Nancy Duarte is the CEO of Duarte Design and author of two books on business communications. Her first book, Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, distills her years of experience creating presentations for some of the world’s best brands and thought leaders into best practices. On the occasion of the publisher of her second book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, I conducted this interview with her to help people understand how to use stories in business.
Q: Why are presentations so boring despite years of everyone complaining and people like you and Garr Reynolds providing so much good advice?
A: Great presentations take time and discipline. People are strapped for time and there have been no best practices in this medium until Garr’s book and then mine. Business schools don’t teach visual communications yet professionals spend an enormous part of their day communicating visually through tools like PowerPoint or Keynote.
I contend that presenters don’t spend enough time thinking about their audience before they begin a presentation. When a presentation is very important, persuasion won’t occur by happenstance, the transformation you want the audience to go through needs to be planned and then everything in the presentation needs to support that transformation or they won’t be persuaded.
Q: What’s more important: content or presentation skills?
A: Content is more important but there has been brilliant content that never gets traction because of a poor delivery. Some of the greatest ideas are obscured and not brought to light because the presenter didn’t connect to the audience or lacked credibility during delivery. It’s much rarer to hear about a great content-free delivery. Charisma alone can get you far, but will eventually lead to a hollow demise.
Q: How should a speech ideally flow?
A: At minimum, speeches should incorporate some frameworks from a story. The most obvious components would be a clear beginning, middle and end. Incorporate turning points before each new section that signals to the audience you’re making a transition from the beginning to the middle and then another one to transition from the middle to the end.
For example, when transitioning from the beginning to the middle, declare a bold Call to Adventure that clearly articulates the gap between the status quo world (what is) and the future world with your idea adopted (what could be). Transition to the end of your presentation by articulating a Call to Action, but don’t stop there. End the presentation by painting a picture of the new bliss. What are the utopian attributes the world will take on if the audience fulfills your Call to Action? End the presentation with an inspirational picture of that future-facing view.
Q: What is the role of PowerPoint and Keynote in presentations?
A: There are two roles that PowerPoint and Keynote play. They play the role of visual aide and teleprompter but not both on the same projected screen, that’s where the big mistakes are made. All the greatest presenters use notes or a teleprompter. You need to have notes with you so you remember the structure and points to make. The problem is that many presenters use their slides as a default teleprompter. Instead, there are features in both PowerPoint and Keynote where your laptop can be your teleprompter (pulling the notes from the notes view) and your slides can be your slides (clear visual aide that’s a mnemonic device for the audience to remember what you say). Never the twain shall meet on the projected screen.
Q: Can you provide specific effective story lines for these situations: Investment pitch to venture capitalists, Sales pitch to an IT manager, and a Date pitch to a hot woman?
A: Solving this was the original thesis of my new book Resonate—except for the hot woman pitch. I’d set out to determine if there was a pattern or guide we could develop that would give a content framework for the various types of presentations commonly given. There are somewhere between seven and 20 master plots for every story (depending on whose classifications you buy into), and I was hoping to write a book on the various business plots.
After hundreds of hours of study, the best I could do was boil it down to four primary Calls to Action that speeches incorporate. I read many political speeches, farewell speeches and inspirational speeches. I reviewed staff meeting presentations, keynote presentations and investor presentations. It all boiled down to four key audience actions a presenter is persuading an audience to take:
- Doer: You want them to instigate activities and be your worker bee doing physical tasks and motivating others to complete tasks.
- Supplier: These folks get you resources—financial, human, or material and have the means to get you what you need to move forward.
- Influencer: These folks can change perceptions and sway individuals and groups mobilizing them to adopt your idea.
- Innovator: They bring their brains to the table to help generate new ideas and strategies to help spread your idea.
So instead of there being once clear plot, there are four different outcomes. Every presentation is persuading the audience to act on at least one of them but most presentations are appealing to all four.
Q: How do you connect to an audience of strangers when you only have a one-hour time slot?
A: If you don’t know your audience, you need to spend some time at least partially getting to know them. There’s a great quote by Ken Haemer who was at AT&T when he said that “designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’”
Before each presentation, try to understand the audience. When I have a presentations coming up, I will Google the event, look on Twitter for attendees, anything I can do to make me feel like I personally know the audience. Then ask yourself questions about them like: what does a walk in their shoes look like? How might they resist my message? What sacrifice of time or money am I asking them to make? By asking questions about them, you’ll naturally connect to them more deeply.
Q: What should you do if you’re in the middle of a presentation, and you know you’re not resonating?
A: If what you’re saying is clearly not connecting to the audience, you need to stop wasting their time immediately. You are clearly a subject matter expert and they clearly decided to put the presentation on their calendars but it just isn’t working out the way anyone intended. So you could ask them if they would like you to redirect your material.
Or if it isn’t a fit at all, you could ask them if they’d like you to stop and give them back their time. I heard a story once where a guy stopped 10 minutes in and said he’d love the opportunity to come back at a later date with a more relevant presentation and the audience was so endeared to that he got a standing ovation and an invitation to come back. People value their time and appreciate it when a speaker does too.
Q: How do you transform lots of numbers and data into a form that’s meaningful and interesting?
A: Numbers can be captivating if you move beyond just spouting the data. They need to be accompanied by narrative so that the ups and downs, anomalies and trends have meaning. Printed data is left for audience interpretation but presented data needs to have narrative around the cause and meaning of the results. A few ways to find stories in numbers are to talk about scale, comparisons and context. Today we talk about profoundly large and minutely small numbers. Explain their power by comparing it with items of familiar size.
Q: What’s a good ratio for length of speech to practice time?
A: It all depends on what’s at stake. Some don’t realize that the presentation development process itself is “practice” per se. The amount of times a presentation gets reviewed and fussed with is a form of ingesting and learning the material. But I’d say that it you’re rehearsing for a zillion-dollar deal or are speaking at a large venue of potential customers that you should hold a formal rehearsal 2 hours for every hour you present. Prep time though is 20 hours for every hour you present…when the stakes are high.
Q: Let’s say that I’m graphically challenged, how do I get a persuasive and beautiful presentation?
A: Besides calling me? The great thing about Garr’s and my books is that it’s made it cool for designers to create presentations. It used to be that you couldn’t beg a degreed designer to help with a presentation and now they do. Freelancers and small agencies are popping up in almost every city. Great design for a presentation is much more accessible today.
Q: Do you think people are setting themselves up for failure by trying to emulate Steve Jobs?
A: Steve Jobs is a fantastic communicator that we can all learn from. I love Carmine Gallo’s book, Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. The core principles that Carmine has uncovered are timeless and sound. Steve uses classic rhetorical devices, structural devices and elements of surprise. Why would that be a bad thing? It’s a good thing to be a student of brilliant and effective communicators and add some of their skills to your tool belt.
To learn how to create powerful presentations and how to use stories in your business, be sure to read both of Nancy’s books. They will help you change the world!