Visual Storytelling: Interview with Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte’s firm, Duarte Design, has created over a quarter of a million presentations for organizations and thought leaders around the world. She has culled this experience into a new book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, which illuminates the art and power of storytelling for creating change. In our interview, Nancy provides insights into effective storytelling and how stories can benefit learning.

Coach: We tend to think of the oral tradition as an ancient art. Why do you think an awareness and adoption of  the story is growing in popularity?

Nancy: Oral communication is the most effective tool to transform an audience. Throughout history, presenter-to-audience exchanges have rallied revolutions, spread innovation, and spawned movements. Yet in business communication we insert slides in the mix and it breaks, rendering the art form almost non-existent. Even though presentations are the currency of business activity most presentations are boring and ineffective.

If presentations are so bad, why are they scheduled? People inherently know that connecting in person can yield powerful outcomes. We crave human connection. There’s no greater way to connect with each other or to an idea than through story.

For many years there’s been no discipline or best practices regarding story. In the last decade or so, authors, trainers, and leaders have begun to capture best practices and develop disciplines and methodology around the form. Story has an almost otherworldly power to transform others and that power is just starting to reach momentum in business.

Coach: In your book Resonate, you state that an entire presentation can be structured as a story. Can you briefly explain what you mean?

Nancy: Story can be used two ways in a presentation—as a structural framework and as a moment of emotional appeal.  As a story framework, the structure should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. There needs to be two clear turning points: first when it transitions from beginning to middle and then from middle to end.

We call the first turning point a Call to Adventure, because you’re asking your audience to suspend their current position and join you on a journey toward your position. The second turning point is a Call to Action which should state what’s expected of the audience and should appeal to the doers, innovators, resourcers, and influencers in the audience.

The middle should structurally move back and forth between what is and what could be. This helps the audience see the transformation you’re asking them to take on—whether it’s a new belief or a new behavior.

Coach: Why should learning experience designers care about stories? How does it relate to learning?

Nancy: Stories are the oldest communication form and are proven to be easily recalled and repeated. If training material can be recalled and repeated, it’s most likely understood. Stories are a great container for memorable information. Relaying instructional content through metaphor and story helps the audience connect emotionally to the content being communicated. Instructional designers are on a steady quest to keep their audiences engaged and motivated, and storytelling is an effective strategy.

Coach: Your book emphasizes the principle of contrast. Can you explain how this applies to presenting?

Nancy: Contrast is the most important thing a presentation should have—especially an eLearning presentation—so you keep the attention of an audience. Humans love to process contrast. We’re conditioned to do so. Building in contrast will make a presentation interesting. You should contrast how your idea will make tomorrow better than today. Contrast how your idea is a better choice than the alternative ones. Contrast how your idea solves the problem on the table.

But today, many great ideas remain camouflaged. They remain hidden amongst visual clutter and lack of content or structural clarity. Incorporating contrast will help the audience quickly see your idea and know what to do about it.

Coach: What advice would you give to people who are new at using a storytelling model? What common mistakes can they avoid?

Nancy: Learning how to be comfortable as a storyteller takes practice. The most memorable stories are ones that reveal a flaw or a hardship of the protagonist. The most transformative stories are the ones told with personal conviction—these are your own personal stories.

If you choose to embrace storytelling, it requires that you be candid and vulnerable in front of peers, bosses, or customers. This can be hard. But story is also what will connect others deeply to your idea and to you.

So the tip here is that in competitive environments, we try to prove to others that we’re superior or that we’re qualified. Instead, embrace being human, telling personal stories of roadblocks and triumph. You’ll be understood more clearly and others will be endeared to you more loyally. Candid story only helps.

You can check out Nancy’s book, Resonate, on Amazon.

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  1. Mike McCurry says

    Hi Nancy,

    Just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed and appreciated your article.

    My company is trying to figure out how to train our Account Mgmt and Sales team how to do better presentations. I suspect that your book may become a resource for us.

    Any chance this book is going to ever be available electronically?

    Thanks again for the wonderful insights and information.


  2. Mary Bertun says

    If you get only one e-learning book in 2011, make it Resonate by Nancy Duarte. This guide has many good sections, but the step-by-step on how to turn information into stories is extremely useful.
    My copy’s already dog-eared!

  3. N says

    I heard about a great MOOC (free university online courses) entitled “The future of storytelling”, and I wanted to share the good news with everybody interested in storytelling.

    The MOOC will be about :
    – storytelling basics,
    – serial formats (on the TV, web and beyond),
    – storytelling in role-playing games,
    – interactive storytelling in video games,
    – transmedia storytelling,
    – alternate-reality gaming,
    – augmented reality and location-based storytelling,
    – the role of tools,
    – interfaces and information architectures in current storytelling.

    The course starts on October 25th, 2013 (so it’s time to share this news…)
    To discover the course and/or enrol, it’s at this URL :

    May be I’ll meet other readers of this blog in the MOOC?!


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