Hello everyone. I am Ching, the CEO of Piktochart. We’re a visual communication tool that has brought you The Business Storyteller Summit. I’m so excited to be here today at this fireside chat together with Nancy Duarte, the CEO of Duarte, also known as the storyteller of the valley. She is the author of six best-selling books, one of which I still have here on my desk. Nancy has been such a great mentor and inspiration to me personally. I’ve been following and learning so much from her ideas, her stories, and her books. I cannot wait to dig into why she believes that influencing through stories has got such a big part to play in the world that we live in today. Nancy, it’s great to have you here!
It’s so good to see you.
Absolutely. Nancy, I want to just start off with this question. You’ve been running Duarte for 32 years now. That’s amazing and so impressive! I’m curious about how you came across influencing some stories through empathy as a way for organizations, teams, and people to communicate successfully.
I love that. Yeah, 32 years is a long time. That’s longer than most of the brands in the valley. The very first brand that we got work from was Apple. We had popped down here to the Silicon Valley for my husband to go to school. And I thought this company was a joke. I was like, this is a dumb idea. He said, look, if I can sell it, you can keep it. But if I can’t sell what you make, you have to go get a real job. And so literally in one afternoon, I won contracts with Apple and Tandem, which is now HP and NASA. And then, so I like to say that presentations found me. It wasn’t like I knew the minute I was born, I wanted to do this. So the cool thing is Apple was also the first company to hook up the projector to a computer at scale. We used to do 35-millimeter slides. As they grew and grew and grew, and then, believe it or not, one of the best things that happened to me was a layoff that Apple did in 1993. So all my best favorite customers at Apple just scattered all over the Silicon Valley right when projectors were in almost every conference room. Like people don’t even remember that. It’s kind of tumbled through time and then in 2001, 2000 or so, I just thought we might actually be the best in the world at this. Like presentations were so terrible. We didn’t have great tools like Piktochart. We didn’t have tools that would help us think through things like that at all. It took like a hammer and an end though to get a slide, to look half decent. And so I thought, we’ve really kind of crushed it. We decided we would see what would happen if we just became just presentation experts. By 2008, that was when my Slidedology book came out, which is about how businesses can use design to visualize information and content on slides. That’s kind of the rough history there.
That’s a great journey and a great story. You’ve mentioned that you started out and presentations found you, but now it’s so much more about story. Obviously, there was something that you discovered about the power of storytelling itself. I’ve heard you in talks as well as your books mentioning this like over and over again. How do you come across that story would be such a key pillar in the whole picture?
You know, CEOing is hard. You must know that. It was hard to carve out the time. I was up at between 4AM and 5AM every day. And then just read, became a real student of story until between 11AM and noon every day. And then I did my CEO job all afternoon and into the evening. It was about three and a half years of a journey through the story. I had a book called ‘A Hundred Greatest Speeches of All Time’ and I knew that something about a really beautiful speech had a rhythm and a cadence to it. It has this same kind of rise and fall, that kind of cathartic tension and release to it. And so I studied just everything – the architects of the story, the pattern of the story, the structure of the story, and found patterns in great speeches, but also felt found that story is a gateway to empathy.
So the brain fires like if I was telling a story and we’ve shared a bunch of stories together at different times. When I’m telling a story and you’re listening, or you’re telling one and I’m listening, our brains are firing at the exact same time at the exact same pattern. So there’s a really powerful nature to it that our brains and our body physiologically react to a story. And so if I can feel what you feel, I have empathy. And you and I have shared empathy and that’s the power of story. Folding it into any form of communication, whether it’s an infographic or a speech, or a blog. I can even get my husband to do chores on the weekend if I use storytelling. It’s really powerful.
Yeah, absolutely. I totally see that as well. One of the things is how also whenever I search for your name on the internet, it’s definitely this TEDx talk that you did, ‘The Secret Structure of Great Talks’ that had garnered millions of views. When I first watched it and I was like, this makes a lot of sense. Then I started paying a lot of attention to the structure, like the way that you described. And then I tried to think also whenever I had an important message that I needed to deliver to the organization, not everything’s super positive at times, but we need to move and inspire people towards positive action. And I try to think whether or not I’ll be able to use that same structure that you’ve come up with, but for the people who are listening that aren’t as familiar with your work, can you tell us more about the concept behind that talk?
