Meeting Report: Nancy Duarte discusses presentation excellence with Silicon Valley Speechwriters

Nancy Duarte was the guest speaker at Monday’s meeting of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable. Duarte is the well-known author of slide:ology and Resonate and the founder and CEO of Duarte, Inc.

Slideology Nancy acknowledged the important role writing her books has had on the growth of her business. A few years ago, while searching for presentation blogs, she came across Garr Reynolds Presentation Zen blog. Garr encouraged her to write a book that covered “everything he left on the table” with his own draft of Presentation Zen. The result was slide:ology. She is grateful that Garr encouraged her to write her first book, since it was instrumental in helping refocus her agency on presentation-specific work.

Garr and Nancy are still good friends and she hosted him at a recent lunchtime talk about presentations at the Silicon Valley headquarters of her company.

Resonate Nancy’s second book, Resonate, was in many ways the prequel to her first. She acknowledges that writing slide:ology made the phone ring for slides, while Resonate made the phone ring for content. She sees a trend with some of her clients where she is being asked to help develop creative content and conversations that don’t need slides. She sometimes arms clients with graphics they can draw on a whiteboard while presenting.

How to work with clients

The concepts in Resonate are one model among many her company uses. When they engage with clients they first host an interactive discovery workshop. They probe for the “one big idea” that the client wishes to communicate. This can be a painful process for some clients, who might not have given their big idea any thought and might, in fact, discover they lack the focus they need to have before they present. The next step for the Duarte team is to break down and rebuild the clients’ idea, wrap it in a story and concepts and then re-propose back to the client what they think they should say. At this stage they use slide maps which match the stages of the presentation to the best supporting images, data or pictures. Once this is approved, the presentation is story-boarded.

Nancy’s advice for speechwriters who have “difficult” clients–who are not be fully invested in the need to prepare for a presentation–is to pick a high stakes presentation to request complete client involvement. Avoid getting caught up in small skirmishes. The higher the stakes, the more involvement an executive should see they need to have. That is the time to pitch the ideas on why it needs to be done right. Speechwriters need to understand most clients are not masters of the spoken word. We are the experts in storytelling who live and breathe this world. It’s advisable to give clients time to acclimate to our ways of thinking.


A Sparkline is an analysis tool Nancy introduced in Resonate that represents a presentation. She jokes that, no, Martin Luther King did not use a Sparkline to plan his “I Have a Dream” speech since she was only two-years old at the time! Indeed, a Sparkline is not something to use in preparing a speech, but in analyzing why a successful speech works.

“If you were to align on the left everything that is what is, and align on the right everything what could be, and you’ve crafted it and you know it’s right, it ends up following the form on its own. It’s a pattern that is persuasive.”

TED Talk

she gives some compelling examples OF Sparklines in her TED talk that has been seen over a million people:

Such eloquence does not come easily. Nancy mentioned that she put over 30 hours rehearsal time into her 18-minute TED talk. The TED format forces people to be concise and has, she believes, changed the presentation industry. It’s the new gold standard and audiences now know what a good presentation looks like. Audiences have low tolerance for lack of presentation and TED has played a part in that.

Among the women speakers Nancy admires are:

What’s Next?

Nancy revealed she has a new book coming in October. She also plans to release a free multimedia version of Resonate. Her team are also developing tools that allow audiences will tap into a second screen for detailed information on a presentation.

If you are interested in attending future virtual meetings of the Silicon Valley Speechwriters Roundtable, open to anyone, regardless of location, please sign up on our Meetup page and you’ll be notified.

Book Review: The Age Of The Image, by Stephen Apkon

The Age of the Image CoverStephen Apkon’s new book, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens more than lives up to last week’s preview in the Financial Times. This is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read on corporate and political communications.

Images are replacing written communication

Newspaper circulation is down while YouTube views number in the billions. These facts are not unrelated.

Apkon argues that we are on the threshold of a new era where the democratic reach of media can now stretch to a level never before possible in human history. This phenomena is enabled by the ubiquity of screens to consume video; the universal language of the image over the specificity of written communications; the power and reach of the networks of distribution through YouTube and the web; and, finally, our ownership of the means of production via smart phone cameras and inexpensive editing tools. Apkon notes:

What we are now seeing is the gradual ascendance of the moving image as the primary mode of communication around the world: one that transcends languages, cultures, and borders. And what makes this new ear different from the dawn of television is that the means of production–once in the hands of big-time broadcasting companies with their large budgets–is now available to anyone with a camera, a computer, and the will.

