Almost anyone who calls themselves a manager, a leader or a professional has to create and deliver presentations. Whilst oratory and rhetoric have their origins in classical times, it would not be unreasonable to argue that the modern presentation is the most recently invented new literary form. Yet, as a way of communicating, its newness means many of us use it very badly; throwing data, diagrams and bullet points onto a screen with little thought about who we are speaking to and what their needs are.
But presentations offer us a powerful medium to communicate ideas and to persuade. No one has done more to understand how to do this well, and to offer her insights to the world than Nancy Duarte.
Nancy Duarte studied maths at college, which I think is important: she clearly has an analytical brain and can understand data deeply. So part of her success comes, I suspect, from fusing that with an understanding of design. Her husband, Mark Duarte, started a design company in Silicon Valley in 1988, about which Nancy Duarte was sceptical. However, after making some sales calls for the business, she landed three large accounts (including Apple, for whom the company still works) and she became persuaded. She joined the business in 1990 and is now the CEO, while Mark is CIO and CFO.
As a general design agency, Duarte had little to differentiate itself from its many competitors. Nancy Duarte’s big insight (from reading Jim Collins’ Good to Great) was the need to specialise deeply, so they picked something other agencies shunned: helping their clients to create great presentations.
Some of the key points in Nancy Duarte’s career are:
- Helping to create AL Gore’s slide deck, which he used in his presentation (and subsequently movie) An Inconvenient Truth
- Attending UCLA’s Management Development for Entrepreneurs (MDE) MBA-level programme
- Linking up with the other great presentation guru, Garr Reynolds, and subsequently writing her first book, Slide:ology
- Discovering the pattern of contrasts in many great speeches and presentations
- Turning these insights into a TED speech (below) and her second book, Resonate
Nancy Duarte’s Ideas
Nancy Duarte’s first book, Slide:ology, shows how to create great presentation graphics to show information in a clear and compelling way. But it is her second, Resonate, that contains her big idea. She describes it as a prequel to the first, and in it she sets out how you can craft a narrative flow that will make your ideas resonate with your audience; making them persuasive. Of the relationship between the two books, she says:
‘Gussying up slides that have meaningless content is like putting lipstick on a pig’.
Let’s forgive her both the cliche and the insult to porcine-kind: her point is well made. Great slides do not make a great talk, they can merely enhance it.
If you present and want to make an impact, then put Resonate at the top of your reading list. It is filled with ideas and illustrations. Let’s summarise the two big ones.
The Hero’s Journey
Duarte emphasises the importance of your presentation telling a story, and she uses several models to help explain how to do it, including The Syd Field Paradigm for screenplays. This has a three act structure, where act 1 sets up the story, with a key plot point towards the end. Act 2 creates a confrontation, with a major event around the middle. It ends with a vital plot development. And act 3 resolves the story.
Her primary model, however, is the idea of a Hero’s Journey, first developed by Joseph Campbell. Star Wars is, famously, modelled on this archetype. The distinctive point of Duarte’s analysis is this. When you build your presentation, cast your audience as the hero. You need to be their mentor and guide: showing them a possible new world, helping them to overcome their resistance to entering it, and then building their loyalty to the new idea., so they feel they can re-enter their familiar world having achieved a triumph and feeling enriched.
The Contour of Communication: The Sparkline
What I think lifts Duarte’s thinking to a new level and introduces insights that were certainly new to me, is her way of illustrating the form of a presentation and her insight into where a presentation’s power comes from.
Duarte suggests that all great talks, speeches and presentations alternate between what is and what could be. They start with what is, develop a sense of imbalance and then suddenly reveal what could be. Through the middle part, the second act, they alternate between the two, creating a greater and greater sense of contrast, before moving to the end section with a final transition that ends with the reward, triggered by a call to action. The dotted line represents the audiences future.
Contrast, Duarte says, creates contour, and you can contrast present and future, pain and gain, resistance and action, emotion and reason, information and insight… anything. And she offers three modes for doing this: your content, emotional register, and delivery style.
The Secret Structure of Great Talks
Nancy Duarte’s TED video is one of my favourites. For some reason, TED does not allow embedding of this particular video, so click the image and watch it on TED.