How do you communicate data in an interesting, meaningful way? Nancy Duarte is the founder of the Duarte firm, which helps leaders and companies create and deliver impactful presentations using storytelling structures. She’s also the author of multiple books, including Datastory: Explain Data and Inspire Action through Story. Discover the most important elements of a presentation, no matter its size, how data can actually slow us down, and how your confirmation biases and goals can shape how you interpret data.
Book: Datastory: Explain Data and Inspire Action
Bio: Nancy Duarte is a communication expert who has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine and on CNN. Her firm, Duarte, Inc., is the global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture, and has created more than a quarter of a million presentations. As a persuasion expert, she cracked the code for effectively incorporating story patterns into business communications and is also a Harvard Business Review contributor. She’s written five best-selling books of which four have won awards. Duarte, Inc., is the largest design firm in Silicon Valley, as well as one of the top woman-owned businesses in the area. Nancy has won several prestigious awards for communications, entrepreneurship, and her success as a female executive. On the list of top 250 Women in Leadership, Duarte ranks #67 and on World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals for 2017, Duarte ranks #1. She has been a speaker at a number of Fortune 500 companies, and counts many more among her firm’s clientele. She has spoken at numerous conferences and her TEDx talk has over two million views.
This transcript is unedited.
Peter: With us today is Nancy Duarte. She has written most recently the book data story, explain data and inspire action through story. Nancy runs her own firm, Duarte inc. She’s created some of the most important presentations in the world since 1988. She is a preeminent a storyteller in Silicon Valley. She, while I was writing the article that said, stop using PowerPoint because it’s getting in the way of your meetings. She was writing the articles that said, here’s how you should use PowerPoint so that it would be useful in your meetings. So it’s, you know, we actually both saw the same problem and, and sort of approached it differently and I think she’s done a really, really beautiful job and been very effective at at changing the story about how you tell a story. So I’m very happy to have her on the podcast. Nancy, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.
Nancy: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Peter: So you know, you’ve written books about presentations before you’ve, you’ve done a lot of prominent presentations for people. I’m going to try to get you to do one of my presentations at some point. And, and I’m curious like why you’re involved in any of this. Like what, what, what led you to get involved in presentations and making them more interesting?
Nancy: That’s funny. One of my employees says that presentations found me. I didn’t find them and I feel kinda the same way. So I actually got a C minus in speech communications in college and a D in English and now I write books in English about speech communication. So the irony is crazy. We started in 31 years ago and, and back then, I don’t know if, well you’re too young to know this, but people used to make bar charts and line charts out of electrical tape tape and an Exacto knife and rub on letters. Right. And it was really complicated. And so my husband had bought a little Mac, probably the only ones super poor, saved every penny, bought this little Mac. We had this tiny dumpy apartment and we were probably the only ones in a two mile radius that had one. And we just, I hit the phones and started to call local companies.
Nancy: We want a few big accounts, one of which was Apple. So we’ve had them as a client for 31 years. But what people don’t realize is Apple was the first company to hook up a computer to a projector. It before then we used 35 millimeter slides. And so best thing that happened to my business was in about 92 93 Apple had a big layoff. So all my customers kind of scattered like beautiful seeds across the Silicon Valley. Took us with them and then actually kind of the market niched us as a presentation company because we were actually a generalist design firm at the time. Yeah,
Peter: That’s amazing. I mean, there’s so much I like about story, but it’s like I was asked recently by someone who interviewing me about the like, you know, strategy of my career, like my career has been deeply unstrategic and highly opportunistic and, and it’s like, that’s it. Like you do this and this happens and, and you know, you do excellent work and you’re in the right place and the right things happen. So, so both of them were really great. So I, I have a real, like, you know, we’re gonna talk about the book in a second, but I have this real love, hate relationship with presentations because I think as when I don’t have a presentation up, when I have no PowerPoint or keynote, I use keynote when I have no pictures behind me, I’m in a very intimate conversation with an audience no matter what the size of the audience.
Peter: Like I could have. You’re talking to 5,000 people and I’m having this intimate conversation because there’s nothing between us and there’s nothing distracting us. I’m talking to them. And as soon as I have something up there and a lot of people misuse it anyway, but as soon as I have it up there, now I’ve lost the intimacy of that relationship is my experience. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that and like am I doing something wrong or what’s, or how do we maintain the intimacy when we’ve, when we’ve shifted the gaze and what your thoughts are.
Nancy: If I were to prioritize the things that are the most important in a presentation, in order, it would be content. And then how you deliver the content. And then the slides, like if, cause if you, if your slides went out, the power went out, you had nothing, you wouldn’t know your material. And a lot of people use slides as their teleprompter and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. So if you look at Cheryl Sandberg, she did a TEDx women talk and it’s really powerful. She has no slides. But when the camera pans around, you can see that the, the comfort monitor on the ground actually has a PowerPoint file with just bullets. So she, they probably turned her slides off, might be what she showed up with to present from. But you can see that she was using it properly in a way she had it as a teleprompter.
Nancy: Yeah, it’s your index cards, but there was nothing projected behind her. And one of the favorite talks we did was from a, a guy who is a star of a M a reality show. And what people didn’t know was that he had, he helps on a show with people with addiction problems, but people didn’t know he had had an addiction problem himself. And so he wanted us to help him with his talk. So we helped him write the talk, but it felt completely wrong to your point to have slides at all. So instead what we did is we designed the lighting to be almost like 24 hours in a day. So it started with morning light, got really, really dark and then it became morning light again. And it was all done with lighting and slides that I love that I know cause it like in the darkest moment, the whole audience was in darkness too and it was really powerful. So I’m not, I’m not like use, use keynote and use PowerPoint because it’s awesome. It’s like use it because it can help you or don’t use it at all. So I think people need to see what you’re saying. I think if you have an important model, I think if you’re showing how things are related to each other or you have a powerful picture and a motive anecdote, I think it works if you have a chart. I mean it works in, in a lot of circumstances and sometimes it just doesn’t.
Peter: Well, what do you think about turning on and off the presentation? Or is that too jarring for an audience? Like I’m going to, I have something I want you guys to see. I’m gonna turn it on and we’re gonna talk about this for a second. I’m gonna turn it off now. I’m gonna have a conversation with you and we’re not necessarily going to keep it up the whole time. Yeah, I could see where that could be distracting.
Nancy: Oh, there’s the key actually a little known key at least in PowerPoint and keynote where if you’re in slideshow mode you can hit the B key and your screen goes black or you can hit the w key and your screen goes white. The whole thing just goes away. You don’t even have to take it out of slideshow mode or anything. So you just hit a key and it goes away and I think it’s fine. I think you can use it. It actually would be probably the moment that they’ll always remember. We call that a star moment. It’s something they’ll always remember member that moment he turned the slides off and talked to us from his heart like that. You could actually use it to your advantage I think.
Peter: Right. So you’re, you’re a huge proponent of telling story, which, which I, I am a strong proponent of also. And data story is about telling stories with data. And so I’m wondering if you just like for a minute, just catch everybody up on like what your intent is with this book and what you’re hoping for it.
Nancy: Yeah. W we have a lot of data. Every role today is impacted with data and none of the data is going to be useful to any of us if we can’t communicate it. So when people are cruising through the data, one of two things happens. They found a problem or they identified an opportunity. So you cruise through the data. Once you have a problem or an opportunity, now you have a communication challenge because you have to communicate that challenge or opportunity to other people. And there hasn’t really been a book written about language and what language do you wrap around data and how do you structure it so you can turn that data into an action. And that was why I wrote the book.
