Nancy Duarte on Failure, Bootstrapping, and the Power of Better Presentations

Most believe great presenters are born and not made. Nancy Duarte would argue against this. After all, she received a C- in Speech Communication class in college. Since then she’s gone on to become a world-renowned author and expert on the art and science of delivering compelling presentations.  

Today her firm works with the world’s top brands like Cisco, General Electric, The Food Network, and Twitter to help their employees evolve their presentation skills into messages that shift beliefs and behaviors. In addition, her books Slide:ology, Resonate, and HBR’s Guide to Persuasive Presentations do much to fill in the knowledge gaps of how to make presenting easier and more engaging for your audience.

We recently sat down with Nancy to discuss how to present better, the tension of creative work and commerce, learning to let go, and the power of turning failure into your life’s work.

What unique skills have you seen in great presenters?

Presenters tend to quickly go to tools like PowerPoint, which is used second only to email, to communicate. But strong communicators are able to visualize their ideas.

Let’s say you’re trying to get $100 million in funding from your CEO for a huge initiative. You better have thought through every component of this discussion, and even be able to sketch out why you need it on a piece of paper so you can sketch through a story during the conversation.

Nancy Duarte: How to Tell a Story

How have you seen this sketching technique applied?

We did a project where the executive who runs the India division of a multi-national company wanted to come to to the Silicon Valley to meet with his CEO to request $100 million in funding for an idea. He reached out to Duarte and said, “Hey, I need five slides.” And we’re like, “You’re not going to sit across the table from someone and put slides between you and them. Instead let’s craft a conversation.”

We designed the whole conversation for him and structured it so it had a persuasive arc to the narrative. We thought through all the different ways the CEO might derail the conversation and addressed it by thinking through a branching narrative where there would be a clear answer for every type of resistance. Then we created a series of graphics he practiced sketching and could draw at any minute on the whiteboard when the conversation went any direction. He got all his funding and made a human, personal connection with the CEO. So, there is tremendous power in being able to sketch out an idea so others can see it.

Your vision needs to be clear and if people can see what you’re saying, they will understand you. Practice sketching what you see. We still hire employees that come out of design school that can sketch out ideas rapidly (but for the digital natives today, mousing is easier than picking up a pencil).

There is tremendous power in being able to sketch out an idea so others can see it.

So what tips do you have for presenting effectively in one-on-one situations?

Well, if you put slides between you and another person, you cheat yourself out of an opportunity to create a personal connection. In one-on-one situations, you have the chance to make a really rich human connection yet so many times that opportunity is lost due to putting technology between you and them.

Instead of looking at each other, people end up looking at technology. When you’re on-on-one, try using a piece of paper between you instead.  You can have some concepts on the paper, or it could be a printout of your slides that you both build on, or even start with a blank sheet of paper.

What this type of setup says is, “Let’s both create something.”

Duarte’s TedxEast presentation: The secret structure of great talks

What if people feel they have weak visual design skills but still need to create presentations?

We just recently built a free tool for non-design people called Diagrammer. It’s got a taxonomy of all the types of business diagrams people use. We took 25 years of our sketchbooks and put them into PowerPoint for a free download.

In short, there’s a finite set of the types of graphics people use for business presentations. So you can say “I want to represent an idea and it has three things that converge.” So, the tool will ask, “Are they connected by arrows or lines?” You can then make all these decisions and the tool filters those options for download. Interestingly, many people get their MBA but aren’t required to take classes in the visual display of information. So, business people have to become disciplined communicators in this area.

If you put slides between you and another person you cheat yourself out of an opportunity to create a personal connection.

What was it like bootstrapping Duarte Design to over 100 employees?

Service clients. Do brilliant work. Then repeat it. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not difficult. Since 1988, we found a niche, we stood out as very different and did something no one else wanted to do.

Presentations were reviled back then and we’ve worked hard to give them their dignity back. Other agencies didn’t want to do presentations and we were the only one that they could refer.

And again service. Many creatives start out as fine artists and then have to struggle to transition to commercial artists where it’s not really about their own creative expression but about meeting a communication need of someone else. Being in a deadline-oriented business requires humility and tenacity.

From the very beginning, we worked incredibly hard to make clients very happy. Deadlines for presentations are very short and required us all to take on the mindset that no matter what happens “the show must go on.”

The presenter will be ready. No matter what.

Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

What was challenging for you as your company grew?

Letting go of roles. As we grew to 30 employees, I had to start stepping back and quit being the hub of all the activities.  I used to be the primary account person and do all the concepting for presentations (sketch them out and reword them). I had to let it all go and that one was particularly hard.

Each time I let a role go, I would actually mourn the loss of it because the new person tasked with that role wouldn’t be successful if I was micro-managing them. I had to consider it as dead to me and just let them do it the way they wanted to do it. I knew I would never go from craftsman to manager unless I let these roles go.

Today, my role as CEO is as an ambassador and inventor and I love that part. Then teacher and mentor are my roles after that.

What forced this change?

We were raising a family and I was sleeping only four hours a night. I tried to get so much done in so few words quickly and I came across as too busy and angry.

One of the hardest pieces of advice I got was from our general manager who said, “Nancy, you can’t show up to work every day and behave this way.”

I’m kind of passionate and people loved my passion but there was a wake of confusion behind me. Recently, I found old emails from 18 years ago. I’m very pleased to say that I don’t communicate like that anymore at all.

I’m still pretty commanding and demanding of excellence but I have slowed down in communicating.  I think that’s a big change and getting all those roles hired off me sure did help. It definitely calmed me down.

One of the hardest pieces of advice I got was from our general manager who said, “Nancy, you can’t show up to work every day and behave this way.”

How have you measured success after 25 years?

I measure success by my heart rather than the numbers. If you were to have me pick through spreadsheets, I’d rather peel my fingernails back. Once you start sorting through numbers you’re looking at historical information and I kind of live in the future.

I would say I’m intuitive and almost prophetic about the future. I actually get these senses and I know where I need to be in the future. I ask myself, ‘How do I navigate so that everyone here develops? So everyone here becomes better at their job?”

When I leave my parking lot I don’t pat myself on the back and say, “I’m awesome.” I say, “What’s the next move I can do so that everyone here can afford their car payments?” Because it’s really about the collective. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m female, but I like creating communities where best friends are made. And that’s the internal thing that motivates me.

On the external side, when a client calls and says, “I nailed it. I nailed it. My presentation brought about the change we wanted.” That’s my favorite moment. When you are giving them a useful tool to help them think through the way they communicate, it is so gratifying. It’s one thing to give a man a fish, it’s another to teach a man to fish, right?

What has surprised you about your path so far?

I didn’t know I could bring value. When we first started out we were a presentation beauty shop, we would take someone else’s thinking and beautify it. And then in 2006 when we decided create their content, I felt like I would be a hypocrite to expect people to do content if I couldn’t do it myself. That was when I started to write (in about 2007) because I felt I couldn’t run an organization that was story-driven if I couldn’t write stories myself.

I’ve been kind of sucked in since and I really enjoy writing books now – even though I got a D in English and a C- in Speech Communication and dropped out of college.

So I felt unqualified to write presentations for powerful people. After all, when you fail in English and Speech Communication, and then you write best-selling books in English about Speech Communication, I guess it speaks to the fact that a lot of the failures in life can actually become your life’s work.

Looking back I had no idea how much that failure would motivate me.

More insights on: Interviews, Self-Marketing

Jake Cook

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Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
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