With all the (not undeserved) backlash against TED and cult-of-personality infotainment in general, it may be hard to remember a time when standing in front of people and talking over slides wasn’t a glamorous thing to do. Nancy Duarte helped make them that way. She helped Al Gore craft the original version of An Inconvenient Truth–the ur-text of presentations as do-gooder performance art. Her new iBook, Resonate, aims to be an interactive design manual for anyone who wants to give talks that “change the world.”
This iPad version of Resonate (built with Apple’s free iBooks Author tool) is based on the dead-tree version that Duarte wrote in 2010 as a sequel to her best-selling book Slide:ology. “When I wrote Slide:ology, I thought that the reason presentations were so bad was that communicators had never been taught the visual display of information,” Duarte tells Co.Design. She realized that the content needed a rethink as well as the form. “I wanted to identify why storytellers are riveting and presenters are boring,” she says. “So, Slide:ology gives insight into how to create effective slides, Resonate explains how to write and produce a talk that persuades.”
The key to TED-ifying your talk? Narrative. If Robert McKee’s Story is the bible for screenwriters, Duarte wants Resonate to be the same thing for presenters. It’s The Hero’s Journey–literally the oldest story in the book–applied to slideshows.
Narrative, as a design pattern for increasing engagement, is nothing new. But Duarte has done a deep, deep dive in applying these principles for the TEDx set. Resonate draws inspiration (and detailed case studies) from Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Richard Feynman, and Ronald Reagan, not to mention Edward Tufte (whose sparkline concept Duarte adapts into something called The Presentation Form, a kind of Platonic ideal for talks and speeches). Reading Resonate is like looking at a dissection diagram of every viral talk you’ve ever seen, which makes it both clinically fascinating and somewhat demoralizing, oddly enough. There are some genuinely humane, inspired ideas on offer in Resonate–like the notion of treating your audience as the “hero” in your story, not yourself. But still, if giving “world changing” presentations comes down to structural carpentry and hitting a proscribed set of “beats” more than anything else, it’s hard not to feel like some of the inspirational magic is gone.
In any case, that’s what Resonate is about: applying a research-plus-product-design approach to the art of persuasion. It’s not a good or a bad thing, it’s just a pattern that works–often very, very well. But is it reaching a saturation point, where the “hero’s journey” presentation principles that Resonate evangelizes are so successful, so ubiquitous, that they’re starting to feel predictable and synthetic instead of surprising and authentic? Duarte disagrees: “The concepts in Resonate aren’t a formula and if the principles are understood clearly, the presentations will not feel cookie-cutter. Steve Jobs doesn’t sound like Martin Luther King, but they both follow this structure. Each presentation gets mapped to reach the audience and move them toward a pre-defined transformative audience journey.”
Her logic makes sense. After all, the product-design patterns behind the iPhone have become ubiquitous and unarguably world-changing, but that doesn’t mean the iPhone itself isn’t still a great product. All the same, the last two talks that knocked my socks off did so precisely because they didn’t feel like products, even great ones. Then again, maybe they were just exploiting Resonate-esque principles so well that I didn’t notice. If nothing else, that makes me want to re-read the book to find out.