Nancy Duarte Q&A

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An area of applied storytelling that continues to fascinate me is the use of stories in presentations. Without question, one of the best-known figures in incorporating storytelling into presentations is Nancy Duarte, who has just extended her expertise in a new book, Resonate — Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Like many story practitioners, Nancy is very generous with her wisdom, offering sneak peaks of her books, “assets” (such as charts and diagrams) that folks can freely use in blogs and presentations, and enhanced Web content that extends the content in her books; you can find these goodies here. I’m honored that Nancy is participating in this Q&A series.

nancybio2010.jpg Bio: As CEO of Duarte Design, Nancy Duarte has advanced the art and literature of presentations, emerging with her agency as one of the most sought-after authorities in presentation design. Duarte and Duarte Design have worked with global companies and prominent thought leaders — including Adobe, Cisco, Food Network, Facebook, GE, Google, Al Gore, HP, Nokia, TED, Twitter, and World Bank — to help influence public perception of some of the world’s most valuable brands and many of humanity’s most pressing causes. In 2008, Duarte authored Slide:ology —The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, which won the Axiom Design award for its distillation of best practices in visual communications. She just released her second book Resonate — Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences about how presenters can incorporate story to create a groundswell for their cause or idea. For more information on Duarte and Duarte Design, visit the Duarte site.




Q&A with Nancy Duarte:

Q: How do you define story in the context of a presentation?

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A: Story can be used as an overall narrative structure in a presentation or for emotional appeal within a presentation. Since story is said to have an arc to it, I set out to determine if the best presentations also have a contour to them also. After collecting insights from the 20 years of presentations we’ve developed plus extensively studying cinema and literature (even topics like philosophy and mythology), I uncovered a story structure that works for presentations. Here are insights in a nutshell:
  • Beginning: Somewhere in the beginning of your presentation you need to dramatically paint a picture of the gap between the world without your idea (what is) juxtaposed to the world with your idea adopted (what could be). You should make that contrast as dramatically apparent as possible. This is similar to an inciting incident in a movie, it’s a Call to Adventure you’re taking the audience on. It will force the audience to contend with the imbalance created if the world if it doesn’t have your proposed idea in it.
  • Middle: The middle needs to be packed with contrast that creates a sense of rhythm. You can do that structurally by moving back and forth between “what is” and “what could be”, or you can create contrast by incorporating emotional appeal through stories and other devices, or you can create contrast by mixing up the delivery method by showing a video or involving the audience in some way.
  • End: You should end your presentation with a clear Call to Action…but don’t stop there. Conclude by stating as clearly and compellingly what the world will look like if they adopt your idea. What is the new bliss? Describe it as beautifully and articulately as possible; ending your presentation by painting the world as a better place.

Q: In a 2008 article in Business Week about storytelling in presentations (against the backdrop of the presidential election), Carmine Gallo cited as one reason that “few business communicators employ this device in their own presentations”: “Most presenters are afraid of opening themselves up in a business context.” Do you find that to be the case, and if so, how do you overcome that fear in your clients?

A: Telling a very good story does require that the protagonist encounter a problem or have an unmet need that the story resolves. To stand in front of your peers or clients and let them know you’re not perfect and you’re human is intimidating. But, the transparency that story inherently envelops is a powerful empathetic connect device with an audience. To overcome fear of storytelling, you need to understand that story is like the sugar the helps the medicine go down. You need to be SO committed to your presentation and message you’re trying to convey that you’ll do anything to get that message out for your audience to contend with. So other than tons of practice, I feel like the presenter needs to go on their own journey of their soul, find the passion inside that transcends your fears and tap into that.

[Editor’s note: The graphic that you can see by mousing over the camera icon after these words , from Nancy’s new book, Resonate — Present visual stories that transform audiences, compares stories, such as those in movies and literature, with other forms of communication, showing how storied presentations achieve the effect Nancy refers to above. And see below, a video in which Nancy talks about how stories work in presentations:]

Q: Should slides for a presentation be able to stand on their own without narration? There are thousands of slideshows on sites like SlideShare, and many have an audio track, but I wonder about the usefulness of the slideshows that lack narration.

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A: Slides that can be understood without a narrator are a document, not a visual aide. Documents are built in slide applications all the time and that’s ok. But when you’re standing and delivering a live presentation, you should use visual aides as a backdrop and setting for your great idea, not as a document. There are some presentations on SlideShare that I love for their simplicity and level of engagement. Many of the ones by Garr Reynolds are fantastic. The slides themselves are visually simple and text is sparse, which requires you to engage your brain in clicking often as you quickly skip through clear content with supporting images.

[Editor’s note: The slide image above is a sample Garr Reynolds slide.]

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

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A: I knew that the truly great presentations must follow a hidden story form. For some reason, great presenters engage an audience with rapt attention the same way a storyteller does. So I set out to study the art form, read everything I could find on various literary story forms which included fables, mythology and screenwriting. Sure enough, there are some foundational elements of story that the best presentations use. I was fascinated by the patterns I found. That many foundational story elements overlap across all the genres of story.

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: I think that we’re a densely populated yet very lonely planet. People are craving a sense of connection with others and story does that. We don’t want to go to work every day and be an automaton, but we do. People want more out of what they do than that.

Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?

A: I have been transformed by the work of Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s Story. I enjoyed many insights from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Randy Olsen’s Don’t be Such a Scientist. They all had insights I could apply to how stories apply to business

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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