The power of images

Akpon details how the human brain is wired for images (the province of 85% of our grey matter) and why we trust the evidence of our eyes above all else. Images are understood in context, which can be manipulated with narrative to hook an audience emotionally. We expect nothing less from Hollywood, we should not deny ourselves this facility.

Every picture tells a story

Images have energized corporate storytelling. Apkon shares examples where the old rules no longer apply: from the low-budget Dorritos Super Bowl ad to Gillette’s instructional video on How to Shave Your Groin, corporate video appeals directly to our ‘reptilian mind’, prior to logic and rationality.

Lawyers and journalists are tapping into the power of the image to bolster reasoned arguments.

Implications for executive communications

For anyone involved with corporate, political or executive communications the implications of Apkon’s thesis, even if he only partly right, are profound. Those who wish to succeed in the corporate world need superior communication skills. Today, these include not only listening, speaking, reading and writing, but also superior visual communications skills.

The days of the copy editor, speech writer, or PR professional who focuses on the language of the press release alone are numbered. We need to relax our obsessive focus on a logical, written narrative. Instead of endless meetings about the nuances of a product announcement, we should look for ways to craft images that will emotionally connect with an audience. Apkon recommends we learn from the black arts of the political advert:

Political images are much less logical that they let on–in fact, they rely on the image makers’ ability to tap into primitive emotional centers that govern adaptive urges such as fear, comfort, and love.

Remember, America is a country where one of the more popular of recent Presidents was a trained actor; California a state where we elected an inarticulate Austrian body builder with an outsized fictional screen presence as Governator. The biggest stumble made by the Republican challenger in the last election was being caught on video talking about “the 47 percent”.

Corporate communications professionals need to grab their Flip cameras (or whatever is available to them), fire up Windows Movie Maker and go stick the lens in the face of customers, partners, employees, and, yes, even executives.

Apkon’s important book challenges us to recognize the importance of the image over the written word, to learn to become literate in this medium, and to be willing to step forward and say “Lights, Camera, Action!”.

The 2012 Presidential Election: Transmedia Storytelling in action

Harvey Dent Campaign PosterToday’s US Election can be seen as the culmination of the most expensive transmedia storytelling campaign in history. Unlike the year-long Why So Serious? campaign that Warner Bros. funded to promote the Dark Knight Batman movie, and was reported to involve 10 million players, the United States Democratic and Republican Political Parties funded a multi-year “election campaign” that has involved hundreds of millions of players.

Multiplatform Storytelling

Unlike political campaigning in the era before ubiquitous digital content, when politicians would appear in person or on radio and television to promote their views, the 2012 US Election was a true transmedia experience.

Candidate messages were re-purposed in political ads, often funded by PAC’s that pretended to have no connection to the politicians themselves, but in fact were staffed by people who, as they say, were most likely in bed with the candidates.

There were extensive, you might say endless, discussions about the candidates and their ads on television, on Twitter and other forms of social media and, in a hang-over from an earlier era, even in bar rooms and coffee shops across the country.

Alternate Reality Game

The political parties encouraged players to display bumper stickers on their cars and signs on their lawns with the goal of stimulating interest in an election game that came to a climax in today’s visit to polling stations, where the ritual of voting was enacted. This whole alternate reality game (ARG) was conducted in terms of a backdrop of “messages” that candidates, their wives, supporters and surrogates communicated to players who then repeated the messages they liked to friends and neighbors.

Lack of participation

Despite the billions of dollars spent on the story, it’s worth noting that participation in the actual voting is minimal among the younger age groups. Many of them exhausted their interest in these games after marching in the street to promote The Dark Knight.

After all, when you’ve got Gotham City to save, who has time to select the leader of the free world?

Interview: Paul M. Wood – Transmedia Storyteller

Transmedia storytelling is a hot topic. It’s a form of storytelling where multiple platforms tie together to tell a common story. It has been heralded as “a new storytelling form that is native to networked digital content and communication channels.”

UCS professor Henry Jenkins coined the term transmedia storytelling, and defines it as representing:

“…a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience…”

There’s many examples of transmedia, with projects around novels, TV shows, videogames, music and movies as well as a few examples in the corporate and executive communications space.

