Business consultancy relies on your ability to have your audience believe that you can help them scale their businesses. An irresistible consulting sales presentation can be a powerful tool to deliver that impact. In this episode, Michael Zipursky interviews the persuasion expert and the CEO of Duarte, Inc., Nancy Duarte. Nancy, an author of five bestselling books, is also a communications expert who has been featured in Fortune, Times Magazine, and other notable publications. Hear her story about how and why she started her firm. With communication as her forte, she shares some communication advice for consultants who want to be able to convey their information in a more exciting way and in a way that gets them to take action. Listen as Nancy talks about the importance of digging data and transforming it into presentations that wows a client.
I’m here with Nancy Duarte. Nancy, welcome.
Thanks for having me, Michael.
Nancy, you’re an expert in communications. You’ve been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, I could keep going on and on. You’ve also written five bestselling and award-winning books. You’ve received numerous awards. You’re the Principal and CEO of your design firm Duarte Inc. for more than 30 years. You’re also known as one of the top communications professionals in the world. I want to extract as much as we can from you because a lot of people can learn from what we’re doing every single day as consultants and building consultant businesses are connected to communication. Let’s start and have you share a little bit about how you got into this world of communication and telling stories through design?
We started a long time ago. We got niched into presentations, partly by accident, partly on purpose. If you think about the power of a presentation, sometimes they float around and people read them, other times you stand and deliver them, but they tend to be this visual vehicle to get your idea understood. We would listen to what was being said. Sometimes we would live storyboarded and sometimes we’re like, “What they’re saying isn’t that great?” We started to coach them on what to say and we started to write in stories. I went on a 3.5-year journey studying stories and I dove deep into storytelling and story patterns. I have a book that’s called The 100 Greatest Speeches of All Time. I looked at all 100 speeches. I knew that there was a rhythm and a cadence to the ones where they were good at it. I found a story pattern that they used. It has been fun. The data oddly now is showing that communication skills are the biggest skill gap in the world and to the tune of millions and millions of people are lacking communication skills to fill jobs.
Where did this come from? Did you have this passion for designs and storytelling before you even started Duarte? Take us back to what you were doing before you started your own business?
I was eighteen when I got married and started a business. I was a declared math major. I never finished college but Cisco Systems, my client, paid for me to get an MBA from UCLA because they counted all my bodies of work as my undergrad which is great. What happened was, in my one year of college, I got a C minus in Speech Communications and a D in English. I was like, “Just quit.” I was also a declared math major. That’s why so much of my work is based on math and data. I never finished but someone on Wikipedia keeps saying I got a degree in math. I don’t know who that person is but I always also did visual.
As a little kid, I didn’t play with dolls. I’ve got an old, abandoned desk. I put it in my bedroom and I would trace coloring books. I loved visuals, data, and public speaking at a young age. I would draw these things from coloring books and I would file them alphabetically in the drawer of my desk and that’s how I played as a kid. That’s why work to me is how I used to play as a kid. All those things have converged and I feel lucky and blessed to be able to do what I was born to do because I didn’t follow the traditional path to get here.
Talk to us a little bit more about this idea of communication. It’s hugely undervalued or lacks real focus. Your book, DataStory, talks a lot about how people can use data but it needs to be connected to stories to get the point across. Consultants are in the business of telling stories of having conversations and giving presentations. What advice would you have for consultants who want to be able to convey their information, story, opinion, and what they see in a more exciting way, but also in a way that gets people to take action?
Sometimes, there’s a gap between a consultant and a data analyst. You could say that the consultant forms a point of view about the data and forming a point of view is important. When you frame the point of view as a big idea, there are two components to it. There is, what is your point of view about the data and what’s at stake if we do or do not do something about it? It’s not digging through the data for the data’s sake. When you dig through data, one of two things happens. It’s pretty binary. I would love someone to challenge me because I would love to know if there are more things.
If you dig into the data, one of two things happens, you find a problem or you find an opportunity. That’s it. When you have a problem, an opportunity, you have a communication problem at that point because you need to try to convince people, “I found this opportunity. We need to do something about it. I found this problem. We need to get people to do something about it.” That’s why it’s a lot about using data to find it and what do you do to take action? There were a couple of things I did in there that I loved.
