PRESENTATION

Great Speakers Are Like Yoda, Not Luke Skywalker

Author and Duarte Design CEO Nancy Duarte on the right way to use slides, how to cure stage fright, and taking lessons from 'Star Wars' for your next presentation.
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No matter how frustrated you are with your presentation--no matter how bad your slides currently seem--chances are that Duarte Design has seen worse. The 90-person company has worked on hundreds of thousands of presentations, for clients including Twitter, ESPN, and the Food Network.

Duarte is probably best-known for its work with Al Gore and the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth, transforming Gore’s passion and mounds of research into Oscar-winning storytelling. Inc. editor-at-large Kimberly Weisul spoke with author and Duarte Design CEO Nancy Duarte about presentation mistakes, investor pitches, and why speakers should think of themselves as Yoda.

Your company, Duarte Design, has worked on literally hundreds of thousands of presentations. What mistakes do you see over and over?

The biggest thing is that people don’t have enough empathy.

When you have an opportunity to present, you tend to start to processing information from your own perspective. Usually, it’s all about the information you want to give, instead of being about the information the audience wants to receive. You need to spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what the audience wants to receive. You need to really think through who you’re talking to, and how to make a deep connection with them. Then you need to create content that supports that.

Think: How do I want the audience to change? If they spend an hour with me, how do I want them transformed? Then everything you create needs to support that transformation in them.

How does a great presenter use slides? Most people know they shouldn’t read the slides, but what should you do with them instead?

There are two ways to use slides.

You can use slides as cinematic visual aids. The slides should be breathtaking and easy to process. They should pass what I call the glance test. It should take no more than three seconds to process a slide.

Or you can use slides to create your documents. I call these slide docs. That’s when you have your whole presentation--almost like a script--in your slides.

If your PowerPoint makes sense on its own, without anyone presenting the slides, you’ve created a slide doc.

Sometimes sending a slide doc ahead as a pre-read and then doing a glorious presentation is the way to go.

How do you handle a pitch to an investor? Is that a "real" presentation, or are you writing a slide doc?

If an investor is interested, he’s going to ask you to send five slides. In that case, you’re asking your slides to be your emissary--the emissary that opens the door. Pack as much information as you can on those slides.

Then when you get in the door and get asked in for a meeting, instead of preparing 30 minutes of content, you need to do 10 minutes or 15 minutes, tops. Then let the investor take over. To do a 10 or 15 minute talk well takes an enormous amount of time.

You can put your entire script in the "notes" view in PowerPoint. You can do a nice big layout and make it almost like a brochure. Then it can travel without you. That goes along with the slides you’ll show the VCs, but it's not projected. Print it out. When you present to the VC, hand out the "notes" section right away. Say "Here’s a handout where we can dig into the numbers." Then do your presentation, and use the handout for the question and answer part.

Are there times when you should just ditch the slides entirely?

Sheryl Sandberg did a great talk at TED Women, but she had no slides.

She didn’t need slides. The subject matter was very personal to her. She had plenty of stories. The words that came out of her mouth were visual. She’s beautiful, and that helps. She’s articulate. She’s riveting. It’s not like she had to display a piece of data. It made it feel like you were sitting in her living room having a conversation with her.

One of my favorite lines from your TED talk is, "You’re not Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda." Could you explain that a bit?

Think about movies and myths. There’s often a likeable hero who encounters obstacles and, in overcoming them, is transformed. That’s Luke Skywalker. When you're presenting, that's not you.

People go up on stage and set themselves up as if they’re the hero. The attitude is, "I'm going to give you this information and it’s going to help you." Or, "I’m going to give you this information and you're going to admire me." That’s an arrogant stance.

In movies and myths, there’s also often the mentor, who comes alongside the hero to help them get unstuck or give them a magical tool. That’s Yoda. When you're presenting, that’s you. If you look at it that way, suddenly you’re more humble.

The presenter's success is completely dependent on the audience adopting the idea. The presenter is not the protagonist. You need to take that and respect that. The audience has the power to take your idea and spread it far and wide. Or it can die.

Do you get nervous when you go on stage?

I do when I’m doing new material that I only feel kind of rehearsed for. And I get nervous if the audience astounds me. I had Deepak Chopra and James Cameron in an audience at the same time. That’s kind of intimidating. They were very kind.

How do you handle your nerves?

The best tip I have comes from [speaking coach and author] Nick Morgan. When you’re about to go on stage, sometimes your fight or flight reaction kicks in. You think you’re being threatened. What you need to do is flip the chemistry back. So when you’re backstage, think about someone you love that you haven’t seen for a long, long, time, and convince yourself you’re going to see that person when you go out onstage.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Apr 17, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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