Nancy Duarte

August 09, 2011

In 1988, Mark Duarte quit college and started a one-man desktop publishing business in Silicon Valley. Although Duarte was a talented designer, his wife Nancy was skeptical. With a second child on the way, the income seemed fragile. "I was not a happy girl," she remembers. "I belittled the idea and told him he needed to get a real job."

But Mark persisted, telling her that he had a vision for building the business into a great success. So Nancy gave him an ultimatum. "I said, 'Look, if I can sell your service -- you can keep the business.'"

Things happened fast. "One afternoon I made three phone calls and landed three very large accounts," she recalls. One was Apple, which is still a loyal customer. "That was when I recognized that Mark had a really good idea." So she joined her husband in 1990.

Through 1999, Duarte did Web and print design in addition to slides for presentations. Nancy remembers that Web and print work declined during the crash, but the phone kept ringing for presentations. "No agency or design firm wanted presentation work," she says. "They didn't consider it a real design medium."

Around the same time, Nancy read Jim Collins' book, Good to Great. "It says that if there's one thing you can be passionate about, and be the best in the world at, that's what you should do. So we decided to completely focus on presentations and treat it as our number one passion. When you're a scrappy and hungry entrepreneur, the best thing you can do is pick up work nobody else wants."

As Nancy marketed the firm and spoke with clients, she soon developed her own vision for filling this untapped niche. Nancy helped clients conceptualize their slide presentations and transform them into compelling, cinematic experiences.

Nancy's connection with Apple led her to work with Al Gore on the visual elements that would eventually become the 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth. "My team scanned his slides from the 'Seventies," she recalls. "We helped him turn it into a media rich experience."

In 2007, Nancy attended UCLA Anderson's Management Development for Entrepreneurs (MDE) Program. "I was sponsored by my biggest client - Cisco," she says. Although Duarte was already successful, the program complemented Nancy's experience with formal training and provided an opportunity to develop a longterm business improvement plan (BIP).

"I loved the program," she says. "It was really great to get away from the company and spend some intensive time thinking about the future. My BIP was very out of the box and I feel like we've been fulfilling it. My business plans are usually for 18 months -- but this was more like eight years out. It shifted my thinking in many ways and dramatically impacted how our organization is today. We were successful then, but I would say we are very successful now."

Nancy has since enrolled nine of her managers in the MDE Program. "It helps unify our language and the way we talk about our work," she explains. "So, once a manager reaches a certain level in the organization, we put them through the program as a way to say we value them. It helps create a standard methodology for us and encourages an entrepreneurial environment."

The year after attending the MDE Program, Nancy published her first book, Slide:ology. "What happened was, I hired someone to run the company. For the first time, I had a chance to look around -- and I found a great blog by Garr Reynolds called, Presentation Zen. I reached out to him and he said, 'I'm writing a book and I'll send you my outline. You need to write a book too and you can cover everything that's not in my book.'"

Reluctant at first, Nancy wrote her book, which described the art of visual storytelling. "I thought what was broken in business communication was the visual display of information," she explains. "You can get your MBA and no one is going to teach you how to display information visually. Yet the primary tool we use to communicate is PowerPoint."

The book opened a new door for Duarte. "I realized we've got some really pretty slides out there that are stupid," she says. "So I saw that the real problem was poor content."

Nancy spent two years studying speeches by iconic communicators like Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Jobs. And a pattern emerged. "I saw a story framework that uses contrast as a structural device," she says. "The primary form of contrast is the gap between what is and what could be. When a speaker constantly contrasts what is and what could be, the audience becomes allured by the possibility of what could be and migrates toward it. This is how great speakers align an audience with their ideas."

Nancy outlined the insight in a presentation at a TEDx Conference - saying that this technique can change the world. "Yes, it can change the world," she says. "Many people think they are not in a position to get their idea heard so it can make a difference. You may think you're just a nerd engineer in the bowels of a corporation. But you can still change the world. Many times, people embedded in corporations have important ideas. If they know how to articulate them, they can change the world."

This concept of transformative communication is described in Nancy's second book, Resonate. "What I wanted to do was come up with a heavily analytical methodology," she says, "It is analytical and effective. As it is being adopted, we get testimonials about lives and topics that have changed. We have really changed the world's perception of what a presentation can be."

So Duarte now has two types of presentation services. "We have what we call the Duarte Factory where we take your deck and make it look pretty. And we have Duarte Studio where we recraft your story, visualize it and turn it into a cinematic presentation." In addition, Duarte recently began offering training programs based on methodology in her two books.

The neglected market for presentations has been good to Duarte. The firm has created over a quarter of a million presentations and Nancy has worked with many of the world's leading brands and thought leaders. Many of the presentations are executive keynotes. Others are product launches and presentation systems. Nearly one hundred employees staff offices in Mountain View and Chico, California. While Nancy provides strategic direction, Mark Duarte continues to guide the firm he started in the areas of design, finance and information technology.

But, Nancy continues to look to the future. "You know I'm grappling with that right now," she says. "I can stay small and scarce - like Tiffany. Or I can go big and global. There are exciting opportunities in lots of directions. We're getting a lot of requests to create presentations for tablets. That's fascinating to me because it changes the atmosphere of a presentation and makes it more intimate. And there's a role for presentations in social media. I just want make sure we stay passionate about whatever we do."

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