Stories that Move Mountains Book Summary



“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” — Hannah Arendt

Presenting ideas is hard.

If you want to be a more effective presenter, you can learn a system.   By having a system, you can get better with time.

Stories that Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations, by Martin Sykes, A. Nicklas Malik, and Mark D. West,  introduces the CAST system for creating visual stories.

It’s a powerful book about how to improve your presentation skills using storytelling and visuals.

Present Ideas the Visual Way

If presenting ideas is hard, change is even harder.  Stories that Move Mountains ties the two together and helps you create compelling stories that influence and drive change.  The fact that Stories that Move Mountains includes a system for presenting ideas and influencing change is a bonus.

The book itself is a cornucopia of principles, patterns, and practices for storytelling.   Best of all, the authors break things down in a way that’s easy to follow and easy to use for presenting ideas and improving your presentation skills.  It’s a book that helps you learn how to present ideas in a visual way, as well as become a masterful storyteller.

The Art of Storytelling Exposed

The best part of Stories that Move Mountains is that it shows how the magic is done.   Some people just seem to be great presenters, while others have to work at it.  If you have to work at it, this book is for you, because it really helps you understand the key components of successful presentations.   It’s not what happens on the slides.   It’s how you weave your content, audience, and story together to tell it in a way that really can move mountains.

Advanced Presentation Skills at Your Fingertips

Whether you want to use the book to improve your ability to tell and sell your ideas, or for professional development, it helps you with both.  After all, one of the things that helps people operate at a higher level is their ability to communicate, which includes presenting ideas, and inspiring others to action.

The real power of Stories that Move Mountains is that you add advanced presentation skills to your bag of tricks, as well as create a framework for improving your ability to change the world in a more meaningful, and, skillful way.

What’s In It For You

  • How to use the CAST process to tell visual stories.
  • How to create a one-page visual of your story.
  • How to improve your impact and influence through effective storytelling.
  • How to put the secrets of masterful storytellers, including Steve Jobs, into action.
  • How to structure your stories with skill.
  • How to test and rehearse your stories.
  • How to deliver your stories more effectively to drive decisions.
  • How to arrange visual components to make it easier to “see” your story.
  • Learn how to use learning styles and decision styles for more effective delivery.
  • Learn how to use multiple sources of power to influence decision makers.
  • Learn how to be specific and interesting to bring your stories to life.

Chapters At a Glance

  • Chapter 1 The Power of Stories
  • Chapter 2 CAST and the Visual Story Map
  • Chapter 3 Using CAST to Tell Stories
  • Chapter 4 WHY
  • Chapter 5 WHAT
  • Chapter 6 HOW
  • Chapter 7 WHAT IF
  • Chapter 8 WHO
  • Chapter 9 Learning and Decision Styles
  • Chapter 10 Structure
  • Chapter 11 Character
  • Chapter 12 Sense of Urgency
  • Chapter 13 Delivery Plan
  • Chapter 14 Design
  • Chapter 15 Test
  • Chapter 16 CAST Example: What a Difference a Day Can Make
  • Chapter 17 Afterword: Improving Your Visual Storytelling

Key Features

Here are some of the key features of Stories that Move Mountains:

  • Visual.  The book is very visual with attention to layout and detail.  It’s meant to keep you engaged.  It’s the kind of book that you want to hold in your hands and flip through.   There is a lot of art throughout the book, and it’ helps convey the information of the book in a visual way.
  • Reference and guide.   The book works both as a fast reference and as a guide.  You can read it end-to-end or flip through to the parts you need.  It’s a lot of information that you can keep going back to.
  • Written from experience.   It’s written by people who actually deliver effective presentations.   You get the benefit of their experience at your fingertips.  It’s like an insiders guide to more effective presentations that really do inspire and persuade.
  • Science + art.  The book is a beautiful blend of the “science” of presenting, and, the “art” of presenting.  It helps you put just enough structure and scaffolding in place so your art part can shine.
  • Multiple sources and reference.   The book draws from multiple sources of insight, you get the synthesis of many proven practices.  In other words, the book not only helps you create stories that move mountains; it also helps you “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
  • It grows with you.   As you expand your storytelling and presenting capabilities, you can absorb more of what the book and process has to offer.