The more elaborate of these can involve the expense of year-long “teaser” campaigns for movies, or mass-participation alternate reality games.

However, transmedia storytelling can be a low-cost re-purposing existing video and audio digital content for multiple distribution channels. This might put your video used at trade show presentation on a massive screen into a format suitable for a laptop or smart phone. But it’s not just changing the aspect ratio and being done. It’s thinking of savvy ways to fracture a coherent story into pieces while keeping a core theme alive in different media. It’s weaving the storytellers magic in the digital age.

I’m just starting to learn about transmedia storytelling, but the impression I’ve got is that it is evolving rapidly and, if it delivers on even a part of the promise, will be a VERY BIG DEAL.

Paul M. Wood: Transmedia Storyteller

AE35 MediaI recently met with one of the more savvy transmedia storytellers in Silicon Valley. Paul M. Wood is a principal in the boutique communications firm AE35 Media.

Paul is a commercial and independent film director who grew up in a creative family. His father was an artist and his mother a musician. He studied at NYU Film School and has knocked around the tech industry.

After a decade making niche-busting films for Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco Systems, Paul is now calling upon his diverse background as both visual artist and technologist to bring storytelling into the twenty-first century by producing tales which cross not only genres but platforms and delivery systems as well.

AE35 Media believe that the days of executive communications managers creating a message and pushing out to the world as a scripted speech for a corporate big-wig to deliver once with the hope that it was clever or engaging enough to be noticed are over.

Things have changed.

We’ve gone from being a world where information is pushed out to the masses, to become one where the information is now pulled in by individuals. The tech industry knows this applies to their products, not too many yet realize it might equally apply to their corporate spokespeople. While information itself is shared, the act of acquiring it is now solitary and intimate.

Appealing to ONE large mass of people is one thing. It’s an auditorium filled will people listening to your CEO deliver a keynote. It’s an event, managed by the event production team. However, appealing to MILLIONS of individuals and having them own your brand or message as much as you do? Well that’s no longer a mere event. That’s a universe and within it the possibilities are limitless — this is the promise of transmedia storytelling.

To hear Paul discuss the potential of transmedia storytelling and how he sees it as a natural extension of his video production skills, click on the podcast icon below.

Justina Chen: The Heart of Storytelling

This is one of the longest blog postings I’ve done on a single presentation. I believe that there was sufficient content in Justina Chen’s keynote to justify the cost of attending the entire 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference.

Justina ChenIn a spectacular closing keynote at the 2012 Ragan Speechwriters Conference, Justina Chen celebrated The Heart of Storytelling. A former speechwriter for the head of the Entertainment division at Microsoft, Chen is now an award-winning author of young adult fiction books such as North of Beautiful which has been praised for “lively, artful prose.”

Her command of language and the stage was on display throughout the hour-long talk that celebrated the many ways to effectively bring the essence and power of the story into the corporation – to empower the spokespeople of the organization with the ability to change hearts and minds through storytelling.

She quoted with relish Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes who notes in Women Who Run With The Wolves that stoytellers are:

“… direct descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards, griots, cantadoras, cantors, traveling poets, bums, hags, and crazy people.”

Chen noted that something about stories lift our spirit. This is something all children are in tune with. The question is, how to convince hard-bitten executives and harassed middle-managers that their speech should be built around stories when all they want is the facts and nothing but?

Brain Rules

To convince executives who don’t want to use stories, Chen finds it useful to quote the neuroscience research outlined in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina which proves:

  1. People remember stories
  2. Audiences need to re-engage every ten minutes via a story
  3. We learn through metaphor which are deep and rich with meaning

Medina writes:

As you no doubt have noticed if you’ve ever sat through a typical PowerPoint presentation, people don’t pay attention to boring things (Brain Rule #4). You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention, and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done quickly—something emotional and relevant. Also, the brain needs a break. That’s why I use stories in this book to make many of my points.

Here’s a useful illustration of Medina’s 12 Brain Rules.

Given this evidence, Chen proves to her clients that corporate stories matter. The right story told in right way can inspire change people’s minds and hearts.

A Story is not a Vignette

A story is not a vignette. A vignette is defined as a short descriptive literary sketch or a brief incident or scene. A story, on the other hand, involves conflict and transformation, a call to adventure, crossing a threshold, succeeding in tests, surviving a crisis and reaping a reward.

The core of Chen’s presentation detailed three types of stories she has used in her speechwriting. There are stories of corporate mythology, of personal narrative, and product stories. These three powerful templates will connect with the audience.

(I would add that writers can explore a wider variety of stories by reading The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This tome outlines multiple frameworks for stories embedded in an audience’s unconscious, using archetypes such as Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Overcoming the Monster, the Voyage and Return and so on.)

Stories of Corporate Mythology

Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth talks about the eternal truth of myth. One that is celebrated in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and other classic stories where good overcomes evil.

As in Middle Earth … so in middle management.

The corporate world needs to recognize the importance of mythology. To figure out:

  • What is our corporate mythology?
  • What are the stories that encapsulate our organization truth, our values, our DNA?
  • Who are we?
  • What do we stand for?
  • If the company were a hero, what has been its quest?
  • Where have we failed?
  • What have we learned?
  • How have we overcome?
  • What our strengths?
  • What are our weaknesses?
  • Why is it important for us to be here right now?

Don’t be afraid of discussing failures, the crucible moments in the company history is where we see character emerge. Speechwriters can research the times the company has failed and show the lessons, the backbone, and the spine of the organization:

Only then do triumphs feel well earned, only then does success become so much more meaningful, only then so our hero’s, our leaders, our companies, become that much more beloved.

Chen quoted Leonard Cohen from Anthem

There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light comes in.

(She omitted the preceding line which speechwriters on a tight deadline might pin above their desks:

Forget your perfect offering.)

Personal Stories

Today’s leaders must understand the power of telling their own story. It’s important that a leader be a good storyteller, but equally important that the leader embody that story.

Harvard’s Dr Howard Garnder writes in Leading Minds: An Anatomy Of Leadership that “the artful creation and articulation of stories constitutes a fundamental part of the leader’s vocation”, and these well-crafted stories constitute “the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, inspirational leaders always fashion and tell stories of identity. Gardner goes on to state that a political leader, when dealing with a diverse group, must tell stories that are sufficiently elemental to be understood by the “unschooled” mind.

(More on this topic can be found in Professor John Sadowsky’s blog:

Leaders actively craft and tell authentic personal stories of identity that bring their values to life. And, they use their stories to teach their followers, their teams, and their organizations. It is through their personal stories that leaders reveal who they are, and it is by revealing their true nature that they inspire others to action.)

Leaders need to develop a communications platform that explains

  • What makes them the right leader for this time in the corporations history?
  • What are the three major elements of their leadership that will bring them to success?
  • What are the stories they can tell, strategically deployed at the right time, to demonstrate that they are the right leaders?

Creating Executive Platforms for Effective Storytelling

Here’s where Chen delivered the goods, big time.

She spoke of her personal experience, at Microsoft, researching story content and weaving it into presentations. Her tips are a recipe for success for any speechwriter in a corporate environment who wants to put storytelling into practice.

Her tips include:

  • Work with your HR counterpoint. Ask for their assessment of the executives’ strengths and weaknesses. How do people perceive that leader? What would HR want that leader to change to make them more effective?
  • Contact a PR agency or your internal PR team and get their assessment of everyone in industry at the same level as your leader. How are they perceived? What are they good at and what are their weaknesses and how does my leader stack up? What kind of messaging are they using?
  • Then ask for at least 90 minutes with leader. Meet offsite over lunch where they are relaxed. Dig into their personal narrative. Ask: Who are you? Why are you at this company? What have been some of your successes and, more importantly, what have been some of your most devastating failures? How did you overcome challenges in both your personal life, then in business? What do you wish you’d known as you started out your career? Where do you want to go?

With this background you can build a foundation of trusted communication with your leader. Establish an agreement that every week you can email three questions, one of which will be personal. Ask: Who have you met this week? What’s your favorite book? What kind of music do you like to listen to? What do you like to eat?

All of this detail infuses speeches. If you learn they are reading about Harry Truman, include a quote from Harry Truman in a speech.

The biggest compliment you’ll get from a speaker is for them to look at the speech and say “This sounds like me, this feels like me.”

And when they can own the content they can own the stage.

Product Stories

Marketing and PR can give you background that allows you to tell the story in manner of a “Director’s Cut” version of how a product was made. Tell the story of the individuals.

(I totally agree. I’m a big fan of NPR Planet Money and the way they use stories to explain some of the most complex and abstract financial concepts. Host Chana Joffe-Walt has described in detail the ways they take dry content and make it come alive with magic of stories:

When I am beginning to research an Idea Story I try to lay out the mechanics in my mind. “OK so we buy Chinese stuff. Dollars go from here to China. Then they pile up there in the banks. Then they get used to buy US treasury bonds.” At some point early on I always ask who is the guy who does that? Someone has to put that money into the Chinese bank, someone at the bank manages it and sees it piling up, someone sits at a computer and buys US treasury bonds … who is that guy?)

Weaving the Story Together

Weave story content together so the speech is as rich, as interesting and as evocative as possible.

As well as telling stories in an individual speech you can weave stories into longer events. Volunteer to be the storyteller for your next big company meeting. Figure out the emotional arc of the day. Play with the full eight hours and see where individual speakers fit. What do you want audience to feel? When do you want them to feel inspired, refreshed, challenged? The three types of stories listed can come alive over the whole day.

The Creative Process

Whether writing a book or a speech, Chan employs the same step-by-step creative process.

  1. Determining the intention
  2. Researching the data
  3. Collecting the information
  4. Collaborating with other creative’s on slides and videos
  5. Creating the content
  6. Rehearsing the speaker
  7. Delivering on the podium
  8. Repurposing and sharing with others in organization
  9. Improving for future use

While this process seems very logical, it is actually a deliciously messy affair. She urged us to lean into the process and enjoy the anti-corporate nature of discovery that is involved. Read books and magazines. Find ideas to incorporate into your speeches. Get out into world and play. Keep your creative energy fresh.

The Search for the Story

Your search for a story involves meeting the right people. Ask executives for time to “conduct an interview” and they’ll clear a busy calendar. Just “asking for a meeting” won’t have same effect.

It’s essential to have executive air cover since you need free range in your organization to go up, down and across. Your single purpose is to find the story.

Talk to the company super-stars, those who are making things happen. Your list of interview candidates should include the person who embodies the soul of the company. Talk to the IP Lawyers – they know everything that is going on. HR is a treasure trove of information and know who are the up and comers.

Use the first twenty minutes of your interview for personal chit-chat about their lives. This is where you’ll get the color. Look around their office for items to talk about. Have an eye for the visual. Always ask “who else should I talk to?” Then meet with these new people and expand your story sources. As your reputation as the corporate story-teller expands, people will call you.

Reward your sources by ghosting a nice email from your executive to everyone you contact who helps with a keynote or project and cc: their managers. Also, share presentation tips with people from your list of sources that will help them when they present.

Story Sourcing

The narrative tools of speechwriting include not only the basic story, but company history, product demos, industry white papers, and customer testimonials. Think of creative ways to highlight and profile a wide range of material to showcase the fruits of your research in creative ways.

Each speech should have tweet-worthy sound bites. Better than saying “We have researchers in our company” say “We sent the Neil Armstong’s of our company ten years out into the future to explore new horizons.”

Know your audience and look into social media tools like blogs and tweets for source material. Paraphrase comments from social media – especially anything you find from members of the audience – and feed these back in the speech. This pays homage to people in the audience.

Use lyrical tools. Writers need to play with supple language. Rather than telling an internal audience “We want to be seen as a creative company” say “We need to evolve from being credible to being creative. We need to go from being believable to being beloved. We need to more than trusted, we need to be treasured.”

In Conclusion

Speeches are not merely to inform, but to captivate an audience for as long as you have their attention.

No passion in the speechwriter, no passion in the speech giver. Find the soul of your organization. Put heart into your words and share those stories with the world. The world, more than ever, needs heartwarming, soul sustaining stories, needs your stories.


A Ragan Review on Justina’s presentation 7 ways to become a masterful storyteller from Ragan’s Role of Communications in Creating Best Places to Work Conference held at the SAS headquarters. The seven topics covered:

  1. Build Myths
  2. Consider your intentions
  3. Find the superstars
  4. Find the soul keeper of your company
  5. Be a magpie
  6. Be fearless
  7. Embrace chaos

Justina interviewed at a past Ragan Conference: