My Interview with Nancy Duarte

I’m delighted to introduce an interview with Nancy Duarte. Nancy is an American writer, speaker, and CEO of Duarte Design, the largest design firm in Silicon Valley and a global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture. She is a communications expert who has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Wired, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and now Communicate You Blog!

Nancy Duarte

In this post you’ll read about Nancy’s advice and approach to:

  • Overcoming stage fright to wow an audience
  • Storytelling in presentations, and common mistakes to avoid
  • Winning with a business presentation
  • The power of resonance when you speak to an audience
  • Preparing slides and visual displays

To get started, let’s talk about how ‘Duarte’ was born. Can you share a little bit of your background and how you got started with presentations and public speaking?

Duarte was born on a Macintosh Plus computer in 1988. Mark [Nancy’s husband] originally bought the computer to write papers for school. Once he realised he could illustrate on it, he started getting requests to design projects for people.

I thought the whole idea was crazy but a couple years later I jumped in and joined him to help with strategy and sales, and I quickly landed some major accounts. So, we started as a tiny generalist design firm in our apartment.

One of the first accounts we landed was Apple. They were the first company to hook up computers to projectors at their large conferences and they needed help with their presentations. When you’re starting out, you take any type of work that comes in. We jumped in and loved making slides. Word spread quickly and the presentation part of our business took off.

Jim Collins writes in his book ‘Good to Great’:

If there’s one thing you are passionate about, that you can be best in the world at, and profitable at, do just that one thing.

So, we decided to focus on just presentations and strive to become best in the world. In the process, we reinvented the perception of what a great presentation is.

You’ve developed a unique method around visual thinking and storytelling, ‘VisualStory’. Can you tell us about it?

A presentation is an opportunity to move people. And that opportunity is so often botched in the business world. We see that all the time. The opportunity is lost to cluttered slides, unfocused content, and a lack of human connection with the audience.

Our ‘VisualStory’ methodology offers building blocks to making that opportunity into a persuasive presentation and memorable moment. The very first thing you must do is to think about your audience. They are the ones who can carry your idea forward, so you need to understand them – their fears, interests, and desires. They’re the heroes of the presentation. You’re their guide.

After you have deep empathy with your audience, then you build your content. A persuasive presentation is more than a series of bullet points strung together. We studied the best speeches in history and they have a few things in common. They share the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end) and they all utilise the building of cathartic tension and releasing it, just like in storytelling. Thoughtful content with a good flow will help you resonate with an audience.

Once you know what you want to say, you have to display your ideas so people can understand them quickly. Clear concepts and how they’re expressed helps amplify the messaging. Keeping them simple and easy to absorb helps the audience focus on the presenter’s message.

Find out more about this approach in the VisualStory workshop 

For beginners, the classic advice for stage fright is to imagine the audience in their underwear. What do you recommend people do to calm their nerves?

Power poses are the bomb. It’s one of the tricks we use to help people get fired up before a presentation.

  • Start with planting your feet under you and feeling grounded
  • Then hold your arms outstretched, and picture yourself owning the room
  • Do a superman. Hear the applause in your head
  • Raise your arms high and feel the strength of your own presence

Beginner Speaker

Learn more about the fear of public speaking here.

What advice would you give to people who are new to storytelling in presentations?

Here are two pieces of advice:

  • People connect to stories. If you’re describing a new concept, offer a story from your own life to give context. Oftentimes, people think that business is no place for personal stories, but that’s just not true. We’re all human, and we’re motivated by relating to others and feeling a bond with each other. Plus, putting a story into a presentation also helps people remember your point, because it gives them an emotional reference point.
  • Show how you’ve transformed. The power of a great story is that the protagonist transforms. That means, that as the presenter, if you plan to tell a story, you will be exposing that you’re flawed in some way. That’s hard. A story isn’t interesting unless it’s told in a way that reveals how a likeable person, encountered hardship and then emerged transformed. Stories told that show you solely in an awesome light, don’t have the same transformative or persuasive effect.

From your experience of working with Fortune 500 companies, how do you think the TED presentation style differs from the style we should adapt in a traditional boardroom presentation?

The success of any presenter really comes down to their understanding of the audience and the presentation situation. TED-like talks are similar to high-stakes keynotes in other venues – the audience has high expectations to be informed and inspired.

Boardroom audiences also want those things, but they come in with a different set of expectations. A board audience expects you to present so they can make a decision before you leave the room. Reaching them requires the presenter to speak strategically, embrace interruption, and assuage their concerns about whatever the presenter is suggesting. At TED, the audience is so big and diverse that you can’t get too specific. In the boardroom, getting specific is a necessity.

Nancy Duarte

You are a big believer in the importance of resonance when a speaker delivers a message to an audience. Can you explain what you mean by resonance, and why it’s so important in a speech?

Resonance is a physics phenomenon that when a sound wave hits the resonant frequency of another object, that other object sympathetically vibrates too. When applied to communication, if you can communicate on the frequency of your audience, you hit a chord inside of them that makes your content ring true too and can even move them. And when your content rings true, your idea is more likely to move forward.

It’s fairly simple when you think about it. If you don’t manage to resonate with your audience, your idea will probably die in that room. But if you can reach them and resonate, they will help you breathe life into your idea.

One of your bestselling books, ‘Slide:ology’, outlines the effective display of visual information (slides). Can you share a couple of tips from that book?

Presentation software gets a bad rap. But in reality it’s just a tool that is sometimes used well and often used badly. Here are a couple of very simple tips:

  • Don’t project text-heavy bullet points or dense data on your slide. The audience can’t process two channels of information at a tie. Dense slides encourage your audience to read your slides instead of listen to you. Opt for an image instead of text. Photos, diagrams, and infographics are easier to remember and recall than text
  • Sometimes projecting a presentation isn’t what you need. Don’t automatically think that it is your only option. In some cases your audience would be best served by a document created in presentation software. We call these a ‘slidedoc’. But, if you create a ‘slidedoc’, don’t present it. Distribute it ahead of time or as a follow up. Documents created in presentation software are modular and hold a lot more information than a visual aid. Plus, they can travel through an organisation without the help of a presenter

Check out my 2 part series on visual aids here.

Catch-up with some of the other posts in the ‘Expert Interviews’ series here.