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How I made my talk 100x more impressive with a deck of cards
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How I made my talk 100x more impressive with a deck of cards
You could read 50 books, or buy these cards
writing, learning, general-advice, productivity, career

"You can use JSON Schema today!" - That's the main message of my most recent talk, delivered for the API Specifications Conference a little earlier this year.

While I wasn't able to make it to the conference for "reasons", I did want to record and share the talk, as I felt I had a lot of value to offer those on the edge or who needed convincing they should give JSON Schema enough time to understand if it was right for them.

This is the first non-technical focused talk I've done in years! I don't even want to work out how many. My usual talks are pretty technical, or at least focusing on technical activities and plans. While I consider my writing and storytelling skills to be OK, I wanted to really deliver an engaging story for what I'd consider the main API specification related conference of the year.

I'll be honest with you: this deck of cards isn't going to suddenly make you a better presenter. I've doing talks on and off for over a decade. Delivery takes practice. I did a few nice ones in my early career, and some of my graphics got re-used by some of the brightest minds in the science sector. It wasn't because the graphics were smart, but it was because they told a story.

Doing a case study focused talk was going to be different to technical talks, and I was concerned I wasn't going to get everything across that I wanted to, or that people would just find it uninteresting. While I didn't feel too aprehensive, I hadn't really flexed the storytelling muscles much in a while.

I knew this had been coming all year, and I wanted to make a good punch re-entry into talking. I wanted to make it count, as something I'd be referencing and pointing people to for years to come. I needed it to be great, rather than just "good enough". "Maybe if I picked up one or two books or did some training on delivering great talks," I thought. Then I saw an advert...

Any other opinions?

Just before we get into the advert I saw, I wanted to tell you who else is using these decks. Apple. Microsoft. Facebook. Adobe. IBM. BBC. oh, and 30,000+ fans. There's a bunch of testimonials you might want to check out from professionals just like you.

What the deck?

I saw an advert for a deck of cards that claimed to help you tell better stories. 54 "recipe cards" for better storytelling, aiding you at each step of the story building process, or helping you craft a story with a specific purpose. As the year marched on, I had more to get done, roadblocks demanding more of my time, and reading more books or a multi-day training course simply didn't feel realistic. But a deck of cards?... Maybe.

I wanted to share with you how I used these Storytelling Tactics cards to improve my talk and storytelling, and I'm going to show you twice within the same article. First, I'm going to talk through how the cards helped me make the talk more engaging, and then show how I upgraded this article itself. While I don't have a before and after for the talk, I can provide you with the before and after article (what you're reading today), and you can judge those improvements for yourself. But first, a little bit more about the deck.

Why share?

If it's starting to sound a little like a sales pitch, that might be because it is in part. My motivation is primarily to share something I feel was impactful and helpful, AND to practice better storytelling and writing in general. But also, I want you to feel the self improvement I did when using these cards. Like most things, if you do them enough, they start to become second nature, and this includes thinking about how you present your stories.

There are more free courses on how to write code and problem solve than you'll ever watch today. Picking the best ones might be hard, but if you ask around, you'll find them easy enough. Writing code isn't the "hard" bit of building systems. Understanding what's required and why, that's the tricky part. The human element, the story.

Communication and storytelling specifically, is something we all need to improve, especially if you want to build useful systems as opposed to systems that don't actually do what people want and get discarded.

I'm going to show you how to access the whole deck of cards in digital form for free (legitimately), and explain why having the physical cards in hand really helps. I'll also provide direct links to the Storyteller Tactics deck product page.

Storyteller Tactics… What do you get?

There are three types of cards in the deck. The first is the Story Building System, the second is recipes, and the third is the individual tactics.

The card for the Story Building System

If you want to tell a story and you've got writer's block or you don't even know where to start, you can pick the Story Building System card. It identifies seven critical questions to help you understand and eventually write your story. I could already answer all these questions, and needed to really tailor my story to a specific situation with a specific goal.

This is where the recipe cards come in. The recipe cards provide you with a type of story, and five cards to get you started on crafting that specific type of story. As I'd be presenting a story over several case studies, the "Stories that Impress" sounded like the right recipe for this story. But would it really make much of a difference? (You can check out the other recipe cards on the Storytellers Tactics page)

How did it apply to the talk?

I knew roughly how I wanted to present things, covering four case studies, with some context and follow up call-to-actions. I'm no professional writer, but I've had some contract writing work, and have a few very experienced friends and editors to provide feedback. I wouldn't consider myself a novice… I would have to say I'm confident that it's not terrible with room for improvement. So the question is, how did I use the tactics to improve the talk?

I feel like the most useful way to show the impact is to walk through each of the five cards and highlight what it prompted me to change. I can't empirically prove that the talk was better after the "treatment" of using the recipe, but it sure felt like it. And, colleagues have said "It's great," already. (Maybe you could give me your feedback on my talk too after reading the article?)

Tip: Click on each card to see what's on the other side, right on the Pip Decks website.

