the Stakes: The first scene or two establish the stakes, a threat, a challenge, or a big problem. And from that first moment, you know that the story is about beating back that threat.
  2. A Simple Pursuit: The characters pursue a solution. The story follows a simple straight line until the threat is eliminated. The plot is easy to follow. No dream sequences. No flashbacks. No “Hey, wait a minute. I think I missed that.”
  3. Twists and Turns: Twists and turns make the story fun and exciting.
  4. Rapid Pacing: The story moves quickly and doesn’t waste time. Just put the pedal to the metal and roar ahead until the end.
  5. Interesting Characters: We like the people we meet in the movie.

Make It Like “Jaws”

Let’s look at “Jaws,” my favorite.

  1. Establish the Stakes: The movie starts with a shark attack. The girl goes skinny-dipping and gets eaten. Why start this way? Spielberg is establishing the stakes. A shark is threatening the lives of swimmers and the economy of a beach community. We all care about that. We’ve all been to the beach. We’ve all worried about getting eaten by sharks.
  2. A Simple Pursuit: Next, the characters pursue a solution to the threat. And Spielberg does it with a straightforward story. It’s a shark chase that follows (as we’ll see) a simple three-act plot.
  3. Twists and Turns: While the story is simple, there are plenty of unexpected moments that jar us awake and make us sit up and take notice.
  4. Rapid Pacing: “Jaws” is two hours long. But it’s the shortest two hours you’ll ever experience.
  5. Interesting Characters: We enjoy spending time with the key players, Brody, Quint, and Hooper.

Look at any of Spielberg’s movies: “ET,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Saving Private Ryan,” even “Schindler’s List.” They all follow the same pattern. The stakes are always high. They’re always established early. And the movie proceeds quickly with several twists and turns until the goal is achieved. And, critically, we like the characters.

Of course, this isn’t just Spielberg’s formula. It’s a common storytelling approach. Consider “Law and Order.” If you’ve watched the program as often as I do, you’ll notice a pattern. Nearly every episode starts with the stakes: someone finds a corpse in an alley, a dumpster, or a gas station restroom. From there, it’s a quick ride with several twists and turns to the conclusion when someone goes to jail. And, of course, we like the protagonists.

So How Does This Apply to Data-Driven Business Presentations?

“But wait a second, Joey! Data-driven business presentations never start with a corpse! My presentations are concerned with incremental sales revenues. There’s no naked girl swimming in the water! That stuff just doesn’t apply here.”

I understand the concern. It might be easier to give better presentations if you could start with a skinny-dipping scene.

But hear me out.

Let’s consider a presentation about rising Workers’ Compensation costs at your company’s warehouses. Boring, right?

Not necessarily. If you apply Spielberg’s storytelling pattern, you can grab the listeners and hold them.

Establish the Stakes: Perhaps you start by focusing on what you know is a major concern for the listeners, the rising cost of Workers’ Compensation along with the risk of major injuries. You can make this “Hook” as exciting as you like. Perhaps you have a story about someone getting injured in a forklift accident. Or perhaps you simply point out that rising Workers’ Compensation costs threaten the company’s ability to compete. Or perhaps the threat is more profound. Perhaps the insurance carrier might pull its coverage if you can’t get costs under control. That’s a strategic business threat. And you do it at the very beginning of the presentation. No preliminaries. Just hit the audience with the threat.

The Simple Pursuit: Now you show how you’re going to attack the threat. Perhaps you identify the cause of the rising costs and detail a solution. This is the body of the presentation. It should be simple and logical. Keep your message to three simple points.

Twists and Turns: Unpredictability brings excitement. Of course, in business presentations you can’t have sharks unexpectedly attacking a fishing boat. But you can have unpredictability. Leave lots of time for Q&A. Let the audience put you on the spot. That adds interest and excitement while boosting credibility.

Rapid Pacing: Keep the presentation as short as possible. By moving fast and leaving lots of time for Q&A, you’ll keep the audience engaged.

Interesting Characters: This goes to delivery style. You need to connect with your listeners personally and speak with the passion that makes people listen.

As far as I know, Mr. Spielberg has never given a presentation on Workers’ Compensation costs. But if you want to make your data-heavy presentations interesting, you should consider following his approach.

© Wickedgood | – Pointing at Data

Speechworks is a communication and selling skills coaching firm. We teach professionals how to craft and deliver complex messages in a simple, persuasive manner. Since 1986, through workshops and one-on-one instruction, we have helped countless individuals become better presenters and communicators. You can reach us at 404.266.0888, or on the web at

Joey Asher

Joey is the President of Speechworks, a communication and selling skills coaching firm. He has worked with thousands of professionals, helping them learn to communicate in a way that connects with clients and audiences. He is also the author of four books on communication skills: “15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations,” “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition,” “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers,” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.” He can be reached at 404-266-0888 or


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