Saturday, July 21, 2018

Resonate by Nancy Duarte

I heard about this one at a conference I attended and it survived the resistance I intentionally place in the path of any “must-read” business book that is flung my way.

Let me explain.

I go to a lot of conferences. I listen to a lot of speakers. I’m an active blogger. There is no shortage of “must-read” business books that get recommended to me through those channels. And for a time, I gobbled them up. I love to read, after all. What could be better than earning an informal MBA by reading all these wonderful books?

Well, the reality is that not many of these books are truly wonderful. Most of them are kind of average, and some of them are downright dangerous. A friend of mine once said that the useful ideas in most business books can typically fit into no more than a 10-page white paper. In other words, every business book on the planet is really a 10-page white paper blown up to fill the 250 pages that makes its printing scalable and profitable for the publisher. And the best of those business books will actually give you the 10-pager as its executive summary.

So I built some intentional resistance to the excitement I still feel when a “must-read” business book is recommended to me. Wow. That sounds great. That sounds like exactly what I need. I got the get that one. When those thoughts start flowing through my brain I force myself to put on the brakes. Wait. Am I really going to read it? Or is it going to sit on my shelf getting dusty because I have 200 other books ahead of it that I would probably prefer to read? Is this one likely to have something specific within it that I can actually leverage in the real world?

Well, obviously Resonate made it through this filter. Its subtitle is “Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences,” and it was recommended for any professional who wants to improve the impact of their presentations. That certainly describes me.

Now, there is no 10-page executive summary in Resonate, but there were some useful ideas that I think I can actually do something with. Here’s my own recap.

The Audience Is The Hero

The objective of any presentation is to evoke a specific action by the members of the audience. That objective is undermined by any presentation that focuses too much on the presenter or the organization that the presenter represents.

When you’re presenting, instead of showing up with an arrogant attitude that “it’s all about me,” your stance should be a humble “it’s all about them.” Remember, the success of you and your firm is dependent on them, not the other way around. You need them.

So what’s your role then? You are the mentor. You’re Yoda, not Luke Skywalker. The audience is the one who’ll do all the heavy lifting to help you reach your objectives. You’re simply one voice helping them get unstuck in their journey.

The book goes into a lot of unnecessary detail about what a Hero is (thematically and, yes, mythologically speaking), including several pages on the 12-step “Hero’s Journey” that dramatists from Homer to George Lucas have used to structure their compelling stories.

That’s neat, but a little much for my needs. There is one core idea buried in that journey, however, that is worth focusing on, and which Duarte summarizes next.

The Presentation Form

Presentations should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Two clear turning points in a presentation’s structure guide the audience through the content and distinctively separate the beginning from the middle and the middle from the end. The first is the call to adventure -- this should show the audience a gap between what is and what could be -- jolting the audience from complacency. When effectively constructed -- an imbalance is created -- the audience will want your presentation to resolve this imbalance. The second turning point is the call to action, which identifies what the audience needs to do or how they need to change. This second turning point signifies that you’re coming to the presentation’s conclusion.

Notice how the middle moves up and down as if something new is happening continually. This back and forth structural motion pushes and pulls the audience to feel as if events are constantly unfolding. An audience will stay engaged as you unwrap ideas and perspectives frequently.

Each presentation concludes with a vivid description of the new bliss that’s created when your audience adopts your proposed idea. But notice that the presentation form doesn’t stop at the end of the presentation. Presentations are meant to persuade so there is also a subsequent action (or crossing the threshold) the audience is to do once they leave the presentation.

Call to adventure, call to action, and crossing the threshold are all terms from the larger Hero’s Journey that Duarte presented, but to me the core idea resides in the “back and forth structural motion” of the presentation form. Start with what is. The challenge we’re all facing. Then paint a picture of the future where that challenge is resolved. Show how great that world is. Then alternate back and forth between the barriers that are keeping us from realizing that vision, and the actions that are needed to overcome each one. Then end on a high note, reiterating the “new bliss” that we’ll achieve if the actions described are taken.

A lot of pages follow this simple dissection of the presentation form, with most of them feeling like the “business book” padding my friend warned me about. Durate provides descriptions and methodologies for getting to know your audience, segmenting them, creating common ground with them, defining and planning their journey, acknowledging their risk, addressing their resistance, communicating their reward -- even appealing to them with the classic rhetorical triangle of logos, ethos, and pathos.

It’s all okay, I guess, but most of it reads like a bunch of good individual, but largely unconnected instructions. Do this. No wait, do that. I really felt like I was in trouble when I got to the section on Randy Olson’s Four Organs of Communication. It unfortunately comes right after the instruction to employ the three rhetorical appeals. Wait. Which is it? Aristotle’s three appeals (logical, ethical, and emotional) or Olson’s four organs of communication (the head, the heart, the gut, and the groin)? It can’t be both, can it?

Turn Information into Stories

The meat comes back, in my opinion, only when Durate starts talking about storytelling again, and about how a presenter can transform the information she has into stories in order to better sustain the audience’s interest and to show them the “new bliss” that they will receive if they take up the same challenge as the people in her stories.

The template is actually a simple one.

  • Point You Want to Make
  • When, Who, Where
  • Context
  • Conflict
  • Proposed Resolution
  • Complication
  • Actual Resolution
  • Most Important Point

It’s the Hero’s Journey in miniature. Here’s an example from the book, framed around a software sales presentation.

  • Point You Want to Make: Midsized companies would save money if they bought this software.
  • When, Who, Where: Last year I met with Susan, the CEO from a company very similar to yours.
  • Context: She was strategically wicked-smart, and, just like you, she was curious whether our software could help her business.
  • Conflict: She knew her organization wouldn’t scale if she didn’t have software that worked in a global environment.
  • Proposed Resolution: We installed a trial version for the employees in the Dallas office only.
  • Complication: She was concerned that the employees would have a dip in productivity while leaning a new program.
  • Actual Resolution: Instead, employee productivity increased, and Susan received numerous e-mails about how the software will help them gain market advantage. It took her less than a week to agree to an organization-wide installation.
  • Most Important Point: Your company has the same challenges and would benefit, too.

You see how the story takes the audience from what it is to what could be, from what is to what could be, and ends on the “new bliss” that awaits them if they follow the same path?

It’s great and I, for one, don’t need any more details. I can take these ideas and work with them, apply them to my own situations and my own presentations. But what follows is another hundred pages or so of more instructions -- instructions for how to move from data to meaning, form ideas into messages, establish structure, order messages for impact, create emotional contrast, create a STAR (Something They’ll Always Remember) moment, and on and on an on.

So many rules for doing so many things that in the end, one has to actually laugh at Durate’s “Coda”, dedicated, as it is, to the idea that to be truly successful, a presenter has to break all the rules. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alfred Hitchcock, E. E. Cummings -- they were all geniuses that wrote their own rules, and so, the implication evidently is, should I.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment