Nancy Duarte: An interview by Bob Morris

Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte has driven the vision and growth of Duarte for 20 years, building an internationally respected design firm, which has created over a quarter of a million presentations. She has helped shape the perceptions of many of the world’s leading brands and thought leaders. Nancy is the author of the best-selling and award winning book Slide:ology:  The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, where her experience was distilled into best practices for business communicators. She continues to advance new forms of presentation through partnerships with innovative forums like TED and PopTech. Nancy serves as a TED Fellows committee member, is a 2009 Woman of Influence and 2008 Communicator of the Year. Nancy’s latest award-winning book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, was published by Wiley in 2010.

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Morris: Before discussing Resonate, a few general questions. First, when and why did you first become interested in design?

Duarte: I’ve always been primarily a visual communicator. When I played as a child I would trace coloring book characters and classify them. It was easier for me to express myself visually than verbally. I received average grades school on my written assignments and top honors on any assignments that were accompanied by visuals.

Morris: Did that interest precede your interest in effective communication? Please explain.

Duarte: Effective communication is fascinating to me yet bad communication is just as fascinating. There are lessons to be learned from both. I can’t say I am a natural communicator, it’s taken a lot of work to be able to develop content relevant to the audience and deliver it with credibility. My initial natural ability tended to be more around the visual display of information. For years I was more comfortable visualizing other people’s great thinking. I preferred to be hidden behind the curtain than a thinker myself. It wasn’t until I wrote Resonate that I’ve gained the confidence to call myself a communicator.

Morris: Briefly, please trace the founding and subsequent development of Duarte Design. For example, what was its original mission and to what extent (if any) has that since changed?

Duarte: My husband, Mark, started the firm and it was called “Duarte Desktop Publishing and Graphic Design.” Wow, what a mouthful. We stumbled into presentations in 1989 and landed a very sophisticated account. When that company had a significant layoff in 1992 and the price of desktop projectors dropped significantly our presentation services spread across the Silicon Valley like wildfire as our clients scattered into new jobs across the valley. The firm has grown from just Mark to almost 100 people writing and visualizing presentations.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when your firm was founded?

Duarte: So much of what we did in the early days was trial and error. There were many long days and nights trying to figure out how to grow, increase our quality and keep employees motivated. I wish I’d brought in mature, smart staff earlier in the process. Having many smart people share the load has been the best thing we’ve ever done.

Morris: There has been significant increase of interest in design thinking as the publication of Resonate as well as of other books by Tim Brown (Change by Design),  Roger Martin (The Design of Business), Roberto Verganti (Design-Driven Innovation), and Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking) clearly indicate. How do you explain this? Why has the subject become so “hot”?

Duarte: My hope is that design thinking becomes an innovative discipline and not just the trend of the decade. As a nation and globally, we have some of the biggest problems to solve we have ever faced. We need innovative ways to solve our problems and communicating the solutions will be paramount. Original thinking, complex problem solving, and collaboration are all important skills for our future.

Morris: I view the appointment of John Maeda (author of The Laws of Simplicity and in May 2011, Redesigning Leadership) as president of Rhode Island School of Design as well as the fact that Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto are indications that the academic community is also becoming much more actively involved with design thinking. Do you agree?

Duarte: I agree! My hope is that the academic world will be open to the innovative approach design thinkers bring. I know John Maeda personally, and I love the way he thinks. He considers perspectives and has insights that would have never entered my mind. We need innovators at the helm of our education institutions, although there may be uncomfortable culture clashes initially, it’s important to move in this direction.

Morris: Look ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you see as the single most important business opportunity for firms such as yours?

Duarte: Wow Robert, you ask great questions! Right now we’re very focused on the power of story to persuade. Story incites us or unites us. My firm has an awestruck reverence for the power of story. Our short term priority is to uncover a quantitative way to measure the impact of a presentation and innovative ways to take presentations viral. As we’ve been working through the global landscape, we’re starting to see the importance of understanding and communicating stories in the context of a global atmosphere.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Resonate. Please explain its title and subtitle.

Duarte: When someone says “that resonates with me” what they are saying is “I agree with you” or “I align with you.” Once your ideas resonate with an audience, they will change. But, the only way to have true resonance is to understand the ones with whom you are trying to resonate. You need to spend time thinking about your audience. What unites them, what incites them? What does a walk in their shoes look like? Think about your audience and what’s on their mind before you begin building your presentation. Thinking about them will help you identify beliefs and behavior in your audience that you can connect with. Resonate with.

Morris: With rare exception, history’s greatest leaders were also great storytellers. Why?

Duarte: Most great leaders are also great communicators. Great leaders have learned how to persuade so their objectives can be reached. The most powerful device to persuade is story. Stating facts and figures is not memorable. Emotionally connecting your audience to your idea through story will move them.

Morris: In the Introduction to Resonate, you cite a graphic devised by a German dramatist, Gustav Freytag (1816-1895). Please explain what it suggests and why you think that it is significant.

Duarte: Freytag was a dramatist who believed that story had a five-act structure, and he described the structure through a triangular shape called a dramatic pyramid.

 

As you follow a protagonist through their journey, you can track the story to a climax and resolution. I loved that it was a shape. It challenged me to determine that if great presentations had a shape, what shape would they be? After studying cinema and literature extensively, Gustav’s discovery led me on a journey to find the shape of great communicators. I knew the shape wouldn’t be quite as simple as Freytag’s because his shape follows a single protagonist on their journey and presentations are more complex than that.

Then, one day, I drew a shape and I thought, if this shape is true, I should be able to transcribe the work of the greatest communicators and overlay the shape and it worked! Once I discovered the shape, I started to transcribe hundreds of great presentations and speeches and the great works of communication followed the shape. I’ve called this shape the Presentation Form:

 

Morris: However different they may be in most other respects, what do all great communicators such as Ronald Reagan, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Feynman, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, and Martha Graham share in common?

Duarte: The greatest communicators have unknowingly used a story pattern (a shape). They not only use anecdotes effectively, but their communication followed a persuasive story pattern of tension and release. That tension and release is created by contrasting [what is] with [what could be] as a structural device.

Morris: In which unique ways does resonance cause change?

Duarte: Resonance occurs when an object’s natural vibration frequency responds to an external stimulus of the same frequency. I decided to name the book Resonate when I saw this video.

 

My son poured salt on a steal plate and hooked it up to an amplifier. As the signal passes through the plate, a pattern emerged. If you picture the bits of salt as your audience, it’s as if they intuitively know where to move. They hop up and jump into this new pre-defined pattern. It’s rare to evoke a unified response in an audience like this salt did, but if we know the audience and tap in to their frequency, they will move and make something collectively beautiful.

The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to fit them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there. Your audience will be significantly moved if you send a message that is tuned to their needs and desires. They might even quiver with enthusiasm and act in concert to create beautiful results.

The greatest communicators know how to tap into their audience’s frequency in a way that moves them.

Morris: You suggest that the “enemy” of persuasion is obscurity. Please explain.

Duarte: Ideas need to stand out to be noticed. There is so much noisy information out there that if your message is bland, it won’t be heard or acted upon. To avoid obscurity, you need to clash with your environment. You want to stand out above the status quo. That might mean taking risks or being provocative. Incorporating contrast into your presentation will help it stand out. You create contrast by using the presentation form. For example, you can state the problem, then the solution. State an opposing perspective, then your perspective. State the past, then your picture of the future. Adding the cadence of contrast will pull your idea out of obscurity.

If people can’t “see” your idea, it won’t spread.

Morris: What do all “bad” presentations share in common?

Duarte: All “bad” presentations struggle to keep the audience interested. The audience squirms wishing they could escape. The audience has given the presenter an hour of their life, so they want that hour to be useful. It’s disrespectful of a presenter to not show up rehearsed and prepared with information and insights that will improve the lives of the audience in some way. Presenting will do only one of two things for you: it will either diminish your credibility or yield results. Most bad presentations hurt the presenter’s credibility.

Morris: What is Syd Field’s paradigm and why is it significant?

Duarte: Syd Field teaches classes on effective screenwriting. After studying the structure of the best movies, he noticed that the movies unfolded in three acts but the first and third acts are the shortest—each taking up 10% of the movie time leaving 80% of the action happening in the middle.

Even though it seems obvious to apply a three-act structure to our presentations, most presentations don’t. We should also be cognizant of the fact that our intro and conclusions should be succinct and brief, leaving the most time for the persuasive and more dramatic “second act.”