We’re so privileged. We have about 120 employees and 140 people total that write, produce, and help the highest-performing brands in the world. What I did is I lifted from about eight of the highest performing brands in the world, their data slides, the slides where they spoke to data and wrote about data. I pulled out all the parts of speech, noun, verb, adverb, and all these. I found that the most powerful insights came from verbs the highest performing brands chose to use in association with their data.
Can you give an example of that for everyone reading?
The verbs that were associated, I collected them all and formed them into a pattern. There are two kinds of verbs. There are performance verbs and process verbs. There’s a whole spread in the book where I listed as many that would fit on a page. A performance verb is a verb that an executive may be measured. You can have KPIs associated with it and there it’s around how the organization performs. What you tuck under that are process verbs. There are multiple processes you may have to do to reach the performance verb. You might go and get a piece of data and it could answer a process question like, “Should I do this?” Let me get this one statistic and it tells me, “I probably should do that.” That’s a process verb. When it’s a strategic verb, a lot of times you’ve had to go to multiple data sources, have lots of conversations, and become your own skeptic. It’s a big decision that you don’t make lightly and those were more the performance verbs that were associated with the data. It is interesting.Presentations are visual vehicles to get your idea understood. Click To Tweet
What I’m hearing you say is that you essentially analyzed a whole bunch of thought to be successful because they’re from well-established brands and companies that we would all know and identified the common verbs that they’re using or the commonalities in those presentations. Are there specific words that stand out to you that were more common than others?
There’s another online book called Slidedocs. I don’t know if the consultants know about that but that’s where you pile a bunch of words onto your slides and you distribute and circulate them. A lot of times a consultant isn’t making a slideshow. They’re making what we call a Slidedocs. You put a lot of charts and a lot of data so the energy and words that were put into the Slidedocs are different than what would be in a stand and deliver an influential or persuasive presentation. What was interesting is, now after I figured this out as a firm because we do this on behalf of others, we’re spending more time thinking about what is the verb that we’re asking people to do, because of the findings in this book.
I’m asking because it sounds like to someone who’s reading that this might be a bit abstract. We’re talking about verbs and how they can make a real difference in your presentation. I want to try and bring it a little bit more concrete and tangible for people so they can benefit from it.
Some of the verbs, you’re asking them to continue doing something, some to stop, some other verbs you’re asking not to change, and most of the verbs are around change. It’s a few that are asking people to stop doing something. Continue literally, when it’s like, “What are the words around that?” We found the word continuum. We’re like, “That’s weird.” We never could find any other verb besides the word continuing to support that. I’m turning to the page because I don’t want to misrepresent anything.
The other thing that you touched on that is important is, when you’re in conversation with a buyer, it’s not the data that you want to talk about. It’s not the findings or what you found, but it’s also about the cost of inaction if they stay where they are or the benefit that they get by taking that action. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean with that or maybe an example or something stands out to you as to how that’s important for people to use?
In the book, I call that a big idea and the data point of view. I have some examples in there. Usually, it’s in the form of, “I found this in the data, therefore, we need to blah.” Anytime you answer the question, “Therefore we need to,” normally you’re using a verb to say. You’d say, “We need to do blah. If we don’t do it, blah could happen or if we do it, blah could happen.” It could be good stakes or bad stakes because it could be a cautionary thing. It can be super motivating. “Therefore, we all get bonuses at the end,” or whatever. It depends on either what’s going to work with your audience or more importantly, what’s the right thing to do for the data.
A lot of consultants are in situations where even though they know what should be done, they hesitate to be direct with a client. They’re concerned about stepping on their toes or saying something that might offend someone that placed a lot of effort and energy into something or it’s their baby. What are your experiences with that?
With forming a point of view about the data?
Yeah and communicating directly to the buyer, even though it might not be what they want to hear.
