The New York Times: storytelling and presentation skills program

Who said researchers couldn't be compelling storytellers?

There’s this episode of the late chef Anthony Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown” where he travels to Manila, Phillipines. In just under 45 minutes, he breaks bread at a family’s dining table, covers the Phillipines’ unique caregiver economy, and watches a local band cover Billy Idol in a biker bar. He also tries Jollibee, sisig, and halo-halo among other Filipino delicacies—but for a food-centered show it’s surprisingly one of the less moving parts of the whole affair.

No, most impressing is the stories that Bourdain is able to weave together. And how he is able to present them with such intentionality that a viewer walks away feeling tethered to an entirely foreign culture.

Stories connect us. They help us teach lessons, entertain, influence, develop culture, build empathy. We grow up with them, build our sense of self atop them, learn to recognize and understand the world through them—they are so fundamental to how we communicate and synthesize information, and yet so many of us are so rarely given the time or permission to hone the art of telling them.

So when the New York Times Marketing department reached out with the opportunity to help their Audience Insights Group do exactly that, we were there.

The setup

The New York Times is an incredibly data-driven operation. As such, you can imagine the critical and highly visible role their Audience Insights Group—the folks responsible for refining and implementing the research practices across the entire Times organization—holds.

But they were experiencing a major pain point with potentially major consequences. The team was consistently producing excellent work, but struggling to present their findings effectively and efficiently to cross-functional partners—especially in virtual settings. Key insights were getting lost, diluted, or misinterpreted within busy and confusing slide decks. Team leads were spending more time editing than driving projects. And if left unsolved, other workstreams would feel the repercussions.

To help solve this mission-critical blocker, Wavetable designed and facilitated a 2-part workshop that broke the art of presentation down into a methodical, digestible approach:

  • Finding your story
  • Defining the outcomes
  • Creating a structure to tell it
  • “Chunking” it down
  • And weaving the threads together

The Experience: Phase I

Corporate presentations can be extremely intimidating—especially when you’re tasked with distilling an information overload into a quick, clean, skimmable deck. To help the team first access their storytelling instincts (the ones we all have), we went back to the basics. Pulling inspiration from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, hip hop culture, geological formations, education literature, and more, we broke down the anatomy of a good story and helped team members find confidence in their ability.

story fun

Some themes we covered:

  • The 4 most common learning styles—and how to discern the right ones for your audience
  • How to diagnose your audience’s needs and expectations, beyond the brief
  • A brief history of effective storytelling
  • The periodic table of storytelling (believe it or not, we did not make this up)
  • The shared commonalities between corporate storytelling and every other form of creative storytelling (You think Shakespeare didn’t have to talk ROI?)
  • Finding your story’s flow through defined outcomes, pillars, and diamonds
  • How to put it all together

The Experience: Phase II

After storytelling comes presenting. How do you convey your story with structure, sense, and a dash of corporate charisma?

Strong deck design lifts a story off the paper and practically delivers your point on a silver platter. It should be fulfilling, not overwhelming; dynamic, not loud; engage and steer a viewer’s attention exactly where you want it to go. To illustrate this most literally, we created our workshop deck to mirror the very approach we were teaching—an evergreen reference for The Times team to come back to.

After the workshops, we curated a tasting menu of all things storytelling, narrative, and learning to support the team as they continued to find their presentation legs.

For a sample of this, check out our free tips to creating an anti-yawn slide deck.

The payoff

Just a few weeks after our final workshop, a cross-department colleague at The Times watched the Audience Insights Group give a big presentation to the entire marketing organization. In their own words,

“the insights were so juicy, the deck design was so clean, and the framing and pacing was honestly one of the best I’ve seen.”

Upon complimenting the deck and team in their Marketing Leadership Slack channel, the AIG team leader messaged them back:

Mission accomplished.

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