Peter: I love it. So I, I tried to get a friend of mine who was my COO, I’ll tell say her first name, Emily, but who, she was my COO for many years and now she’s in a very data driven role in another organization and folks in revenue. And so I called her before this conversation and I said, Hey, be a calling, like we’re going to call you in and you could talk about your challenges around data and the kinds of stories we’re trying to tell and her answers. Thank you so much. That’s such a kind of invitation. Absolutely not. And, and I think by the way, that’s also like that’s also a little bit the, you know, people who love data are not always necessarily the same people who love to like be out in, on, on screen and in front of the room. And as I was having conversation with her, I said, and I want to ask you the same question that I talked with her as we were talking about story about data is there’s this, and she asked this question, which was really good question.
Peter: There’s a way in which you could look at you, you have a story to tell, and then you start from the story and then you go to the data to figure out how to use the data to tell the story. Or you could just look at the data and say, what is the story this data is telling? And I think the first one is Kent Kent is the way a lot of us approach it and can also be very, very dangerous, right? Because you could towards your numbers and they’ll confess to anything. And so if we start with the story we want to tell and then just find the data, that becomes a little bit of a less trustworthy story in my view because you’re not just approaching the data. So I’m wondering how you think about it and, and how you
Nancy: Yeah, we, I grappled with that because there’s a moment before you approached the data that you need guideposts. We were kind of hinting at is confirmation bias. Like, do I have a hunch and I’m just going to the data to confirm something or am I going to the data in it in its most pure sense, to really see what the data is saying. There is a moment of communication before a leader asks their data scientists to go into the data and so there’s another little short body of work we’re going to do around that around really what it is is is there a business problem you’re trying to solve? And one of the things I say in the book make very clear is once you’ve come up with a problem or opportunity and the data you need to be around skeptic, you need to try to prove it wrong.
Nancy: So the book isn’t necessarily in service of stand up on a stage and deliver data. Though the fourth section of the whole book is about standing and delivering the book, but the bulk of the book is about you found something, Oh my gosh, you found something in the data and you’re desperate to communicate it because the organization’s going to be impacted. And how do you frame it in a story that creates a great recommendation. So it’s supposed to speed up decision making. Cause I found this thing I need to communicate it up cause it’s very important and we need to be rapid at communicating it. I don’t, I think dashboards in a way or confirmation bias. I mean we’re looking at them all day long. We’re measuring KPIs. It’s constantly updating. We’re like, Oh I’m confirming, I’m doing well today. I’m confirming sales are up. Oh I’m confirming sales are down. It’s a low grade confirmation bias. But this, I’m talking about people who live in the data, who have a finding of an opportunity or a problem that they found. And so we kind of left that on the table with the assumption that I stated in the book is like we’re assuming you did your job and you’re not, you’re not dinking around with data and you’re, you’re using data as fact just cause this. Cause we knew that would be a point of contention for people.
Peter: You know, you bring up such an interesting point, which is, which I hadn’t really thought of. I’m, I’m, I, I’m a little suspect of goals in general for a number of different reasons. And I was just on, on in a podcast with Mark Efron who really, whose like goals, like it is all about big goals out there. And, and I, and I, I’m a little suspect of them and, and I realized like what you just said is, and I, I take his point also that is really good to know what you’re focusing on and where, and what you said is so interesting because it’s like there’s an insularity to the process when you’re engaged in a goal because you’ve set this goal and now you’re looking at the data about, now you’re focused on it and now you’re very, in some ways, even if it’s an externally focused goal, you’re internally focused on your externally focused goal.
Peter: And so you don’t see the things that are outside. You’re looking at the inception or something. Yeah, exactly. And you’re like looking for red cars so you don’t see the orange cars and the yellow cars, but you’re counting all the red cars and, and I guess, but you know, to bring it back to presentation when you’re presenting your, your managing to what the audience’s need is and you’re also directing the attention to the artist needs. So you’re saying cars and you’re putting cars up there and you’re showing them cars, which is how you keep the presentation coherent. And also, you know, there’s this danger and I’m wondering like, I just, I think it’s so interesting that you brought it up and I’m sort of curious of your perspective on it.