Some people would say, “The data speaks for itself,” but somebody has to form a perspective around it. Technically, artificial intelligence can hit and read data and tee up an observation from the data. In this case, somebody has to form a point of view about it. I’ll give you an example. You wanted an example of a point of view. Usually, your point of view about the data is, it’s the future data that you’re looking for. You’re making a claim that if we do this action, our data could transform in the future. Here’s a dorky little example, changing the shopping cart experience and our shipping policies could increase sales by 40%. There’s an action, changing the cart and our shipping policies, and what’s at stake is a 40% increase in sales. It’s super tight. It’s one sentence. It’s not super complex but doing it as a tight lockup where it’s like, “Here’s my point of view. Here’s the payoff,” or “Here’s my point of view, and here’s the problem.” It makes it clear.
You’re hitting in such an important component or piece. I see this a lot with the consultants that we coach in our programs. They’ll talk a lot about the inputs and things that they’re going to do or the deliverables, but they don’t focus much on the outcomes, results, or what’s at stake. That 40% is what’s going to drive the buyer, client, or the internal stakeholder to take action. You’re known for creating beautiful designs, charts, graphics, and presentations. What do your presentations look like when you’re going to plan a client? Are you using PowerPoint? Are you using slide decks? Do you go and talk? What is your sales presentation or that process look internally?
Sometimes for the Cobbler kids with no shoes, we’re like, “We’re doing the work and when someone wants to see our work, we have to scramble sometimes.” What’s interesting is we use Keynote and PowerPoint and what we make is so cinematic. You could sit in the audience and you would think it’s a video, it’s all in PowerPoint. It’s spiny, swooshy and stuff that people don’t know you can do. Maybe it takes us twenty steps to get it to do that but we get it to be beautiful. That’s for a big staged event like CES, Mobile World Congress, or Davos where it’s a form of TED. When it’s sitting in a meeting one-on-one and you’re reviewing something together, that’s not appropriate. We do a lot of Slidedocs where we’ll create templates for people. We’ll create big templates for 100,000 employees who are working through a presentation or a PowerPoint thing.
You don’t use those as part of your sales process when you’re sitting with a buyer.
Sometimes at different phases. If they need to understand an arc in the narrative, if the sales call is 30 minutes it would break down, “Here are three minutes of a somewhat formal presentation.” Sometimes we use slides. Sometimes we don’t. We try to always have some grounding device, a visual that architecturally shows the hierarchies of things, the matrix of what are your choices, and why you choose them and stuff like that. We don’t load up the Zoom camera and have slides up all the time because it’s a lot about eye contact, making you feel heard and asking questions. Our sales calls are more like designed conversations than they are to stand and deliver presentations.
Nancy, the first time I heard your name was when you created that famous presentation and slide for Al Gore. You probably heard that a lot from people. How did you land him as a client or get involved in that project?
He had joined the board at Apple. Apple has been our client for years. We have years of business with them. When you join aboard, you’re not allowed to receive goods or services from that organization. Even though Apple’s own, Creative Services Department wanted to help them, they couldn’t. We’ve been partners with them forever so they flipped them over to us. It was so fun. People in the elevator would be like, “Hello, Al Gore.” We would help him. I let my teamwork with him. I stayed away and let them solve it with him. It was fun. They had a great time. They were out in the jet. We were on Oprah. It’s so funny.
Does it have a big impact on your business and leads coming in from you?
What’s so funny is, we didn’t tell anyone we did it. Nobody even knew who we were. A blogger out of Japan, Garr Reynolds told the world that we were the ones who did it because he looked in the credits who did it. We worked with so many big times but we never talked about it. It is the first time a slideshow won an Academy Award. He looked it up and told the world that we did it. That helped us. Back then when blogs were new, he had 20,000 followers on his blog or something and that’s how people started to find out about it.It is less scary when you're passionate about having a problem you're solving. Click To Tweet
You’ve had some well-known clients over the years. Apple has been with us since the start. How does a consultancy or a company like yours at the start land a client like Apple?
What’s weird is we were digital upstarts so we’re talking 1988. We had this ugly apartment with thick yellow carpet and we were probably the only people in a 2-mile radius that owned a Mac because it was that new. We moved furniture all summer to save every penny to buy this Mac. At that time, a lot of the people on your show probably don’t know, the way that data was done for charts and print is you used an electrical black tape and an X-Acto knife. You cut your X and Y-axis. It was a lot of hand analog stuff. We called NASA, Tandem, and Apple at the time, and we’re like, “We’re ready to go,” because we were digital upstarts oddly. At that point, you can’t print from a computer to a printer. These were the olden days. That’s what I led with. I went to Apple and Tandem which is now HP and NASA all in one afternoon. We told them that we could do what we could do and we had digital.
Was that you picking up the phone and calling them?
What was that like for you? Were you excited to make those calls or were you trembling with fear? What was that experience?
I had come from sales so my illustrious career began in the checking line at Long’s Drugs. I’ve slowly worked up but I made a complicated technical product and I was in inside sales. I used to keep asking, “Put me in outside sales. I could kill it. I could run circles around all these dudes.” Back then, you didn’t put women in outside sales. The women were supposed to be manning the booth in Vegas in their little hot pants. I didn’t want to. I was always fearless when it came to sales and I was selling my husband’s illustration skills at first. I could commit that he could illustrate this photo-realistically on the computer and people were like, “You’re kidding me? Show me proof.” Once I could show them that he could do this, we started winning work like crazy.
Do you have any advice for the man or woman who has deep expertise? They know inside they can help a client, a company an organization, but they’re fearful of doing what you did, picking up the phone, calling people or getting in front of them because all kinds of things are going on in their mind about what could go wrong or how they’re going to lose the one opportunity. What would you say to those people? Is there any advice you might offer?
It’s less scary when you’re passionate about having a problem you’re solving. That’s what I’m coaching my own team here is go and find the problem that you’re solving. With some of my big accounts, we have access to their intranet but now we look up, “Did they state in an earnings call what their strategy is? Can we see what core competencies they’re trying to build? Can we see what initiatives are driving forward?” If you have a service, product, research, data, or something that helps them get there faster, that’s going to open doors.
There are all kinds of regulations, your GDPR and even California is adopting. Starting with an email doesn’t necessarily work anymore. Letters get open. I do open letters addressed to me. There are ways to stand out now. Tying it to one of their strategic initiatives or to a news article you read whether the customer or the brand is experiencing credible pain around this. The minute your solution solves that pain, your stance isn’t one of, “I’m terrified. I’m going to be rejected.” Your stance is more like, “I’m like an EMT. I’m going to solve your emergency. I’m a firefighter, I’m helping solve and I’m saving mankind by proposing that you adopt this solution.” It’s scary. Nobody likes being rejected. A full day of rejection is never fun but if you hit a nerve, you don’t get rejected nearly as much.
You have that early success. What did you do that afternoon when you added those clients? Was that a big celebration? Do you remember what you did that day?
It was. We had so much fun back then. It’s my husband and myself. I shouldn’t say on your show what all we did when we had big successes. I bumped into a guy who used to be at this company called Super Mac. They made big monitors and colored monitors which were a big deal. We did their initial public offering. Back then we did some on the computer, but we also sometimes had to make 35-millimeter slides and stuff. I bumped into them and we were laughing because we charged $15 an hour working from home. We worked so hard. We must have worked ten weeks on this IPO and at $15 an hour. My bill was $5,000 or something crazy dumb.
I remember the CMO at the time was like, “Here’s an extra $2,000.” We were like, “What people do that?” I’m sure we went out to dinner for that. This was so different because we didn’t have the qualifications. I read everything. I made sure. I went cover to cover on HBR, Strategy+Business, and read every bestselling business book out there, all of it. When I wasn’t working, I was devouring content. When I showed up in that room, I knew more. I was more on top of it because I wanted it more. I felt like a poser if I didn’t show up extra smart.
Where does that drive come from? To me, that’s a clear indication of real success. You are hungry for it and you’re willing to put in the work. These days, so many people are looking for a shortcut. They don’t want to think about having to read through an annual report or something else because that takes time. They want to blast out a bunch of messages on LinkedIn or otherwise and hope that somehow it’s going to magically build a relationship. It takes more work, so where did that come from inside of you?
When I dropped out of college, it created a hole in my heart. I was like, “That’s a real void.” In those days, it was hard to be successful without a degree. I’ve got to say, I only started to talk about that a few years ago because when you show up smart, everyone assumes I had an MBA. When I was showing up, I knew everything and every trend. This was pre-internet even so it comes from that. It comes from being raised in poverty a little bit like, “I don’t want that for my family.” I knew the opposite of what I wanted. That was a motivator.
My mom was bipolar, narcissistic, and has a borderline personality disorder. I didn’t have an empathy model by her because when you’re growing up, there’s tons of research. My body of work is a quest for empathy. I have some, but I’ve had to work hard to become excellent at empathy. All my work has its roots in empathy and the story is the gateway drug to empathy. You use the story because it opens up an empathetic attachment. It was this perfect cocktail of a void and me wanting to make sure that void was full.
You’ve gone from you and your husband to 140 or so employees. What have you seen? Did you experience any big shifts at certain stages of numbers of employees or revenue that you remember as being different? We got this level and now we have to change certain things significantly.
There are a couple of milestones. I remember we were at 36 people and I was still the central hub. We would pick up projects. I would read them, sketch out the slides, figure out the words that would need to be on the slides, and I would leave a little pile on everyone’s desk chair. They would come in the next morning. I was working 24 hours a day and, I got one REM cycle of sleep, one four-hour cycle of sleep while I was raising my kids and building a business. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t showing up as my best self all the time. I wanted to get through things fast and not well.
I remember that I hired a general manager. I said, “I don’t know what I need. Observe me for two weeks and start hiring staff for me. Hire roles, make job descriptions, figure it out, and post it because I didn’t even have time to do that.” He observed me, the first one he wanted to hire was a conceptual illustrator, concepter, as we called it. That was drawing and leaving things on chairs. I love doing that. I got the job description from him and I remember reading it and thinking, “If there’s someone else that fills this job, I’m going to want to be all involved. I’m going to be all up in their business.”
I remember taking the job description home and I mourned the loss of that position. I had to make sure it was dead to me so whoever chose to fill the position will do it differently than I did. I had to make sure that was okay. I remember there were these moments when I went from the actual journeyman or the actual craftsman to being the manager of the work. The E-Myth is a great book about that. I started to let go and I had to work hard to not be the hub. I had to make a leadership team that held the hub together that it wasn’t a single personality or person that’s at the hub.
You took it down to 36. Were there any big levels before you got to 36 employees that you remember like going from 2 to 3 or to 10?
There was a moment where everyone came to the house. Mark and I started at the house. The next thing we know it’s our next employee and the next. We had five people coming to the house. It was Mark and I and four other people so a total of six. I remember I would be in the kitchen trying to cook dinner and they’d be like, “What’s for dinner?” They’d be sniffing around. For a long time, we had a huge family every night for dinner. I remember there was a moment where we worked on a big Apple project on campus and I was on campus for about three weeks. I packed up my briefcase at the time because we used to have those and I’m like, “I’m going home.” I remember thinking, “I’ve not said that.”
I’ve worked from home and lived at home, but I’m leaving work and going home and I’ve not had that feeling in about six years. That weekend, my husband and I were at Starbucks and there was this little retail about Starbucks. We walked up there and there was this little office. I’m like, “Let’s do it.” It was also scary. I would say that that move took us the most faith because we moved out of our home, we’re committing to a five-year lease, and committed to a new employee in the same week. For us, that was the biggest leap of financial faith we took. It’s your first leap of financial faith is the thing that scares you the most and it was organizational problems after that.
What got you through that? What ultimately gave you the faith to lock-in that lease and hire that employee?
Data doesn’t show you that stuff. Your data would show you, “It’s going to be too tight. Maybe you shouldn’t make this decision.” That’s where intuition plays a big role. It’s this thing that at number one, I loved that feeling so much of being able to leave work and go home and everyone was in my living room every day. My whole living room had desks. It wasn’t a living room but I knew that it was going to work out. I don’t know how to explain it because if we projected the math, it would have been too tight for a lot of people to make that leap. I had an executive from Apple over. I sat down on the couch and my son’s baby bottle squirted on his leg. He stood up and milk went down his leg. Another time, I’m working with the speechwriter for the CEO at the time, this is pre-Steve Jobs and my daughter walked up between our faces. I’m talking to him and he’s talking about something. She’s like, “Mom, your breath stinks.” I’m like, “Maybe we should move out of the house.” It wasn’t probably a great day.
