Nancy Duarte has seen a lot of bad tech presentations.
“What happens to most everyone in the technical field is that most of the presentations they draw up are technical documents,” says Duarte. ”They put a truncated document into PowerPoint.“
They rarely tell a good story–you can’t do that with a dry set of bullet points read from a screen. A story is full of conflict and contrast. A story has a hero with whom the audience can identify and obstacles which must be overcome.
Duarte insists that a great presenter is not the hero; the audience is. Your job as a speaker is to be a mentor, to show your audience what could be, as opposed to what is, and how they can help create that better world.
Duarte almost followed a technical path herself. “I was a declared math major but I dropped out,” she says. “I was very drawn to statistics and math so my work actually expresses itself very mathematically. I got insights from studying Richard Feynman. He was known as the Great Explainer. I think he gives hope to the techie.”
In her book Resonate, Duarte analyzes famous speeches using huge infographics of the spoken word. They show how speakers including Martin Luther King Jr. used metaphor, visual words, repetition, and rapid transitions between “what is” and “what could be” to reinforce their point. She is convinced that great speeches contain common patterns, and with a bit of practice, anyone can learn to use them effectively.
Becoming a great presenter doesn’t mean that you have to become someone else. “You have to get comfortable being yourself,” says Duarte. “Some people try real hard to be someone else. They will try to be very slick and performance-based. But people can tell who your true self is and I would take someone who is just a little bit nervous and geeky over someone who is posing as someone else. So I think you need to amplify the quaintness of your own temperament over trying to put a mask on that feels uncomfortable.”
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to rehearse. Duarte advises working with a coach. “A coach can teach you things like eye contact, how to look into camera and seem sincere. To me presenting is a bit like the game of golf where you have to have muscle memory, so it’s super smart to tape yourself and realize ‘Oh, when I make that gesture I look terrible’. I had all these little nervous tics I didn’t know I had. What I did is that I closed my eyes and did some of the gestures because I can’t observe myself and you have to feel them yourself.”
It’s all too easy for technical presenters to hide behind technology. They tend to read their slides. And in effect you are putting technology between you and the audience, says Duarte. “If you are going to put the words up then just sit quietly and let them read them and then have an honest conversation about it. They are there to hear you speak, not have your slides speak for you.”
Sometimes it’s better to have no slides at all. “Let’s say you had to do a layoff,” says Duarte. “You don’t want a bunch of charts to convince people that you did the right thing. You want the page to be blank and you just want to do it in an impassioned, heartfelt apology. You want to fall on your sword and you want to apologize. But if you don’t have slides your words need to be pretty visual and colorful.”
To stop projecting documents and start telling stories, you need to change the method you use to create presentations. “The way that a research mindset works is very different from a creative mindset,” says Duarte. “Go somewhere different. Work in a different environment. Use a different tool like sticky notes. I often use slide sorter view in PowerPoint. It’s like sticky notes on a wall. I arrange them and rearrange them and show them to people.” She advises finding someone who is a really good communicator and either establishing a formal mentorship or just asking for permission to run your talks by them.
Which presentation tool to use really depends on the type of content you are creating. “Keynote and PowerPoint are chronological whereas Prezi is spatial. Most of the time when we are talking we are doing a chronological talk. With Prezi the reason you would go there is if the meaning is amplified by navigating through space. If you had the entire timeline of humankind and you wanted to zoom into a hundred-year period, then Prezi would be great for that.”
Many tech startup presentations, in particular, describe a problem and the speaker’s solution. Duarte considers this framework to be too narrow. “Sometimes you have to propose an idea that’s not the solution,” she says. “It’s empowering people to solve that for the future. If you show up and everything’s solved–‘Here’s a problem. I’ve solved it’–that’s off-putting too. With a lot of people, it’s only partially solved. They only have a minimal viable product. Software is never done. They only have a little bit done but it’s the hope for the future of what they are doing which will bring an investor in. You have to get people to believe that the future you are trying to paint is the right future.”
Duarte thinks that the key to a great presentation is plenty of contrast: transitions between what is and what could be, positive and negative emotion, different forms of media and sharing the stage with other people. “It’s a form, not a formula. Craft your greatest talk and then go back to see if it has enough contrast in it,” she says. “If you are using sticky notes, use a plus sign or a minus sign for what could be and what is. We have a color-coding system also for positively emotionally charged and negatively emotionally charged.”
Every time something changes in your presentation the audience will be re-engaged. “So you can have a slide animate or the audio changes so I’m listening to you and then I’m listening to someone else,” explains Duarte. “It’s a trick. Luring and re-luring them (the audience) by changing it up a lot.”
Emotion is one of the most powerful tools in the storyteller’s arsenal but it must be used in an appropriate way for your particular audience. “One of the reasons that Benioff (Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce) can get away with a lot of excitement at Dreamforce is that pretty much everyone there does sales and they are a highly emotionally charged, extroverted audience, whereas if you had that same thing at a biotech conference it wouldn’t fly.”
But deploying the right amount of emotional appeal can be the key to cracking a difficult crowd. “There’s a great story in my book about this guy from Stanford, he is a chemist, and he wanted to raise money for his lab,” says Duarte. “He had 15 minutes to do his talk and he added a thin veneer of personal story through the whole thing. He won the award above others whose stuff was actually on a par with his. If he had done the whole thing as a story, they wouldn’t have gotten it, but even with an analytical type of audience they still have a heart and can be moved. You would just do a thinner layer of that kind of anecdotal storytelling and emotional appeal.”
Many techies concentrate on the content at the expense of the visuals, but then so does Duarte, at least initially. “A designer who is trained to visualize my thinking–my art director works on all my books– amplifies the meaning, sometimes changes the meaning of what I am trying to say, because she knows how to make it more clear,” says Duarte. “My favorite thing is when I get to co-create with a creative visual thinker. That’s the most magical way to do it.”
Not everyone has the time or budget to use a designer but Duarte thinks that it is possible to teach yourself to some extent. “Get some of the really beautiful design annuals, design books so that when you are looking at it you think ‘I find this beautiful. Why is this beautiful to me?’ and you start to see patterns in how the type is done, in the color. There’s actually a bit of a science behind design and if you can start to identify the patterns of why decisions were made by a designer, you can actually get a good ways there.”
Technical founders and CEOs often put a lot of effort into presentations for an external audience and not enough on their own team. “You are creating a movement,” says Duarte. “Look at Dr. King. He spoke as much to his own team that was helping him as he did externally.”
“I do my own internal vision talk and I spend about 60 hours on it,” Duarte continues. “If I reserve those couple of weeks in January it removes a massive amount of friction all year long because you nail it. It saves you time in the long run. We had a supercritical new move we were going to make where we were going to structure ourselves differently, where everyone was keeping their jobs but everyone was getting a new boss and you would think that would be very unsettling but I got a standing ovation because it was really exciting.”