Book Review: Illuminate, by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

Casting Light on the Dark Arts of Communications

Any book on communications that starts out quoting 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim has my attention. The authors embrace his idea of ‘collective effervescence’ to describe the magic of a group sharing a common purpose.

Illuminate_CoverFor Duarte and Sanchez, the common purpose they champion in the recently published Illuminate is driven by leaders, whom they term ‘Torchbearers’, envisioning new possibilities. They ‘light the path’ as they set out to change the world and bring ’Travelers’ on the journey along with them. If this sounds like the plot to Lord of the Rings, well, in addition to Durkheim, they quote Frodo Baggins, Aragorn and the others as they motivate the hobbits to set out on the quest for the Ring.

However, this book is anything but a fairy tale.

Duarte, Inc is one of the premier communications agencies in Silicon Valley. Since it was founded in 1990, Nancy Duarte has built a stellar reputation as a PowerPoint guru (with her first book, slide:ology) and general communications consultant (cemented by Resonate, her second book). With ‘Illuminate’ she has broadened her scope to include not only presentations and speeches, but stories, ceremonies and symbols. These are all weapons in the ‘torchbearer’s toolkit’ that can be employed to affect what people think, feel and do as they move through what she calls the ‘five stages of a venture’: Dream, Leap, Fight, Climb, and Arrive. If this sounds like the content of a classic 4×5 matrix, well, you’ll find it summarized in a handy-dandy fold-out between pages 58 and 59.

A speech for all seasons

Using this taxonomy allows you to choose the right tool for the job depending which stage an audience is on the journey. While not a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to communications, after reading Illuminate you will know what to deploy if, say, you need to rally the troops. The advice is to deliver a ‘battle speech’ or tell an ‘overcome the enemy story’ or hold a ‘rally the spirits’ ceremony. What I really liked about the classification is that we’re not left with the usual Pollyanna advice that assumes everything is wonderful. Each stage addressees the negative as well as the positive. So if people in an organization are resistant to change we are told what we might hear them say (“I just don’t see how this could work”) and advised on how to craft and deliver a ‘revolution’ speech or ‘neglect the call’ story. By dealing with the dark side of communications Duarte & Sanchez have given leaders a robust set of guidelines well suited to the real world.

Peoplesoft DemiseSome of the most powerful parts of the book deal with how different organizations dealt with total failure: when PeopleSoft was bought by Oracle and the employees made the company sign into a makeshift memorial; how Coke reversed their disastrous decision to abandon Classic Coke; how Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, addressed her employees when they needed to recall faulty ignition switches that had caused deaths.

Rich Case Studies

I was struck by the degree of first-hand knowledge and insight in the case studies that conclude the main chapters. Each one includes an extensive narrative and quotes that make the study come alive. There’s a bonus a multi-point summary of highlights. Showing their Silicon Valley roots, Duarte & Sanchez’s case studies include the usual suspects— tech titans like IBM and Apple. But there’s also a floor-covering company, a non-profit, and a fast-food company. Most appropriately, the concluding study is of Duarte, Inc itself, detailing the transformation the company underwent as it pivoted to overhaul systems and improve operations.

Like her previous books, Illuminate is a beautifully designed, eminently readable, detailed account of the scenarios those of us in corporate communications face on a daily basis. Read it if your job is to enable the Torchbearer’s to ignite change, Frodo would certainly make sure it’s on his bookshelf back in the Shire.

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Check out this fascinating behind the scenes look at Nancy and Patti’s process writing Illuminate:

Illuminate’s readers should know that we were testing the book’s ideas at the very time we were developing them, applying our models to our own business and refining our ideas. The result of all of this is a book with a methodology rooted in real life situations and examples that can guide readers through their own change communication challenges.



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