That also goes to show that if you’re putting out a good product, and you’re being genuine and a human, pretty bad things that the mind thinks are bad, don’t get you to lose a client. You can still survive and keep building.
They loved us.
What do you think made them love you? Was it you’re doing great work? Was it your relationship with them?
It’s our service. Mark and I both knew that we were not graphic designers. My husband, like me, is a lifelong learner. We went to the library. This is a whole new tool. The cool thing is, there was about a three-year window people didn’t realize that the graphic design community thought the Macintosh was a joke. They didn’t adopt it. They thought it was stupid and we slipped in then. We went to the library and found every book he could on graphic design, typesetting typography, and everything. Early on, Adobe was a client and they made sure we knew what ligatures were. It’s nice. They helped warm us.
I was going to ask, at what point in the transition did you offload sales and marketing? When did you give that to someone else or are you still holding it?
What’s funny is we didn’t have sales or market at all. I only built a marketing team a few years ago because of word of mouth. When you’re a service business, it’s word of mouth so you know if your business starts to drop, either your pricing is wrong. People didn’t feel they got what was worth the value. I never had to market the service firm. For the training business, books help. I don’t think it is marketing, this is a generous way to help the world communicate. We do it to be generous and in return, the phone rings like crazy, but I don’t sell. We are now building a proper salesforce but more for the training side than the service side. Most of our marketing helps the training side versus the service business.If your business starts to drop, either your pricing is wrong, or people didn't feel they got what was worthy about you. Click To Tweet
You’ve written five books in this area for the consultants, professional services, and business owners. Which of your books would you suggest would be the best one for them to start with?
It depends on what consulting because if it’s heavy data, I would say DataStory. Slidedocs is online. That’s another one if they’re caught defining their material into a document that they pass and it feels to the client, they pay. A lot of people hire a consultant and the consultant puts a bunch of great information in a PowerPoint. That’s the consultancy, I would say for Slidedocs because up there are some beautiful templates where you have to swap out some colors and stick your logo and they’re stunning. They look like brochures so I would say one of those. Resonate is about influence and yet in a verbal dialogue if you’re going to present, Resonate is also good.
Final question for you as the CEO of your company 120 to 140 or so people now. We know you’re not doing sales or marketing so what are you doing? What does your day-to-day look like now?
When I’m writing a book, my morning starts at about 5:00 and from 5:00 to 12:00 noon, I write because my creative energies are then. In the afternoons, I take meetings and now I’m having to spend a lot of time doing some contract review. We’re getting big licensing deals so it’s new energy and new different kinds of things going on. There are all kinds of security compliance. There are interesting things happening now in the IT space that the owner of the business is at risk. Things show up on your risk. None of those things energize me. I have about five direct reports and we came up with a vision this year. I spend time on vision, accountability to the vision, and making sure that we’re aligned. It took about eighteen months, but I have a healthy executive team.
We put in a performance culture which my partner, my VP of HR, what a gem. We got a performance culture, got rid of underperformers kinds of things and that’s work. That’s rolling up your sleeves and stuff. I’m doing all the stuff that I neglect when I’m on a book deadline and I’d have to jump back in. We’re putting in a new, my finance gal calls it our big girl system. We’re going to put in a great big SaaS brain so we can scale. We’re planning to be about four times bigger than we are within a few years. I’m trying to think through what’s the way of working and what do we need for data. I don’t want to put data in there for data sake. It’s all kind of stuff.
It’s exciting stuff. Nancy, I want to thank you for coming on sharing some of the lessons that you learned along the way and experiences.
It’s been fun.
The best place for people to learn more about you and your work, where should it be?
It’s Duarte.com. I’m on Twitter @Duarte or @NancyDuarte. I do connect to anyone who connects me on LinkedIn and I do have a Facebook page that’s fading a bit because I’m not up there much but I do reply to everybody.
Nancy again, thank you so much.
Thank you. It’s fun.
- Duarte Inc.
- Garr Reynolds
- @Duarte – Twitter
- @NancyDuarte – Twitter
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the Consulting Success Community today: