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  • John Chambers, PhD

Storyboards for Story Tellers

​​The art of the storyteller, like Scheherazade, is to sustain interest. The art in a storyboard, such as Sani Al Molk’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, walks the listener through the plot.

In a collegial chat with another executive, I wondered if more executives would become fluent in office tools, document editors, and presentation design. It’s not that the expensive time of the executive should be consumed with points and clicks of a cursor’s floating movement, but the tool does force a disciplined approach to developing the story. And for all the contemporary contrarianism, the storyboard is still invaluable. Some stories are not necessarily sequential, but the presentation itself is. If the story can’t be told, then the executive’s objective can’t be met. Gershwin was at the height of his melodious powers and musical genius when he traveled to France to meet Maurice Ravel. Gershwin wanted to learn the structure of classical music. In the pop music world, a similar story is told of Paul McCartney who wished to mature structure in his compositions. One of the lessons, he recalled, was returning to basics, thinking in terms of story development. Every story has a beginning, middle and end. Who doesn’t know that? A lot of presenters.

I was treated to a pretty good Cyber Security conference a week ago in Manhattan. As communication and awareness comprise a zeitgeist of defense, cyber security and protection of the firm is often in the hands of the people – the employees, contractors and suppliers. The human factor. Whether it’s handling and labeling of unstructured data, or anti-phishing vigilance, the living and breathing interface to the display is the virtual lifeblood of the corporate gate. Tim Marsden, information security executive delivered the message as well as anyone. There was something unique about the presentation. It was truly his. Not that he didn’t cut and paste some research data regarding cyber awareness campaigns, and not because he didn’t depend on a team for consultative input. The deck was his, and that was what I find unique. This was not a presenter who sought credit for simply having a resume, standing before us, an all-too-common egotistical highlight in many executive presentations. No, this was not an “all about me.” Rather, this was Tim’s transparent means of being open about his and his team’s personal experiences. And that resonated with the audience. I tip my hat to his style. He did not reference his preparation as something so unique. There was no arrogance in his words. His comments were the validation of his thought process and the validation of his corporate leadership. He thought about his presentation and he “owned” it. He analyzed the research, he crafted content that illustrated his passion for the guidance he imparted to us. And there was something even more special – he did something that so many executives skip; he developed his own story This was not an evening news anchor who read a teleprompter, nor was it a talking head arguing MVP candidates on a sports panel. This was a walk through an executive’s experience, with an aim to help us who sat there.

At the start of many presentations I notice audience members with mobiles in hand. Distraction is the shared and usual behavior; eyes turn downward, and thumbs scrolling toward concerns that pertain to everything except the presenter’s story. But after five minutes, I noticed most hands were empty of mobile devices. Tim’s presentation was compelling in it’s elegant simplicity, straightforward talk. No, we were not listening to Churchill’s "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" impassioned call to arms. But we were there to take home learning and ideas. We were there to gather insight, to assess practices and pleas, and choose the best of the best. There was scant poetry in his words, but Tim did get my smiling appreciation for calling on the Bard in one of his slides.

Business leaders are as different as the products they lead, the teams who create, the individuals who spend their time supporting the mission. They don’t all have the same style or background, nor are all of them orators extraordinaire. The executive who speaks from the heart, who is logical and clear, is the leader who will help teams respond. Tell the story clearly, but be yourself nevertheless. Tim wasn’t Samuel Johnson and I wasn’t Boswell, scribbling his every word. He didn’t invent the cyber skills of which he championed any more than those 18th century British masters created the art of communication. But he applied what he’s learned into an organized and prescriptive way forward. He delivered with clarity so that we could take the intent back to our own companies.

All presentation software, like cyber defense, depends on the human factor. No matter how glossy or sexy, compelling or colorful a slide on the screen, it’s your ability to convey the segue. The message is lost if you’re presentation is all over the place. It is lost when you haven’t thought and rehearsed, planned and embraced the story that will flow from the images on the screen. Step by step, each slide (its chapters or scenes) build to the climax. The storyboard is the view of your beginning, middle and end. Presentation deck development is an art and a craft, as much the accountability of an executive as a teller of tales.

In ancient times prior to printing presses, prior to tablets, legends and lessons lived through memory, embellishment, and remembrance. They are passed from person to person and generation to generation through the oral tradition. With shortened days and electronic transmission, we have returned to those traditions, guided by a storyboard of ideas and slide progressions. But the art of that storytelling is still rare; mostly because the storyboard isn’t there. Poetry isn’t required, nor is Walt Whitman’s imagery. What’s necessary is genuineness and being you, telling a story that is not about you but about lessons and examples and help, logically progressing.

Tim Marsden captured the attention of the security conference with his analytical views, his embedded research, and his commitment to the subject. His discussion highlighted the most significant factor in the protection of an enterprise’s cyber environment –- awareness and communication, the human element, and I was a better executive for it.

In the rustle of the schedule and the conversational interruptions that are standard conference atmosphere, I lost sight of him. I had wanted to congratulate him on his story. Recalling his passion and deliberate, careful application of awareness principles I headed home on the train, imagining myself an ancient teller of tales by a primitive fire, ready to pass on his lessons and his story, improving the quality of other companies and their capabilities.

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