The Art of Persuasive Storytelling

The Art of Persuasive Storytelling
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"Your ability to shape your future depends on how well you communicate where you want to be when you get there. When ideas are communicated effectively, people follow and change." - Nancy Duarte

Did you know that you have the power to change the world? According to Nancy Duarte, communication expert, CEO of Duarte Design and self-proclaimed empathy architect, an idea that is communicated in a way that resonates with people has the power to change the world. Duarte, has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, LA Times and on CNN. Her firm, Duarte, Inc., has created more than a quarter of a million presentations for the world's most influential businesses, institutions, causes and authors.

Nancy Duarte (Twitter: @nancyduarte), CEO - Duarte Design

As a persuasion specialist, Nancy developed a unique methodology, which applies storytelling and visual thinking principles to business communications that shift audience beliefs and behaviors. Her latest book, The Harvard Business Review Guide to Persuasive Presentations, is currently HRB's most purchased guidebook.

Perhaps as a senior executive you are not out to change the world, but what about your organization? Who couldn't use help with communicating an idea more effectively? Durate says that presentations have the power to create change if they are communicated effectively and with empathy. Here is Duarte's expert advice for creating powerful, persuasive presentations that resonate and create change.

8 steps to delivering a persuasive presentation:

1. Start with "What is" and compare it to "What could be" - In her TED Talk, The secret structure of great talks, Duarte reveals her amazing discovery of the shape that all of the greatest speeches of all time follow.


The beginning of a great presentation starts with identifying "What is", the unappealing current status quo situation that the audience is in, and then takes them to "What could be", an appealing place where they want to go. You want the gap between what currently is and what could be to be as big as possible. The middle of the presentation moves back and forth between what is and what could be and is where you are trying to make the status quo seem unappealing in order to move the audience to your new idea. At the end of the presentation, you describe the new bliss. According to Duarte, following this structure "just works" and she uses it as an analysis tool.

Duarte warns that there will always be resistors, but says if you thoughtfully consider how people will resist and plant that into your talk, it will minimize the resistance. You need to really understand where they are at in your moment of communication, and let them know that. "Just call a spade a spade and it will draw people to your idea quicker," says Duarte.

2. Be audience-centric - Duarte says you need to know who you are talking to if you are going to hit them with something that resonates. It's important to take the time to think through who the audience is and develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You're asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true -- and that's hard. So, know your audience -- take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message? Most presenters are consumed with preparing their content rapidly, which makes the material about their own narrow perspective. By flipping that paradigm to an audience-centric approach, your material will resonate and the audience can feel a deeper connection to you and your material.

3. Understand the role of the presenter - When giving a presentation, so many people feel like they're the central figure -- kind of like the hero of the story -- because they're the one talking the most. But in reality the audience is the hero - they determine if your idea lives or dies. Your role is that of a mentor -- you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with -- if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, "The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker." Then you'll start to approach a material with your audience in mind - you'll have more of a stance of humility than one of arrogance. That will help you create the kind of movement needed to get your idea to spread.

4. Wrap your content in a story - People want to remain in the status quo and getting them to move forward is like a bitter pill. Storytelling serves like the sugarcoating on the outside of this bitter pill in some ways -- it just makes it go down easier. You need to make your audience feel that the goal can be reached and motivational stories help them to get there. If you look at preliterate generations for thousands and thousands of years, stories would pass down for generation after generation after generation -- and stay almost completely intact. Yet, a lot of people can't remember the last presentation they sat through. So, using principles of story -- the tension and release that happens in a story -- that's what will help persuade the audience toward your idea.

According to Duarte, a personal story told with conviction is better that any third person story you can tell. Storytelling requires you to reveal you are flawed. It's about change and it allows the audience to observe your transformation which takes them to a place where they are rooting for you to do it well. This special moment allows your audience to connect with you and with each other, so you need to make your transformation super clear.

Duarte feels that today's great storytellers and business communicators include Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, Marc Benioff, the CEO of and Scott Harrison of Charity Water, who Duarte calls one of the greatest story tellers ever.

5. Be authentic - Great communication is a mix of honestly, passion and empathy. Duarte says that while all leaders should understand empathy and storytelling, many organizations don't know how to implement it. It's the CMO's job to train the organization and create the need and desire for everyone to be a storyteller. "If you don't control the narrative of your own organization someone else will. Create and curate the stories that are already in your culture, they are already there, you just need to pluck them out and either redeem them of dismantle them," says Duarte.

For the more analytical roles in an organization, storytelling may not feel natural. Duarte says you need to stay genuine and be your true self, while appealing to a broader audience outside your peer group. To do this you need to really look at the language you are using, so that your audience does not get lost. Adding a thinner layer of emotional appeal is still important without risking coming off as disingenuous.

6. Visualize someone you love - Aside from the usual deep breathing exercises used to calm your heart down before delivering a presentation, Duarte's favorite piece of advice comes from Nick Morgan who said, "What you need to do right before you walk on stage is think of someone that you love dearly." Doing this changes the chemistry in your whole body. That feeling of affection in visualizing someone you love makes your body calm itself down - it's a physical phenomenon that Duarte says is a really great way to stop stage fright.

7. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse. Duarte learned the power of rehearsing as she prepared for her Ted Talk and she says that if you rehearse really, really, really well -- it looks improvisational. Knowing that if she did a good job, her Ted Talk could go viral - and with over a million views it did just that. Duarte practiced to the point where overtime her delivery became less studied and more natural. Of the 200 hours she spent preparing for the 18 minute presentation, 38 hours were spent rehearsing. The time spent paid off and she delivered the talk with 6 seconds to spare.

"Presentations are the most powerful device. You can't really name a movement that didn't start with the spoken word." - Nancy Duarte

Some people rehearse to a point where they're robotic, and they sound like they have memorized their presentation and didn't take it to the next level. The break through point of going from sounding memorized and canned to sounding natural and conversational is a lot of work and is where you need to spend the bulk of the work. "You need to pull it down from your head and to your heart. When you know it well enough, it comes from your heart and you say what you will say naturally and speak more intuitively because you are not trying to think of what you will say," says Duarte.

8. Use slides wisely - Duarte's parting advice for executives that have to prepare a PowerPoint presentation and want to do a great job is to use the slides carefully. According to Duarte, the enemy of a great presentation is putting too much stuff on a slide. The slides themselves are supposed to be a mnemonic device for the audience so they can remember what you had to say. They're not just a teleprompter for the speaker, they need to be able to travel without a presenter and be understood - something she addresses in her free e-book, Slidedocs.

To better understand the common structure of great presentations, I highly recommend that you watch Durarte's TEDTalk:

Her best advice is to not start in PowerPoint. Presentation tools force you to think through information linearly, and you really need to start by thinking of the whole instead of the individual lines. Duarte encourages people to use 3×5 note cards or sticky notes and write one idea per note. "I tape mine up on the wall and then study them. Then I arrange them and rearrange them -- just work and work until the structure feels sound. And from that sound structure, you start to fill it in using a presentation tool," she says.

You can watch the full interview with Nancy Duarte here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3PM EST as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.

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