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Resonate, you invoke the journey metaphor and discuss what you characterize as “The Hero’s Journey” on Page 33. Who is this “hero”? Of the 12 stages, which seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

Duarte: During my study of cinema and literature, it would have been impossible not to include the work of Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, who discovered a globally-relevant story pattern he called “The Hero’s Journey.” Most stories follow his pattern. In fact, his pattern is used in Hollywood to analyze the effectiveness of a screenplay.

I included it in Resonate because story is about transformation and persuasion is about transformation. A presenter is trying to get an audience to leave their ordinary world and cross the threshold into the special world where our idea exists. Campbell’s multistep transformation process maps nearly perfectly over the transformation process of companies and communicators.

Morris: What about “The Audience’s Journey” on Page 35? What is that all about?

Duarte: Once I understood Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, I wanted to overlay his story insights into a presentation environment to see if there were relevant connections. When trying to apply insights from hero archetypes, at first I thought that the presenter is the hero. They are on stage and talking the most—similar to the hero of a movie. But I realized very quickly that the presenter isn’t the hero, the audience is. If you have an idea, and you put it out there for the audience to contend with and they reject it, your idea dies. The audience controls the fate of your idea, so the audience is the hero of your idea, not the presenter. This rattles a communicator’s paradigm. It shifts the presenter to being dependent on the response of the audience, so we need to obsess over what will move them.

Morris: Please explain what a “sparkline” is and does.

Duarte: The term sparkline was coined by Edward Tufte. It’s a data type that creates a shape to communicate information. I used a sparkline in Resonate as an analysis tool. I transcribed presentations of great communicators and applied the attributes of the presentation form over time creating an xyz shape as their presentations moved between what is and what could be.

Morris: I wholly agreed with you that Ronald Reagan’s address on January 28, 1986 (during which he shared his thoughts and feelings about the space shuttle Challenger tragedy) is among the most effective any U.S. President has ever made. I know why I admire it so much. Why do you?

Duarte: President Reagan was a master communicator. In this particular speech he did a brilliant job moving between the stately role of U.S. President and a national eulogist. The pain of the event was etched on his face. In 4 short minutes, he addressed five different audiences. He spoke to the collective mourners, families of the fallen, NASA employees, school children, and even took a poke at Russia. He communicated comfort and patriotism within a very short timeframe. That’s not easy to do.

Morris: You invite your reader to “meet the hero.” Please explain.

Duarte: The only way to resonate at a level that persuades is to know who you are addressing. Really know them. If it’s true that the Audience is the hero, you need to spend time thinking about them. Really getting to know them to the point it feels like they are a friend. May times we picture our audience as a large clump of strangers. Instead, you need to picture them as individuals standing in line to have a personal conversation with you. By picturing them as someone likeable and the hero of your idea, you’ll speak to them differently. It’s easy to persuade a friend, you need to think about your audience until you know them as a friend.

Morris: Who is “the mentor”?

Duarte: In myths and movies, the mentor can play a few roles: they bring the hero a magical gift, teach them how to use a special tool, or help the hero get unstuck. In a presentation setting, the presenter is the mentor. Our role as a presenter is similar to a mentor. We should be brining something of important value to our audience, they should not leave empty handed. There should be something useful and somewhat life-altering that we give them. It’s not very often that we sit through a presentation and feel like we’ve sat at the feet of a mentor, but we should.

Morris: What are the components of a “big idea”?

Duarte: Many communicators barrel into their presentation solely with a topic in mind instead of a Big Idea. A Big Idea has two components: 1.) your unique point of view 2.) what’s at stake.

Because you have the floor, you have the opportunity to share your unique point of view. People have gathered to hear you speak so you shouldn’t speak in broad generalized terms; you should give a distinct perspective on the subject matter. For example, “the Florida wetlands” is not a unique point of view, that’s a topic. But if I were to say “humans are destroying the Florida wetlands” that’s a point of view.

So why should a Big Idea identify what’s at stake? Because if there’s nothing at stake, why persuade? The stakes can have consequences or rewards, but there must be something at stake. In the wetlands example above, you could say “…and it will cost the tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars.” Those are stakes.

Define the Big Idea before you write your presentation. Use it as a guide. Make sure that all the points you make support this one big idea.

Morris: What does it mean to map an audience journey?

Duarte: Once you’re done defining the Big Idea, the next thing you must do is define the audience journey. It’s an oversight to jump into creating content for a presentation without first defining how your audience will need to transform. Just like story is transformative in nature, persuasion is transformative too. Your audience enters the room believing and behaving a certain way, and you want to have them leave the room believing and behaving in your defined way. So if you don’t clearly define the beliefs and behaviors of the end game, the audience won’t ever get there. You wouldn’t set sail to Hawaii from California without a map. It’s the same for a presentation. Your audience will not get to your destination if you don’t carefully map out the journey you’re taking them on. So, define how you want the audience to believe and behave when they leave the room after your presentation.

Morris: What is “Rule #4” and how best to accommodate it?

Duarte: Rule of Resonance #4 states: Every audience will persist in a state of rest unless compelled to change. Humans are resistant to change. They are usually happy in what they believe or how they behave. Just because you have a perspective or objective and think that it’s important that your audience changes, it doesn’t mean they will see it that way. Part of your job is to get them unstuck. There are a couple ways to get people unstuck and that’s to use emotional appeal. There are two basic classes of emotion. Pain and pleasure. Pain drives away and pleasure lures toward. Try to make the audience feel uncomfortable about their current stance (pain) and draw them to your idea by having them see reward in it (pleasure). If you don’t, they will not move.

Morris: You assert that “contrast creates contour.” Please explain.

Duarte: To keep people interested, your presentation needs to have contrast. As humans we process contrast. We are assessing “what’s the same,” “what’s different,” “what’s like me,” “what’s not like me.” Humans stay interested if they can process contrast.

Varying types of contrast can be used. With content, you can contrast between what is and what could be or between your perspective and alternative perspectives. On the stage, you can contrast various types of delivery: cut to alternate media forms, invite another presenter on stage, switch up the slides often, and change things up with your voice and gestures. It’s also important to contrast analytical content with emotional content. Alternating between just the right amount of emotional appeal and analytical appeal is powerful. And will help you contrast from other presenters.

Morris: What must be done to “establish structure for meaningful messages”?

Duarte: Structure is what makes communication hang together. It’s like the rails that a train runs on. Without them, things wouldn’t move very far. If you only have time to do one thing in your presentation, make sure it has a clear and identifiable structure. Without this, you’ll have no credibility. Once you’ve organized your ideas, if you step back and look at it, many times we’ve organized topics. We’ve strung together a structure with organized topics. At this point, change your topics into messages. Instead of having a slide that says “Q3 update,” have it say “A new aggressive competitor has taken market share.” Create messages that are charged instead of emotionally neutral topics. If someone were to read just the titles in your slides, they should understand the contrast between what is and what could be.

Morris: What is a “S.T.A.R. moment”? What do all such moments share in common in terms of their impact?

Duarte: A STAR moment is an acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. It’s a moment in your presentation that will be talked about at the water cooler afterwards. These moments could be caused by a story, shocking statistic, evocative visual, dramatization, or a repeatable sound bite. These moments just don’t happen by chance, they are carefully planned and orchestrated but appear to happen naturally and effectively during the presentation. These various devices for emotional appeal are used to create a connection with the audience.

For example, through his philanthropy, Bill Gates hopes to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, including malaria. In his 2009 TED talk, Gates established the gravity of this disease by stating that millions have died and 200 million people are suffering from it at any given time. He then stated that more money is spent on behalf of wealthy men developing baldness drugs than on fighting malaria for the poor. At that moment, he released a jar of mosquitoes into the room saying, “There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.”

Morris: What do you consider to be most significant about a Steve Jobs’ presentation style?

Duarte: Mr. Jobs communicates with a lot of emotional appeal. He is a natural storyteller and communicator. The power of story is that it makes you feel. Stories evoke a physical response in us. Your heart can race, you can get a chill down your spine, or laugh or cry, all from the power of a story.

Well, Mr. Jobs creates a physical reaction in his audience too. He has the audience laugh and clap nearly every 30 seconds. That is a TON of physical reaction to his material. Not many CEOs can sustain a 90 minute keynote where the audience stays in a heightened frenzy, but Mr. Jobs does it well by using all facets of emotional appeal: story, sound bites, evocative visuals, dramatizations and shocking statistics.

Morris: What do you find most impressive about President Abraham Lincoln’s address at the cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863?

Duarte: President Lincoln was a man of choice words. He was asked to eulogize the fallen at Gettysburg. In that era, they used the Aristotelian form of eulogy, which was two-hours long. They believed the dead deserved to be memorialized at length. Even though Mr. Lincoln was given two hours, he only took 2 minutes. In fact, we have no photographs of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address because the cameramen had no time to set up before Lincoln completed his speech. Lincoln’s speech has become a most profound and beloved speech because of its brevity and clarity. So the lesson for presenters is that if you’re given an hour, take less time so you can let the audience connect with you through discussion or Q&A of your content afterward.

Morris: What is Rule #8 and why is it so important?

Duarte: Rule of Resonance #8 states: Audience interest is directly proportionate to the presenter’s preparation. I hear all the time “I don’t have the kind of time to put into a presentation to make it great.” I understand that, so you need to prioritize the amount of energy you spend on a talk based on what’s most important and what’s at stake. You better spend time and energy on any presentations where the stakes are high. If you are trying to close a large sale or speak at a conference to an audience of potential clients, you better be ON your game. An audience can tell how much energy you spent on your presentation, which is a reflection of how much you valued their time. If they gave you an hour of their time, you need to make it worth it to them by treating their time as a valuable asset by making the content valuable to them.

Morris: In your opinion, what is Martha Graham’s greatest strength as a communicator?

Duarte: Martha Graham changed dance as we know it. When she came on the scene, ballet was the prominent stage discipline, and she felt it was too stiff and not self-expressive. Even though Graham was told she was the wrong shape, too old, and ugly, she was determined to pioneer a new form of dance. Graham’s dances modeled life. Life is hard. She introduced the ugly side of life to audiences through her dance. Traditional ballet has the dancers mostly leaping airborne, she would strain as if the gravity of life was holding her down to the floor. Many felt her expression on stage was ugly, and she was heavily ridiculed. But Martha was persistent in expressing her emotion on stage.

There’s one particular story I love about Graham. Here’s this woman who unabashedly contorted and expressed her emotions on stage through dance but she was terrified of public speaking. In fact film crews and audiences would have to be turned away because she would lock herself in her dressing room from fear of public speaking. She did eventually determine to overcome her fear. She applied the same discipline to her public speaking skills as she did her dance, and she became known as the strongest cultural ambassador to Asia the United States has ever had.

So, you aren’t alone in your fear of public speaking. But, there’s really only one way to become a great communicator and that’s to be disciplined in the practice.

Morris: You conclude the book with brief case studies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alfred Hitchcock, and E.E. Cummings. Frankly, I think they are an odd combination. Please explain why you selected them.

Duarte: I called that last section “Coda” which is a musical term that means there’s additional material at the end of a composition that’s added on after the piece has already seemingly ended. I wanted to show how other disciplines apply to presentations with a lesson for my readers in each.

Mozart was a musical genius who understood music theory very well. Classical music has a structure or form to it. I wanted to pull insights from an alternative discipline to show not only the shapeliness of classical music but also the importance of contrast. There are 5 forms of contrast in the Sonata analyzed in the book. Many times when I travel I get asked in the Q&A if I’ve ever considered that my presentation form seems to be almost musical in nature. I can then point them to the page in the book where we used a similar visual style as the presentation form to analyze classical music.

With E.E. Cummings, I wanted my readers to know that once they understood, knew and practiced my “rules” they were allowed to break them. E.E. Cummings was highly educated and masterful at English before he chose to use it as a poetic art form. He could break the rules because he knew the rules and had been disciplined in them first.

The spread about Hitchcock was to encourage presenters to collaborate and pull on the value that collaborators bring. Often presenters work in a vacuum whereas Hitchcock had a team that helped pull the many facets of his story together. Including collaborators creates a stronger piece.

Even though these three people featured seem only loosely related, this Coda has a few moral lessons and encouragement in it too. By folding in multiple disciplines, I’m trying to connect to a broader audience.


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2 Comments

  1. Nancy Duarte on June 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Many, many thanks, Bob! This was a great interview!

  2. Nancy Duarte: An interview by Bob Morris on June 4, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    […] To read the complete interview, please click here. […]

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