Nancy Duarte Discusses Common Structure of Greatest Communicators at TEDxEast (Transcript)

Transcript – Nancy Duarte, an expert in presentation design and CEO of Duarte Design, uncovers common structure of greatest communicators at TedxEast

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Nancy Duarte – CEO, presentation designer

It’s really, really great to be here. You have the power to change the world. I’m not saying that to be cliché, you really have the power to change the world. Deep inside of you, every single one of you has the most powerful device known to man. And that’s an idea.

So a single idea, from the human mind, it can start the ground swell, it could be a flash point for a movement, and it can actually rewrite our future.

But an idea is powerless if it stays inside of you. If you never pull that idea out for others to contend with, it will die with you.

Now maybe some of you guys are trying to convey your idea, and it wasn’t adopted, it was rejected and some other mediocre or average idea was adopted. And the only difference between those two is in the way it was communicated. Because if you communicate an idea in a way that resonates, change will happen, and you can change the world.

In my family, we collect these vintage European posters. Every time we go to Maui, we go to the dealer there, and he turns these great big posters. I love them. They all have one idea, and one really clear visual that conveys the idea. They are about the size of a mattress. They are really big, they’re not as thick as a mattress, but they are big.

And the guy will tell the stories as he turns the pages. And there was one time I was flanked by my two kids, and he turns the page and this poster is underneath, and right when I leaned forward and say, “Oh my god, I love this poster.” Both of my kids jumped back and they are like “Oh my god, mom, it’s you.”

And this is the poster. See I’m like “Fire it up!”

The thing I loved about this poster was the irony. Here’s this chick all fired up, headed into battle, as the standard there, and she’s holding these little Suavitos baking spices, like something so seemingly insignificant, though she’s willing to risk, you know, life and limb to promote this thing.

So if you are to swap out, swap out those little Suavitos baking spices with a presentation. Yeah, it’s me, pretty fired up. I was fired up about presentations back when it wasn’t cool to be fired up about presentations. I really think they have the power to change the world when you communicate effectively through them.

And changing the world is hard. It won’t happen with just one person with one single idea. That idea has got to spread, or it won’t be effective. So it has to come out of you and out into the open for people to see.

And the way that ideas are conveyed the most effectively is through story. You know, for thousands of years, illiterate generations would pass on their values and their culture from generation to generation, and they would stay intact. So there’s something kind of magical about a story structure that makes it so that when it’s assembled, it can be ingested and then recalled by the person who’s receiving it.

So basically a story, you get a physical reaction, your heart can race, your eyes can dilate, you could talk about, “Oh I got a chill down my spine” or, “I could feel it in the pit of my stomach”. We actually physically react when someone is telling us a story. So even though the stage is the same, a story can be told, but once a presentation is told, it completely flatlines.

And I wanted to figure out why. Why is it that we physically sit with wrapped attention during a story, but it just dies for a presentation.

So I wanted to figure out, how do you incorporate story into presentations. So we’ve had thousands of presentations back at the shop – hundreds of thousands of presentations actually, so I knew the contexts of a really bad presentation. I decided to study cinema, and literature, and really dig in and figure out what was going on and why it was broken.


So, I want to show you some of the findings that led up to what I think of – I’ve uncovered as a presentation form. So it was obvious to start with Aristotle, he had a three act structure, a beginning, a middle and an end, studied poetics and rhetoric, and a lot of presentations don’t even have that in its most simple form.

And then when I moved on to studying hero archetypes I thought, “Okay, the presenter is the hero, they are up on the stage, they’re the star of the show.” It’s really easy to feel that way, as the presenter, that you are the star of the show. I realized right away, that that’s really broken. Because I have an idea, I can put it out there, but if you guys don’t grab that idea and hold it as dear, the idea goes nowhere and the world is never changed. So in reality, the presenter isn’t the hero, the audience is the hero of our idea.

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So if you look at Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, just in the front part, there was some really interesting insights there. So there is this likable hero in an ordinary world, and they get this call to adventure. So the world is kind of brought out of balance. And at first they’re resistant, they’re like “I don’t know if I want to jump into this” and then a mentor comes along and helps them move from their ordinary world into a special world. And that’s the role of the presenter. It’s to be the mentor. You are not Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda. You’re the one that actually helps the audience move from one thing and into your new special idea, and that’s the power of story.

So in its most simple structure, it’s a three part structure of the story. You have a likable hero, who has a desire, they encounter a roadblock, and ultimately they emerge transformed, and that’s the basic structure.

But it wasn’t until I came across a Gustav Freytag’s pyramid. He drew this shape in 1863. Now he was a German dramatist – he was a German dramatist – and he believed there is a five act structure, which has an exposition, a rising action, a climax, a falling action and a denouement, which is the unraveling or the resolution of the story.

I love this shape. So we talk about shapes. Story has an arc, well an arc is a shape. We talk about classical music, having a shapeliness to it. So I thought, hey, if presentations had a shape, what would that shape be? And how did the greatest communicators use that shape or do they use a shape?

So I’ll never forget, it was a Saturday morning. After all this study – it was a couple of years of study – I drew a shape. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, if this shape is real, I should be able to take two completely different presentations, and overlay it and it should be true.”

So I took the obvious, I took Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and I took Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch speech, I overlaid it over it, and it worked. I sat in my office, just astounded. I actually cried a little, because I was like, “I’ve been given this gift,” and here it is, this is the shape of a great presentation.

Isn’t it amazing? I was crying. So I want to walk you through it, because it’s actually pretty astounding. There is a beginning, a middle and an end and I want to walk you through it. Because the greatest communicators of all times – I went through speeches, everything, – actually I can overlay the shape, even the Gettysburg Address follows the shape.

So the beginning of any presentation, you need to establish what is. You know, here’s the status quo, here’s what’s going on. And then you need to compare that to what could be. Now you need to make that gap as big as possible, because there is this commonplace of the status quo, and you need to contrast that with the loftiness of your idea.

So it’s like you know, here’s the past, here’s the present, but look at our future. Here’s a problem, but look at that problem removed. Here’s a roadblock, let’s annihilate the roadblock. You need to really amplify that gap. This would be like the inciting incident in a movie. That’s when suddenly the audience has to contend with what you just put out there and they have to say “Wow, do I want to agree with this and align with it or not?” And then the rest of your presentation should support that.

So the middle goes back and forth, it traverses between what is and what could be, what is and what could be. Because what you are trying to do is make the status quo and the normal unappealing, and you’re wanting to draw them towards what could be in the future with your idea adopted.

Now, on your way to change the world, people are going to resist, they are not going to be excited, they may love the world the way it is. So you’ll encounter resistance. That’s why you have to move back and forth, that’s similar to sailing.

When you’re sailing against the wind, and there is wind resistance, you have to move your boat back and forth, and back and forth. That so you can capture the wind. You have to actually capture the resistance coming against you when you are sailing.

Now interesting, if you capture the wind just right, and you set your sail just right, your ship will actually sail faster than the wind itself. It’s a Physics phenomenon. So by planting in there, the way they’re going to resist between what is and what can be, is actually going to draw them towards your idea quicker than should you not do that.

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So after you’ve moved back and forth between what is and what could be, the last turning point is a call-to-action which every presentation should have. But at the very end, you need to describe the world as a new bliss, this is utopia with my idea adopted, this is the way the world is going to look, when we join together and we solve this big problem. So you need to use that as your ending, in a very poetic and a dramatic way.

So, interestingly, when I was done, I was like, “You know what? I could use this as an analysis tool.” I actually transcribed speeches and I would actually map out, how much they map to this tool. So I want to show you some of that today, and I want to start with the very two people that I used when I first did.

Here’s Mr. Jobs, completely has changed the world. Changed the world of personal computing, he has changed the music industry, and now he is on his way to change the device, the mobile device industry. So he has definitely changed the world. And this is the shape of his iPhone launch 2007, when he launched his iPhone. It’s a ninety-minute-talk and you can see he starts with what is, traverses back and forth and ends with what could be.

So I want to zoom in on this: the white line is him speaking, he’s talking. And the next color line you will see popped up there, that’s when he cuts to video. So he’s adding some variety and he cuts to demo. So it’s not just him talking the whole time. And these lines are representative there.

And then towards the end you’ll see a blue line, which will be the guest speaker. So this is where it gets kind of interesting: every tick mark here is when he made them laugh. And every tick mark here is when he made them clap. They are so involved physically, they are physically reacting to what he is saying, which is actually fantastic, because then now you have the audience in your hand. So he kicks off what could be, with “This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years.” So he is launching a product that he’s known about already for a couple of years. So this is not a new product to him.

But look at this, he does this other thing: he marvels. He marvels at his own product. He marvels himself more than the audience laughs or claps. So he is like, “Isn’t this awesome? Isn’t this beautiful?” He is modeling for the audience what he wants them to feel. So he is actually doing a job of compelling them to feel a certain way.

So he kicks off with what could be, with “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” So he starts to kick in and talk about his new product. Now at the beginning of it, he actually keeps the phone off. You’ll see that the line is pretty wide up until this point, so he goes off between “Here’s this new phone and here’s the sucky competitors. Here’s this new phone and here’s the sucking competitors.”

And then, right about here, he has the star moment – and that’s something we’ll always remember. He does, he turns the phone on. The audience sees scrolling for the first time, you can hear the oxygen sucked out of the room. They gasped. You can actually hear it. So he creates a moment that they’ll always remember.

So if we move along this model, you can see the blue – where the external speakers are going in – and then, over towards the bottom right, the line breaks. That’s because of his clicker broke. So what is he doing? He wants to keep this heightened sense of excitement. He tells a personal story, right there, where the technology didn’t work. So he is the master communicator and he turns to story to keep the audience involved.

So the top right he ends with the new bliss. He leaves them with the promise that Apple will continue to build revolutionary new products. And he says, “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love: ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.’ We’ve always tried to do that at Apple and since the very very beginning, we always will.”

So he ends with the new bliss.

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