Need to deliver a killer pitch in half the time? No problem. Here’s how.

Picture this: you’ve been working for days on a major presentation for your leadership team. The analysis is complete, the data assembled, and you’ve solicited enough feedback in advance of the meeting that you’re confident in your approach. But as you wait for your meeting to begin, you realize the leaders are running behind schedule. As you glance at your watch, an executive assistant informs you that now you only have ten minutes for what was supposed to be a 45-minute presentation. A wave of fear washes over you as you ask yourself, “How can I possibly cut this presentation to a handful of slides in minutes, hit my key messages, and still pull off a great performance?”

This scenario is not uncommon when working with busy executives. If you hope to interact with senior leaders effectively, it is essential to be able to pivot your presentation at a moment’s notice. By understanding the core principles of storytelling and knowing your story backwards and forwards, you can successfully flex it, no matter the time constraints you face.

Every presentation – whether it is sales-oriented or financial in nature – is a story. And a story can be told in detail when time permits, or in brief when time is short. At its most simple, a story needs three elements: Why, What, and How (see graphic, above). Using the core story structure as your basis, begin with your big idea: the What. If you receive a request for more context, back up and offer the setting, character, and conflict of your story – the Why. If your audience is impatient, move ahead to your How, the resolution. This is where you hit them with your concrete plan, with details ready on request.

It might seem a herculean task, but by applying the storytelling concepts, you’ll be able to pivot your presentation with ease. Here’s how the Why, What and How work together.

Why – the underlying rationale

Every story has a reason behind it. Why is the rationale underlying your presentation. Like every good story, Why comprises three key sub-elements. The first is the setting. This is immediately recognizable to the audience – it’s the situation they’re living in currently. It might be a company’s slowing growth prospects, or lackluster performance throughout the supply chain. Data can be used to enrich the setting so everyone in the audience is on the same page. Once the setting has been established, characters are identified. Characters are the people in the story affected by what’s happening in the setting. Commonly used characters include customers, employees, or fictional personas which reflect people in these groups. No matter who the characters are, they emotionally connect the audience to the story. The final sub-element of Why is conflict. Conflict gives the audience a reason to pay attention as the story advances. More importantly, the conflict sets up the storyteller to provide a resolution. The benefit of these three sub-elements is that they can be explained quickly – which is essential when you only have a few minutes to establish your story.

What – the big idea

Next comes What. This is your ‘big idea.’ It represents the missing piece of the puzzle, and it should transport the audience from the beginning to the end of the story. This big idea is a central thought that pulls the whole presentation together. Without What, there’s no way to close out the story. It’s the lynchpin of the entire case you’re making.

How – the resolution

How tells the audience what the resolution to the conflict is. It pulls the characters through the conflict to a brighter future. Resist the temptation to give the How right at the start of a presentation, even when you’re pressed for time. Starting with the How will not allow you to use your big idea to hook your audience. The big idea is what will get them invested in the resolution.

A simple example: buying insurance

Imagine you work in the insurance industry. Your team has uncovered an opportunity to improve the property purchasing experience for Millennial buyers by designing a novel online buyer experience. A typical presentation might start by describing your big idea – the new buyer journey – followed by pages of supporting details bolstering your recommendation. When you’re told you only have minutes to summarize your presentation, it becomes difficult to do in a compelling way.

But if you’ve followed the Why, What, How format, it’s easy.

The setting is the property and casualty insurance-buying process. Until now, it has consisted of visits with an agent, comparing online options, and getting a recommendation from friends and family.

You describe this process in detail using a fictional character named Sarah, who works through the entire process. As she does, conflict arises: Sarah finds the process confusing. By the end, she’s not sure she made the right decision. She ends up a disengaged, dissatisfied customer.

The resolution for Sarah is to find a provider that can give her the information and support she needs every step of the way. Your big idea is an integrated buying journey that will eliminate dissatisfaction and turn uneasy buyers into highly satisfied customers. It is a story that can be presented in minutes if needed.

Pivoting a presentation is easy when the story is in place. All it takes is a little forethought about the key elements. Create presentations that leverage the power of Why, What, and How and you will find your stories are compelling, flexible, and allow you to pivot in a way that eliminates the fear associated with having only ten, or even two, minutes to present.

Ed Barrows is a managing director at Duke Corporate Education. Lee Lazarus is co-founder and chief revenue officer at The Presentation Company, and co-author with Janine Kurnoff of Everyday Business Storytelling (Wiley, 2021).