Nancy: Yeah. I mean it just like to lead a business we have to have indicators, right? But I think what’s, what’s happening is when we find these indicators, let’s say it is cars, let’s say it’s all red cars, but, but, but the audience cares about orange Cadillacs. Like that to me was a, a problem in the analysis of the data. Like if you’re doing the synthesis and the analysis of it and it’s in the best way you are considering a bigger idea, you’re considering the whole landscape. And so when, when when you, when we say that you need to have empathy for the audience, you should only really communicate what they need to hear and how they need to hear it. So how you shape the data, the words you wrap around the data, the speed in which you unveil the data, all those things are an act of empathy.
Nancy: The assumption going into that presentation. I’m not, I’m not the mortality police around data. I’m really the one that’s trying to say if you have a very important communication idea to communicate through the data, here’s how to shape it and here’s how to communicated. But there is a lot of moral dilemma and data. I can’t even tell you how often this comes up. Like every interview, it’s a bit, it’s almost as if people are, it’s almost like data’s starting to get reframed as a bad thing and not a good thing because people are so freaked out that the right data is the right data. That’s right then. And I’m actually starting with that as an assumption that you found the right data, you’ve used the right data, you’ve not entered it with bias.
Peter: Yeah, I think it’s, I, I think, I think you’re right. And I, I I think part of why, cause I’m a little bit of skeptical of data, although I think data is really important also. But I’m skeptical because I read so many books and I talked to so many people and everybody comes with the science backing up in the data, backing up their perspective. And there’s totally opposing perspectives. And it’s like, you know, we’re telling different stories with different pieces of data or sometimes the same data, but you realize, I can’t remember what writer, it might’ve been Kurt Vonnegut in one of his books, but there was a writer who, one of the characters said, how do you know [inaudible] talking about to an expressionist painter? And one of the characters asked the painter, how do you know? Like, you know, you look at these paintings, it just looks like finger painting.
Peter: Like how do I know that that painting is good and that painting is not? And the answer was, look at a million paintings. The next one you’ll know whether it’s good or not, right? And, and it’s, and, and there’s some truth to that. It’s like when you, so I think there’s some skepticism to data. And also I think right now we’re living in such a, you know, divided time where people where facts seem so fungible and when people just say things and, and it’s like, so we become S you know, skeptical because everybody is manipulating data to just [inaudible].
Nancy: I agree. And I think data is somewhat slowing us down and not speeding us up. I think we keep thinking, Oh if I just get the right data, I’ll make perfect decisions every time. And data is imperfect. I mean even my own exec team meeting, like we used to be able to talk and come to consensus and be like, okay let’s all have this direction and then someone will inevitably say, do you think we can get data to support this decision? And it’s just like, do I really need data? You know? And so I think it’s just kind of, I don’t know, it’s just kind of slowed us down and yeah we’ll never be able to make a perfect decision because data is only as accurate as it is. The very second it was generated two seconds later. The data’s not accurate anymore cause cause it’s collected over time. Past. Exactly.
Peter: I first of all, I think the book is a beautiful book. Like it’s, it’s presented really beautifully. Like as I was reading it. So again I read a lot of books and there’s a lot of books I could just read through and get the idea of. And, and here with data story I could, I could do that. And I also felt like, and I’m kind of curious, I want to check this with you cause Emily asked me should I get the book and I said absolutely, you should get the book. It will be really great for you. And I said the best way to use it is to already have data that you’re looking at and already have. Like in your mind, okay, I’m going to have to have a conversation about this or presented or et cetera and use it as a tool to creating the presentation as opposed to just reading it through to gain information about how to tell data stories. That was my experience. But I’m wondering if that’s off or if you want people reading it in a different way. And if you have some insight around that,
Nancy: Well, there’s, there’s two, there’s a few ways it’s being read. So almost all my books are like that. So one of the reasons I make them a little larger and squares so they can sit open on a desk. So it really is so that, Oh my gosh, I have a talk coming up, I’m going to grab this book off the shelf and prepare for it. So I do think reading it through as an option, what we’re finding is that users of data are buying it, but, but leaders of companies are buying it for their teams because the leaders in the companies are having a struggle with data because it’s not being teed up to them in a way that they process data. And so they’re buying it. So their team starts to communicate the way is instructed in the book. So it’s both. And then after people go through the book, then they’ll use it situationally and go to that page or to that section. So yeah, almost all my books are always used as reference books too after they read through them.
Peter: So. Okay. So one more thing. So I was thinking about this data question and presenting data and I’m thinking about my business. I was think about your business. You know, I, I, so my business, I don’t know how much you know about my business, but I, I’m, I’m an executive coach and I work on either large scale coaching projects or with senior level people in large companies. And if someone says, what is the impact you’ve made? Or what are the outcomes that you’ve achieved? There’s like a lot of different ways to do it, but it’s very hard for me to have a data-driven conversation about behavioral shifts. I mean, I could say, look, I worked with, this is a true, this is true. I worked with the CEO, we worked for six years, revenues were 250 million. We brought it up to a billion stock price went from, you know, $17 to $107 and 50 cents. And he would say our work together had a lot to do with it, but there’s a lot of variables that go into moving from one thing to another. And I’m curious as whether you use data in your own work and in terms of saying like, here’s why you should invest money in, in, in invest time, in creating stronger presentations and you make the case in the book itself. Though it’s not a data-driven case per se. And I’m just, I’m curious about that.
Nancy: I know, you know, the, the largest skills gap in the country is soft skills, which you’re taught, you know, leadership, communication, written and oral communication. So there was data that was done by Jeff Wiener, the CEO of LinkedIn where they have all the resumes and they have all the openings and they cross compare them. And by a mile, like millions of, I mean millions of ’em gaps in the resume were around communication and soft skills are from is like spoken word experts kind of like you. It’s like, well, I coached you twice a month and you change your behavior, but how do you measure it? And so when you, when your spoken word experts, it’s not like I can track eyeballs and clicks and calls to action and stuff like that. But we track things like one of our clients became voted the number one CEO in the world or became a number one most liked CEO on Glassdoor.
Nancy: And a lot of them come back to us and say, Hey that happened cause you taught us how to tell story or that happened, you know, kinda like you were right then. Then we have other things where one guy was like, I made 780 more million dollars and it was in like New York times because of door tastes, methodology or whatever. And those were always great too. But it’s really hard. So we’re building things like, you know, apps that rate. Now on my training side it’s easier because you can ask the learners like all my facilitators have to make 4.8 or above and R, you know, and then the referral rate is 9.9 out of 10 and it’s like, that’s measurable. But really his change measurable and his little tiny habits changing, measurable. And if I cracked the code on that cause we are trying to, I will let you know it’s hard to measure. It’s an a measurable right? But it’s some of the most valuable things we have like our culture, it’s in measurable and sometimes like a spoken word that set someone free. It’s a measurable, how do you measure that? Right. And it’s a good question.
Peter: Yeah. And, and, but, and, and it actually, you know, as you’re speaking, it’s also making me think this is totally an offline conversation that we’ll have when we’re not on the podcast. But it would be interesting to think about a bunch of us getting together and going, Hey, there are these like, first of all, how do we think about this stuff? And then second of all, there’s like, if what we’re going for is, you know, helping this CEO move from a to B or to, you know, or, or the organization that and soft skills are the big gap. Then actually this is good to talk about on the podcast for a second because I think people should be doing this, getting together with different talents like saying okay let’s you and I and a couple of other people with go and actually you know, not, not really like queer eye, someone from a, from a personality perspective but kind of like kind of like maybe we, maybe this is going to be the Genesis of a TV show that you and I start and we bring in another couple of people and it’s, and it’s like make-overs it’s like executive.
Peter: Yeah. Executive make-overs restaurants from these different areas and instead of like shaving and clothing we’re looking at, you know like the spoken word and the presentation and derailers and things like that. It could be a fun thing. That’s awesome too that the split we sit up. So let’s definitely have that conversation. Like you know, after this we’ll have this conversation. I’m curious just to know some of the challenges that you’ve faced as you help hard facts, data-driven people bring that to sort of communicating with the spoken and presented word.
Nancy: Yeah. It’s interesting cause there’s a great graphic in the book that I made where there’s people, maybe that’s like your friend Emily who they’re in the data there in the data, they’re shaping it there or that shaping of it there. I’m finding the problems with the opportunities. There’s some people in that mode that want to flip the charge to someone else. They just want to like flip it over and be like above my pay grade. Good luck. I hope you see what I saw. I saw a mess there but I’m just going to flip the charts. They don’t want to be the one who create a point of view and it’s the moment that you decide, you know what, I’m going to take a stance on this because I think we need to go and have a conversation with Jimmy Bob sales because he’s screwing it up and no one’s getting their bonus this year.
Nancy: Like whatever. Right? There’s this moment where you take a point of view on the data and that’s a career threshold that a lot of people don’t want to cross. Cause then they have to take a stance on the data and decide what action needs to take because of this data. Data’s historical. But if we take action today, it could change Jimmy Bob’s number in the future. So you’re constantly thinking about that historical data. What can I do today to change the trajectory of that data in the future? That’s a communications problem, right? So you can go from an individual contributor and an analyst of the data to a trusted advisor because your point of view on the data, you kill it every time. You’re just killing it, killing it. I have a point of view, I’m killing it. Next thing you know, they’re going to ask you to get up in front of the all hands meeting and inspire others with the data that you have. So it’s like a career trajectory to go from an individual contributor to a trusted advisor and then eventually to a leader because your advice and your counsel around the data has been so strong and so true.
Peter: Right. So that’s great. And just to be clear, cause I know Emily will be listening to this podcast that, that she is definitely the trusted advisor, meaning she’s very sort of smart and insightful about what says she doesn’t want to get on the stage exactly like she’s G. But I love that you’ve, you’ve sort of set this track because like she’s there, she’s there as the trusted advisor, but not necessarily someone that wants to dazzle the audiences.
Nancy: Well there’s ways to dazzle through email, through like recorded conversation through. I mean there’s just so many ways that she, I’m sure Emily, I’m sure you’re dazzling.
Peter: She is. It’s true. She is. It’s so good. Okay. We’re, we’re gonna wrap up, but I’m just curious if there’s like anything I haven’t asked that you think would be important to share or that you want to share? That’s, you know, either related to or we totally missed the conversation.
Nancy: No, I would love, yeah, I think I would love to share, cause I think some people that are really analytical by nature might be freaked out by the word story. And when I say the word story, it’s not fiction or fairy tales or wives’ tales. It’s, it’s literally the construct of a story that you could use to shape your data. We can hook up FMRI machines to the human brain now and see what’s going on when a story’s being told. And it is the most powerful communication device, the sensing parts of the brains firing. While I’m telling a story, your brain is firing at the exact same time. So our brains synchronized. It’s just beautiful. The sensing parts of the brain. It also suspends the analytical, like the critical mind. It’s just powerful. And so what the book is really about is it’s not about lying or our fiction, it’s about using this very powerful device that our brain is very familiar with and just shaping the narrative around the data into a three act structure. So I just thought that might help anybody who’s freaking out that I’m asking him to, you know, tell lies or fiction with data cause that’s not what it’s really about at all.
Peter: Well and also I, you know, I’ve studied writing a bunch and I think you bring the essence of writing, you know, this three X structure and you know, there’s like a, a, you know, setting the stage and then conflict and resolution. Like I think you do it in a very, very simple and very clear way in the book. And so it’s very accessible to say how do I tell a good story? Thank you so much. The, the book is called data story. Explain data and inspire action through story. Nancy Duarte is who we have been speaking with. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.
Nancy: Thank you for having me. It was fun.