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Nancy Duarte: An interview by Bob Morris

Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte has driven the vision and growth of Duarte for 20 years, building an internationally respected design firm, which has created over a quarter of a million presentations. She has helped shape the perceptions of many of the world’s leading brands and thought leaders. Nancy is the author of the best-selling and award winning book Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, where her experience was distilled into best practices for business communicators. She continues to advance new forms of presentation through partnerships with innovative forums like TED and PopTech. Nancy serves as a TED Fellows committee member, is a 2009 Woman of Influence and 2008 Communicator of the Year. Nancy’s latest award-winning book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, was published by Wiley in 2010.

Morris: Before discussing Resonate, a few general questions. First, when and why did you first become interested in design?

Duarte: I’ve always been primarily a visual communicator. When I played as a child I would trace coloring book characters and classify them. It was easier for me to express myself visually than verbally. I received average grades school on my written assignments and top honors on any assignments that were accompanied by visuals.

Morris: Did that interest precede your interest in effective communication? Please explain.

Duarte: Effective communication is fascinating to me yet bad communication is just as fascinating. There are lessons to be learned from both. I can’t say I am a natural communicator, it’s taken a lot of work to be able to develop content relevant to the audience and deliver it with credibility. My initial natural ability tended to be more around the visual display of information. For years I was more comfortable visualizing other people’s great thinking. I preferred to be hidden behind the curtain than a thinker myself. It wasn’t until I wrote Resonate that I’ve gained the confidence to call myself a communicator.

Morris: Briefly, please trace the founding and subsequent development of Duarte Design. For example, what was its original mission and to what extent (if any) has that since changed?

Duarte: My husband, Mark, started the firm and it was called “Duarte Desktop Publishing and Graphic Design.” Wow, what a mouthful. We stumbled into presentations in 1989 and landed a very sophisticated account. When that company had a significant layoff in 1992 and the price of desktop projectors dropped significantly our presentation services spread across the Silicon Valley like wildfire as our clients scattered into new jobs across the valley. The firm has grown from just Mark to almost 100 people writing and visualizing presentations.

Morris: What do you know now that you wish you knew when your firm was founded?

Duarte: So much of what we did in the early days was trial and error. There were many long days and nights trying to figure out how to grow, increase our quality, and keep employees motivated. I wish I’d brought in mature, smart staff earlier in the process. Having many smart people share the load has been the best thing we’ve ever done.

Morris: There has been significant increase of interest in design thinking as the publication of Resonate as well as of other books by Tim Brown (Change by Design),  Roger Martin (The Design of Business), Roberto Verganti (Design-Driven Innovation), and Thomas Lockwood (Design Thinking) clearly indicate. How do you explain this? Why has the subject become so “hot”?

Duarte: My hope is that design thinking becomes an innovative discipline and not just the trend of the decade. As a nation and globally, we have some of the biggest problems to solve we have ever faced. We need innovative ways to solve our problems and communicating the solutions will be paramount. Original thinking, complex problem solving, and collaboration are all important skills for our future.

Morris: I view the appointment of John Maeda (author of The Laws of Simplicity and in May 2011, Redesigning Leadership) as president of Rhode Island School of Design as well as the fact that Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto are indications that the academic community is also becoming much more actively involved with design thinking. Do you agree?

Duarte: I agree! My hope is that the academic world will be open to the innovative approach design thinkers bring. I know John Maeda personally, and I love the way he thinks. He considers perspectives and has insights that would have never entered my mind. We need innovators at the helm of our education institutions, although there may be uncomfortable culture clashes initially, it’s important to move in this direction.

Morris: Look ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you see as the single most important business opportunity for firms such as yours?

Duarte: Wow Robert, you ask great questions! Right now we’re very focused on the power of story to persuade. Story incites us or unites us. My firm has an awestruck reverence for the power of story. Our short term priority is to uncover a quantitative way to measure the impact of a presentation and innovative ways to take presentations viral. As we’ve been working through the global landscape, we’re starting to see the importance of understanding and communicating stories in the context of a global atmosphere.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Resonate. Please explain its title and subtitle.

Duarte: When someone says “that resonates with me” what they are saying is “I agree with you” or “I align with you.” Once your ideas resonate with an audience, they will change. But, the only way to have true resonance is to understand the ones with whom you are trying to resonate. You need to spend time thinking about your audience. What unites them, what incites them? What does a walk in their shoes look like? Think about your audience and what’s on their mind before you begin building your presentation. Thinking about them will help you identify beliefs and behavior in your audience that you can connect with. Resonate with.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Bob Morris is an independent management consultant based in Dallas who specializes in accelerated executive development. He has interviewed more than 100 business thought leaders and  reviewed more than 2,200 business books for Amazon. Each week, we will add to the Networlding Business Bookshelf abbreviated reviews in which he discusses a few of his personal favorites. You can contact him directly at [email protected].

Melissa G Wilson

Melissa has been a leader in the book writing, publishing and marketing arena for the past two decades. To date, she has helped more than 100 thought leaders write, publish and market their books. Her clients include executives such as Dan Weinfurter a seven-time Inc 500 winner and Orlando Ashford, President of Holland Cruise Lines.

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