Here is a sampling of some of my favorite nuggets and insights from Stories that Move Mountains:

CAST:  The Visual Story Map

The backbone of the book is the CAST process.  It’s a simple process to help you structure your visual stories in a one-page view.   CAST is an acronym to help you remember the process:

  • CONTENT.  CONTENT is where you address WHY, WHAT, HOW, and WHAT IF.
  • AUDIENCE.  AUDIENCE is where you address HOW.
  • STORY.  STORY is where you address Structure, Character, Sense of Urgency, and Delivery Plan.
  • TELL.  TELL is where you address the Design and Test of your visual stories.

The Design Process for Building Visual Stories

The authors broke the design process into five steps:

  1. Format
  2. Ideation
  3. Composition
  4. Content Coding
  5. Writing

Format is where you choose the best format to deliver your story.  The authors focus on a one-page visualization, because it makes it easy to spin up other variations from there, but you can choose whatever floats your boat.

Ideation is where you rapidly cycle through ideas from blank pages to content, evaluating, editing and filtering.  The ideas is to cast a wide net before narrowing down.

Composition is where you put the content together, deciding what to keep in, and what to leave out.  Some things you might include visually, while other things you will simply include as part of your story.

Content Coding is where you make deliberate choices around icons, colors and positioning to convey meaning.  The idea is to create a glide path for your audience to receive your message.

Writing is where you spend the time to create the right language to go with your visuals.  You also need to decide what will be narrated or conveyed out loud, versus what text will be ready by the audience.

7 Basic Plots

If you know the basic types of stories, it’s easier to structure your story.  While there are lots of opinions on the types of stories that exist, the authors defer to Christopher Booker.  Christopher Booker spent 30 years researching thousands of works to identify seven basic plots.

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. The Quest
  3. Voyage and Return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Rags to Riches

Note the key phrase here is “basic plots.”  What about a love story, or mystery?  Usually, these are just more specific flavors of a basic plot.  The power of the plot is to recognize what is the story basically about.

The “story” part of many stories is the “challenge” and the “change.”  When you look at it from this perspective, having a handful of basic plots at your fingertips can help you quickly frame how to present your ideas in the most effective way.

Is it a quest?  Is there a villain to be defeated?  Is there a tragedy in the making?

Ways to Organize Visual Stories

Sykes, Malik, and West call out some of the most common patterns for organizing elements of your story:

  1. Cause and Effect
  2. Chronological
  3. Compare and Contrast
  4. Geospatial
  5. Logical Argument
  6. Problem – Solution (Options)
  7. Sequential
  8. Topic / Classification

How To Tell Many Stories at the Same Time

Up front or weave throughout? … One of the challenges we face when presenting is how much information to put up front versus weaving it throughout the presentation.  This is one of the skills of master storytellers.  They know how to nest little stories within a bigger one.

Sykes, Malik, and West share the key:

“If your content has many individual parts that you need to communicate, you could spend time on each part and then bring it all together at the end.  The problem is that each part is a unique story and every time one of them is brought to a close, the audience will wonder if you are reaching a conclusion. 

This is no way to build tension. 

An alternative approach is to have a main story with nested mini-stories so that you can keep bringing the audience back to the main story.  You can nest a number of stories inside the main story to provide a sense of continuity and direction to the end of the main story.”

A Great Presenter Goes Deeper

Can you reuse canned content or do you need to create something new for each audience?  Typical presenters will just use their canned content.  A great presenter goes deeper.

Sykes, Malik, and West write:

“A great presenter goes deeper.  He or she will start every delivery by considering the audience, and working out the best way to tell the story to produce the desired effect. 

The great presenter considers the audience’s needs first and adjusts the standard content to fit. 

We create a visual story to help the audience reach a decision, with a plan for delivery that may involve many different presentations, in different formats, sometimes even including some of the audience in the creation of the story.  Each delivery, in whatever format, should be designed for a specific audience, and to move one step closer to the desired decision.”

Delivery Plan

To deliver with skill, you need a plan.  You might need to influence a bunch of key stakeholders before the actual delivery.  You might need to do some smaller presentations to lead up to your bigger one.

Sykes, Malik, and West write:

“The important concept here is to plan for a sequence of deliveries to the audience.  You may have only one main presentation to deliver, but if you look back at the map you created there are likely to be many different people in your audience who all need influencing.  

Some might appreciate a handout with more details, some a chance to have a discussion and work through the story step by step.  Gaining and keeping the commitment you want from the audience means thinking through these requirements and planning to address the different needs.”

Get the Book

Stories that Move Mountains:  Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations is available on Amazon:

Stories that Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations, by Martin Sykes, A. Nicklas Malik, and Mark D. West

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