1. Movie Time

This tactic is all about making sure you're telling the story. Providing prompts to generate that story content. Given the content was synthesised from case studies I had made earlier, if I had done them right, I would already be telling a story, making it hard to fall short in this area.

Movie Time card front

What it did do, was help make sure I translated over the core concepts of the case studies. For stories to be memorable, they have to be evocative. Not sensational, but enough to take your audience along for the ride. Facts on their own are boring, while facts that frame the story have relevance.

Something I came across when learning magic at a young age was the "mind palace" technique (memory journey, memory palace or formally "Method of loci") as a method for being able to memorise the order of a (regular) deck of cards. The principal is that if you can create a visual story which relates to the order of cards, your memory recall is augmented. This is a form of mnemonic like poems or acronyms that help you remember. (How do you know the colours of the rainbow or how many days are in each month of the Gregorian calendar?)

While the card doesn't mention this directly, the impact of telling a "real story" as opposed to presenting just facts, is memorability. If you can make YOUR talk or presentation easier to remember, that might be the difference between you and your competitor winning a multi-million dollar contract.

While I don't feel this first tactic resulted in any immediate changes, it did serve as a good checking mechanism, and helped frame the "Story Hooks" tactic I'll get to after the next one. It felt good to have something I already felt confident about be validated as a useful process.

2. Five Ts

Timeline, Turning Points, Tensions, Temptations, Teachable Moments.

The Five Ts card front

It may seem obvious, but if you don't have a narrative, you only have half a story. If someone hears the benefits but doesn't understand how to get to that point in a journey, they're going to be wondering if the story really applies to their situation. You've lost their interest, and they've just missed that next benefit or part of the story you wish they had been giving their full attention to.

Basing my talk on case studies made it easier to cover these story elements, as I already had the answers. I knew the timeline, I had the turning points or "challenges" as they were written or recorded in my notes. The trick was making sure I communicated these factors clearly, taking the audience along for the ride and keeping them engaged.

If you grew up watching TV as it was broadcast, you'll know how there's often a twist or a moment of tension JUST before the ad breaks. You can be sure this is no coincidence. Of COURSE they want you to stick around and watch the ads, waiting on bated breath for the show to start again.

The questions I asked my case study collaborators really fed well into this tactic, and I can't claim originality in my questions (I might have borrowed some for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation). Formally written case studies have their place, but the best talks sound and feel natural.

Making sure the tipping point was clear was the primary element I consider essential for case study storytelling. It's that last section to climb of the mountain. You've painted the picture, drawn the audience into considering what they might think about in the specific given situation. They don't really have the time or resources to fully consider solutions, but you're then presenting them with the solution. This is the beautiful view from the top after the climb. Impressive.

3. Story Hooks

You've all been there… A boring presentation. It's not that the content isn't important or that the presenter doesn't know what they are talking about. There are two primary reasons people lose interest: Lack of tone modularity in the delivery (as in how the presenter talks), and lack of hooks.

Story Hooks card front

Specifically, story hooks. Taking a part of your story and creating that cliff-hanger (like the whole TV show ad break we mentioned earlier).

Psychologically, if you ask the right questions, people who hear it will start trying to work out the answer. In doing so, they are going to be recalling the information just provided, realise it's not enough, and be waiting for more input. A strategic pause will allow people to catch up to this point, now ready to receive input, where you want to land your key point.

Story hooks aren't just about engagement, but enabling better recall later on. Making the story, and facts, more memorable and more meaningful.

With more and more conferences going online, it's never been more important to make sure people are paying attention and not checking twitter. If your talk is boring, you might only have 25% of people actually taking in what you're saying. If that was closer to even 90%, if you were to ask a question or make your content more relatable, you might snag someone's attention just long enough to re-engage them. That person might be the critical new person who wants to chat and ask questions after your talk.

4. Show and Tell

Don't be boring. Seems obvious, but let's unpack that. If you have a slide with a wall of text, which you proceed to read… people will be thinking "Yup, I've read that," and they have switched off. You've lost them, potentially for the rest of the talk.

Show and Tell card front

Reading what's on your slide is a pet hate of mine, although on rare occasions it is warranted, such as when you're reading quotes you want to emphasise.

The Show and Tell tactic probably had the biggest impact on my talk, most specifically how it was structured and the ordering of slides. The premise is that to avoid being boring or confusing, you need to show something AND tell something beyond what you're showing. My slides were going to be JUST bullet points for the most part, but that's not going to engage most people in truth.

The case studies had some clear segments in the story. I wanted to take people on a journey to that epiphany moment, and follow on to show the impact or benefits (You can get that from the Movie Time tactic). Just walking through those segments alone wasn't enough. If an audience member misses a segment, they might struggle to empathise or find the rest of the story relatable.

The result was that each case study followed this pattern:

  1. Introduce the company and give background. Show they are real and seem to be doing well. Everything is OK.
  2. Show the thing that's changing.
  3. Explain the arising challenge
  4. Explore possible solutions
  5. See how JSON Schema was used (JSON Schema is the project I'm part of)
  6. Explain the impact, with quotes

Before using the Show and Tell tactic, I didn't have step 2 or 5. A graphical representation of HOW the main topic of the talk is being used without having to dive down into technical details, provides just the right level of depth for the intended audience. The intended audience is the principal or managerial developer layer, those who make or influence the architecture of a system being built.

OK, the tactic card says that the "telling" part is about the script and not the slides, but I think you can apply it to both. The slides I added are mainly images, and they give a visual context to the part of the story I want to share at that point, without actually telling the story.

Have a look, have a listen, and tell me what you think. I'd be really happy to hear more feedback.

5. Cut to the Chase

Cut to the chase card front

This tactic is most relevant when you're talking to a live audience and you can gauge their interest or attention. For this specific talk, I couldn't be there in person and adapt what I was saying, but I could be up-front about the benefits of using JSON Schema we were going to discover.

I added a single slide which included a short list of some of the benefits from each case study. My hope was this would encourage people to ask "How will we see those benefits?" and really pay attention and watch for them.

This approach is often referred to as "dramatic irony", more seen as a literary or movie/TV tactic where the audience gets to know something before other characters in the story do. This not only builds tension, but makes people feel smart when they already know how things are going to play out, and when the story resolves. I've not told the audience specifically which benefits match up to which case study, so there's still a little bit of work for them to do. We wouldn't want to make it so blindingly obvious that it becomes boring!

Thinking about stories…

Narratology (yes, that's a real thing) is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect human perception. The most compelling and memorable stories are those which invoke emotion and which are relatable. One of the most classic storytelling tactics or "narrative theory" that has stuck with me since learning about it is the equilibrium/disruption cycle.

A narrative structure which follows equilibrium, disruption, repair, and new equilibrium, is as old as storytelling itself. When you think about classic stories you know, I'd be really surprised if most of them don't follow this basic structure. It's naturally compelling and assuring, because we like things to be at equilibrium. Here's a little extra reading if you're interested.

Now that you mention it!

You know when you get a new car and you start to see that car everywhere? It was there before, you just didn't notice it. You didn't recognise the design or the style or specific features. Going to a conference after reading the Storyteller Tactics cards is a little like getting a new car.

As I look through the cards again to refresh my mind of what's in the decks, I find myself realising something pretty important. Having attended a conference, I not only listened to talks, but thought about them through a critical lens. On reflection, the talks that I considered to be the "best" or most well delivered, used a number of the tactics found in this deck. They were the most engaging and memorable talks.

I don't know if the best speakers had a deck themselves or not, but what I can be sure of is, there is distilled wisdom in those cards.

Where are the free cards then?

You can see all the cards and their content on the Storyteller Tactics page of the Pip Decks website. But, to be honest, you're going to want them in an easier to digest and use format.

You can buy the digital versions of the deck on its own, but I'm telling you, you'll want the physical version too. Having the cards in your hands makes it easy to change the order, plan sessions of work, spread them out on your desk… Having them detached from the screen really makes a difference (and I say that as a screen loving person).

Having access to both the digital and physical cards is useful as you can throw individual cards into documents or share them on screen, for when you're not physically with the other people (Yeah, you can use these cards to help collaboration too).

In addition, you can get access to "The Vault", a series of videos and templates which explain the why and the how for each. Use either of the last two links to pick what package you want!

If you feel like you want JUST the physical version, that's possible too. But I honestly think you'd be missing out without access to the vault and the digital version.

It's a litte more pricy than I expected

Concerned about the price?

Consider the cost of reading 50 books, or even 20 books, cover to cover, and distill out what you've learnt into small actionable useful cards. To me, that's what I find in each Pip Deck. Seriously, what's your hourly rate? How long does it take you to read a non-fiction book? When you do the maths, it looks like a much more appealing proposition (Especially if your employer is paying!).

If you didn't check out the reviews and testimonails from earlier, now might be the time. Did other people at various levels feel the investment was worthwhile? Only one way to find out!


If you want a cool 10% discount, use the code "benhutton" at checkout. That's it!

But wait, there's more!

Pip Decks tell more than just stories. I was sold by their videos and explanation, so I decided to get the two-deck bundle, Storyteller Tactics and Workshop Tactics. Both have been really useful, and are having a real impact on my work.

Since they arrived, there are now three new decks: Idea Tactics, Team Tactics, and Laws of UX. You can pick them up as a bundle right now, although the physical decks ship a little later this year. I'm still digging into these, but I'm pretty excited to try them out. Oh, and there's a further two decks in the works. Go discover them for yourself!

You said twice?

The keen among you will remember I said I'd show you the power of the cards TWICE. Well, if you take a look at revisions from this GitHub Gist, you'll see there are a few differences. I've used two "Recipe" cards from the deck to improve this article you're reading now. I'm not going to go into the details of what I did for each card, but I would challenge you to do the same before and after copy of your next article, and see the improvement for yourself.

Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if you have any questions or comments.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

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