Yeah, so this kind of went through my study of story and that a story has an arc to it. That arc is the rise of tension and the cathartic release of it. So I knew that these speeches had that rise and fall, and it had that kind of tension and release, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. And so I spent hours. I would just sit and think. I would go on hikes. I would walk. And I would just think, what is this pattern? And I figured out that it was this rise and fall of the tension and gap between current realities and a better future. What I noticed is that the greatest speeches of all time contrast it. Here’s where we are today, here’s our current state of the union, but here’s where we could be.
So the gap between what is-what could be, what is-what could be as a structural device. And then the talks all ended stating here’s what the world is going to look like with my idea adopted. Then they had an ending. So it was amazing. I have actually analyzed almost all of the 100 greatest speeches of all time. They also follow the pattern of this kind of rise and fall of contrast. And that’s why it’s important. Like you create this kind of distaste for the current realities and a longing for what could be. You create longing for an alternate future and then people are willing to let go of the current realities and in this quest for a better future.
Yeah, absolutely. And also how does someone try to influence through story and is it a critical skill for leaders? I personally know the answer because I cannot imagine cowering through a very important town hall talk without using stories these days. But I’m still very curious about how does one get better at it? How does one influences through stories?
I love that question. I think there are so many components of the story. So there’s the rise and fall that you could use as a structural device. There’s the three-act structure. There is the middle. The middle act of any story is messy, it’s hard. You think about poor Frodo, he had to fight all kinds of orgs. It’s messy and hard. That’s the power of the story though, right? We fall in love with this character and then we root for them as they go through this terrible hardship. And they ultimately, at the end, they’re changed because of everything they went through. The thing that’s so powerful about influencing through story is if I felt like you were stuck, I would think about where is she stuck and what’s the lesson that I learned at the same time that was similar when I was stuck in the same one? So I can think and recall stories where I was stuck the same way where you might be stuck. I can tell that story and be very open about the messy middle, be very open about how hard it was, be very open about my moral choices, be very open about how I barely had the energy and I was so fatigued I couldn’t keep going. If I don’t address that message at all, I won’t acknowledge how you feel right now. I wouldn’t acknowledge empathetically that I understand how someone else is going through something similar. That’s the power of story. Some leaders don’t want to talk about the messiness at all. They want to show up and be like I’m strong. They want to kind of beat their chest and pat their back and be like I’m awesome. I don’t think anyone wants to follow a leader like that. So it’s just really powerful to understand where you’re at, what emotional fuel do you need to keep going, and do I have a story that’ll give you that fuel?
What you just said reminds me a lot about a couple of candidates that I had to hire. We’re a small organization. We’re all remote right now, but we previously had a base and headquarter in Malaysia, so it’s not been very easy to try to get the best people. One of the things that I do is whenever I go into an interview with a candidate, I immediately start off with the most vulnerable sharing of basically what’s going on and why I (Piktochart) need help. A couple of the candidates have said that it’s so refreshing because sometimes like you said, they go into organizations and interviews, it’s all about I’m doing all of these things well and everything’s great in the organization. I’m also very curious, is vulnerability something that leaders need in order to do storytelling or do you see it as an optional nice to have?
I love that question because if you think about why the candidates might be attracted to you is they know they can come in and solve a problem that creates meaning in the lives of a lot of people. So by the nature of the story itself, like the fact that I would have to be like, “Hi, I’m this likable person.” And then the messy middle is really hard. I have to go there and I have to say, I had this conflict. I had this thing. It was hard. It was terrible, but this is how I overcame it. To do something like that means you have to show up at work and admit that you’re flawed and not perfect. I’m not perfect. This has been a hard season and I have employees that are hurting and this is hard. I have to show up and be vulnerable. I have to show up and be transparent. The power of story is that it does create an emotional bond, but that’s just the nature of a story. If someone wants to become a storyteller, they have to be vulnerable, they have to be transparent, or they’re not telling an effective story. To tell a really effective story, you have to say, “I’m flawed. I made this mistake or this terrible roadblock was put in front of me, and here’s how I overcame it.” So if they’re not comfortable showing up and talking that way, that story may not work for them, but you have to kind of own it. We’ve been on kind of the story parade now for quite for way over a decade and we’re just now seeing in the C-suite of the top brands, like the Fortune 50. Many of the brands there, the CEOs are adopting stories now, but it took a long time for them to understand you actually get a stronger following if you show up a little bit flawed than you do when you’re trying to be perfectly perfect. That’s an interesting phenomenon.
And probably driven by all of the stories that are also going out to influencing people. I didn’t have the courage to be honest to share my flaws openly on LinkedIn. It wasn’t a part of me. I didn’t have enough courage but seeing how other people do it and I learned so much from when people share their own flaws rather than they share and flaunt their own successes. That helped me. So I think there’s something that you’ve also probably done and helped people.
People are looking for meaning. So many things are broken down. Like the family unit, community, churches, like there’s just no gathering place anymore. People are putting a lot of pressure on leaders of organizations to meet their social needs, to meet their emotional needs, to meet their spiritual needs, to make meaning, and to solve all of the world’s most problems. And the platform for CEOs is getting more and more demanding. So I think story actually is one of the keys that will create a community amongst employees that has a lot of meaning.
I love how you just said that 2020 has not been a normal year. Like you said, it just accentuates that need. If there are people who are still battling whether or not they should be more vulnerable, I think they should take that last advice that you just said.
Do you believe that anyone can be a great presenter? Is it a learnable skill or do you think that the best ones are just born with it?
That’s a great question. I’ve never been one to not jump up to the front of the class and say something. Even as a little kid in the fifth grade, I danced the hula in front of everyone, right in front of others. Embarrassing myself was never a problem for me. But what’s interesting is about people who are naturally extroverted. I think they wing it along. I think they show up with less thoughtful content than someone who’s nervous. Cause somebody who’s nervous and hates to present, they’re going to over-prepare, they’re going to prepare a lot. They may shake in their boots, but their content is more well-liked. So I remember we’d only worked with Ted for about the first two years and I was in a breakfast gathering and I asked people, what do you miss the most about Ted? Because they went on to Ted.com because it used to be very private .Ted.com came out and then everything was quite a bit more polished. I remember the longtime Tedsters said, “I just want to see that really smart scientist. I just want him shaking in his boots. I want him terrified. I want to see it but I want his content to be amazing.” Like they just wanted everyone to show up and be their real true selves. If you’re scared, be scared.
My husband’s more introverted and he is a stronger communicator. He has better content. I can say what I think are the same words almost and he could make someone moved almost to tears, whereas people are just like, “Oh yeah, Nancy wave your hands.” I do think it can be learned. I think it’s a skill that other people have to work hard at. So my advice is I think extroverts need to slow down and focus on the content and empathy. I think introverts need to work hard to get over their fear. And then I think that’ll improve kind of both sides of the house there.
I’m loving what you’re saying because it’s the exact same thing that I observed as well. You just managed to summarize it quite succinctly because it is true that the extroverts, while they don’t have to fear, but they wing it. In a sense, the content is less refined.
They think charisma will carry them. They think as long as I’m lovable and charismatic, I don’t have to say anything valuable and it’s not true.
But it’s somehow true in a sense like some people do get away with the charisma, I have to say. So it’s better to have great content and then charisma then you go very far.
Every story has a hero as a central figure. In business communication, who is the hero of that particular presentation or that communication?
I think every story has a hero and a villain and a mentor. Those are kind of the top three classic story archetypes. I think when you’re a presenter, it’s really easy to fall into the trap to think I’m the hero. I’m up on a stage, I’m well lit, I’m standing on a platform above everyone else, and I’m talking the most. Cause in a story or in a movie, the hero is in the film the most. They’re the central figure and it’s so easy to be obsessing about what you’re going to say. You’re nervous, you’re preparing, you’re rehearsing, you’re getting ready, and you get up on the stage and you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. It’s really easy to feel that way because it’s a lot of work to do a presentation well.
But in reality, you’re not the hero in the room. You’re the archetype of a mentor. And so a mentor in myths and movies, they help the hero get on stock. They’re there with the perfect tool, the right gift to help the hero. So who’s the hero then? The heroes are the audience. Because if you have an idea, you’re standing on stage and you’re trying to convey this idea, everyone in the room walks out without adopting your idea, you lose. So your audience actually holds all the power in the room. It’s their story. You’re a moment in their bigger story and you’re trying to influence your audience. So they’re the hero of your idea. And your idea is to help them get unstuck in their journey. Sometimes I think we forget that we forget to be empathetic about who am I talking to, what does the day look like, how hard is this idea going to be, how are they going to resist it? Because sometimes the villain is also the audience. The villain is in their mind. They’re saying, “I don’t want to do this. You didn’t convince me. I’m going to entrench myself against you.” So they can either be your hero or they could be your villain all based on how well you communicate, what needs to get done and the importance of this alternate future, this alternate reality that you’re trying to get them to adopt.
So it’s important to reframe because like you said, lots of people would step into that and think this is my story. This is my message and therefore they see themselves as the hero, but it’s so important to reframe that to say I do have something to share, but it is your journey and what you’re going to do with this message after you hear it. That’s pretty powerful.
It changes your stance too from thinking it’s all about me to realizing I am completely not successful if I don’t make it all about them.
Yeah, that’s great. I also have a tricky question although we kind of covered that a little bit earlier.
For an amazing presentation, what do you think is most important – the content, the slides, or the delivery? If you had to rank them or choose which ones to go with?
That kind of a trick question coming from someone who makes a beautiful visualization tool. You think about even the visuals that anyone puts in Piktochart, they’re not going to be any good unless framing the content, the structure, what are they putting next to each other, what’s the order of it. You can make it look as beautiful as you want, but it’s kinda like what we were just saying. If it doesn’t have great meaning, it’s not going to do things.
So I personally feel like it’s content, how it’s delivered, and then the visuals. Now, delivery is an interesting one. Delivery is not just the humans form like your vocal variety, how you move your arms, how you have eye contact. It’s not just that. Delivery is also the nature of the words you form – the concepts, the metaphors that all can be supported by a visual. If you think about when you’re making the content, you can just be like ‘partnership’. Okay, I’m just going to go grab a picture of a handshake in front of a globe because we have partnership.
But if you spend some time thinking about the concept and the content, that metaphor can become so much more beautiful. Like a metaphor for a partnership could be we’re so alike we’re like peas in a pod. Or we’re so different we’re like salt and pepper. But when we come together, we make something else more savory. Or we can say I’m like Ringer Rogers. You’re like Fred Astaire. And as we dance together, I can dance backward. You can dance backward, dance frontwards. There are so many better ways to say it so the visual you would go and pursue to assemble is different based on what is the nuance of our partnership. Are we a pair of socks? What are we? And then you would go and source a different image and a different visual based on empathetically understanding what is the best metaphor. You have to think about that. You don’t just run and put in Google the word ‘partnership’ because I guarantee you a handshake in front of a globe is going to come up.
You want to be different than, better than, greater than your competitors. You don’t want to look or smell like them. So if you sit and mind-map and think and go for the second, third, or fourth idea that you have, you’ll get more and more unique in how you represent your visuals. That’s the most important part, right? You want to be different than and better than your competitors. You want to rise above them. You want to have someone go, “That was clever. I never would have thought of doing it that way.” You’re not going to get there by just going straight to an illustration thing and look up the word ‘partnership’. You have to really peel it back and brainstorm it. That way, what you make will become more memorable, but it’s really the conceptual thinking and less in finding the graphic.
Got it. So what tips do you have? Because that’s something I’m also very curious – for people to position themselves to be unique, to be different, and you mentioned something to do also with the visual representation, but what about content? So for delivery, I know everyone’s unique. There’s no way as much as I watch all of your videos, I would not be able to emulate you basically, because everyone’s got a different form of like delivery.
When it comes to content, is there something that we could all try in order to position ourselves and think differently?
I think brainstorms are really important because I think you can brainstorm by yourself and that’s really powerful. We’ll use a mind map where there’s the main concept and then you just do free association. And then you branch off that and you branch off that. So that’s one way. The other way is to get in with a group of other people and just say, ‘yes and yes and’. It’s an old improv. That’s how they do improv training for humor and comedy is they say ‘yes and yes and yes and’ over and over, and then you’ll find something that is a derivative of the concept, but it’s more clever than something that someone else have thought of. I find a lot of things in biology and in creation, like how do bacteria work? Is that a concept for something? What about algae? What about the algae that can take a granite rock within years and turn a granite rock back to dirt? What is that called?
You just think about a redwood tree and how it functions and how deep its roots go? Some things are really just one great big plant and it can take up acres and acres, but it’s one big network of one plant. So there’s a whole lot of things in biology that work in a really beautiful way. Cause everything was created so beautifully different and an unexpected business metaphor a lot of times.
You must spend a lot of time in nature. You’d be an observer of what’s going on in order to pick up all of these devices to help with content and storytelling. That also leads me on to the next question.
Do you think there are good tools or devices where people to be using repetition, metaphors, imagery, familiar references? You’ve mentioned a couple of them and how we can go out in nature and try to find them, but do you also think that they’re overly used? How do we stay kind of like a good check and balance in terms of how much of that to use within our communication?
I think every industry has its own set of cliche. The security industry overuses the lock metaphor – like unlock, lock. So there are some industries that have the classic industry kind of metaphors. To stand out from the competition, what we do as a firm when we get a new client is we will go pretty deep into the website, into as much sales materials as we can get and really study the competitors of all the different brands. From the colors to the imagery, metaphors, to how they represent themselves, how they frame themselves in the industry. And then our top goal is to be different than, better than, greater than so we stand out to the competitors. You want to make sure you’re not confusing. If you use a very similar lock to your competitors, you have to do some research for sure. And I think it’s just making your point really clear.
You also mentioned repetition, which is verbal. When you repeat yourself, we call that verbal highlighting. Like we want your attention drawn to this. So we may have an executive say at once, say it twice, say it a third time. And in their mind, we’re teaching them how to put a hue yellow highlighter through it. The audience remembers he said that and this stands out to me because now he’s said it the third time or she. There are certain things that you want to do or say or visualize that people will remember when you’re done. We found that when you use repetition or a startling image or an emotional image or a metaphorical one that’s powerful, those get the tweets. Like if you want your message to spread the powerful visuals are the ones that spread. The powerful messages, the phrases, if you have a really important phrase that you say that you want to get tweeted, say that phrase slowly and pause. And then when you pause, they’re like that’s tweetable and then they tweet it. That must have been important. That sounds weird but you really can control what gets picked up and what doesn’t. It’s just a matter of how you verbally, visually, and fundamentally physically deliver what you have to say.
Absolutely, I love that tip. If you even want to get someone to tweet about it, just say it really slowly, leave an awkward pause at the end of it so that people pick it up and they have time to type. Great one!
I’ve also been reading about DataStory, the book that’s on my desk right now, I would like to know more about how we could try to incorporate data into our presentations. I personally before knowing all of this, it was what’s top-line revenue, what’s the bottom line, and then what goes on. It’s just charts, but recently I’ve started to be a bit more intentional, but I would love to hear what are your tips to try to incorporate data into mundane presentations so-called.
It’s interesting because data is delivered in one of two ways. It’s either flat and static, or you have the opportunity to show one bar, a second bar, a third bar chart. You have the opportunity to reveal it slowly over time. When you have a static graphic, it’s more difficult to create an emotional and building of suspense and releasing it. But a sequence of static charts can also tell a very powerful story. So it really is about the rise and fall. We kind of started there, so it’s interesting. The shape of a chart kind of shows its plot, did it go up and then fall? Did it go up and was it a comedy? Like all of those shapes that we talk about are the shape of a story plot and the shape that a data chart takes on tells you, was this a happy ending, is it a sad ending? Are we in the middle of the messy middle? Do I need everyone to rally to change the data trajectory around? You have to think through where are we in the story. Because if it’s keeping going high up into the right, it’s probably everyone’s cooking and everything’s going great. So you have to think about where are we and where do we want to be?
There’s a real powerful story in there where Scott Harrison, I sat through a presentation of his and I had just written the book and I was like he nailed it. So there were three or four bar charts going up, up, up, up. And then it showed a massive dip because of 2008. And then it showed a recovery and then it kind of went a little flat. And he said, “We thought we would do this much, but we did this much, and then we did this.” And the whole place was just screaming. Like if he thrown the whole chart up there at once, we already would have had the ending. But instead, he told the narrative and used charts to build, and the whole audience was already excited and then we were sad because there was a dip. And then we were like out of our seats clapping at a bar chart. This is really a powerful tool to not just show it all at once, but to show it over time is another powerful way. So either show a sequence of charts like if it was an infographic, a tall infographic, just show the chart, build the narrative over time. You can do that or you could click it through slides and build suspense and surprise over time.
That’s a really good tip. I think sometimes we’re so used to let’s summarize this and condense it. Then you try to give the beginning and the end all in the same slide. Like you just said, that’s not helpful because you missed the entire messy middle and what could have been. You’re totally right about building the crescendo towards that. That’s a great one.
I’m also curious, what are some of the biggest and most common mistakes that people make with putting together a presentation?
I think the biggest one is that we make it about ourselves. It’s kind of that hero mentor question from earlier. I think a lot of people get so caught up in what we have to do to meet this deadline and be ready for a presentation. Or get ready for that meeting, or get ready to present to the board at a meeting that we forget to pause and think about them. My career is at stake or my platform or influence is at stake. It’s so easy to get in our own head about everything I want it to become instead of really thinking about what I need you to have it. So I think the biggest law is low empathy whether it’s telling the story with low empathy. Picking visuals, you wouldn’t believe the role visuals play, especially right now with this resurgence of people wanting equality. The way we pick images, the way we deliver it, all of those things have an impact. So I would definitely say not pausing or you build your content and think about who you’re talking to. That’s the biggest mistake people make for sure.
In terms of like empathy, have you had steps and or framework sort of like to coach and help people through building empathy when it comes to their story? I’m very curious because for me, I’m naturally empathetic to a certain extent. It comes natural, but I have to say that working with different people, it hasn’t been that way. For some, I’ve had to try to think about how could I help them to influence them so that they would then as they’re communicating as well to their teams or translating the vision that I’ve given to the teams and I needed them to not just give it like a dictatorship, but to also have a bit of empathy through that. I’m curious if there was something that you help people with?
Each of my books has models all the way back to Slideology in 2008. I think there was a list of eight or 10 questions you can ask yourself about who you’re speaking to. A lot of that book is a model for empathy, illuminate a hundred percent of that model. Part of the reason that all of my books have models for empathy is I think for a long time, I was that person that you’re describing. I was that person who would just show up and just be like let’s just go, come on instead of really understanding how people would really feel about going. I was raised by a narcissistic mom and a narcissist is missing the empathy gene. There’s a lot of research now that says that the daughter of a narcissistic mother will grapple with finding empathy and so that’s why when we first started the business, I became a student of empathy because I thought I can’t teach these people to be effective communicators if they are not other centric. And so all the books have more than one model to kind of get in their head so that they can be empathetic, whether it’s a leader, an individual contributor, a keynoter – whatever it is that you’re trying to do as you communicate. All of them have some model, even DataStory is a model for empathizing with executives. That has a model in there about how to communicate up because data, a lot of times you’ve made it, you’re trying to get a decision made from data so you’re kind of seeing it up the food chain. So all of them have models for empathy.
Thanks for sharing this story. I wouldn’t have been able to tell at all. You’ve always come across as one of the people to me that has been the most deliberate in your choice of words, and it’s always come across extremely empathetic so I wouldn’t have been able to tell that at all.
Nancy, it has been great having you here and I’m sure the audience has learned so much from you as I have as well. Thank you again for joining us here at The Business Storyteller Summit.
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