Nancy Duarte is a communication expert who has been featured in Time Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and more. Her firm, Duarte, Inc., is the global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture. Nancy recently sat down with Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss how to get others to believe in your vision, and encourage your team to follow you anywhere.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.
Srini: Can you tell us about your background, and how it has led to the work you’re doing today?
Nancy: People think that I was born knowing I wanted to be a presentation specialist, but actually I feel like presentations found me. I was raised in an economically and emotionally starved environment, and I dropped out of college because it was too hard. I had gotten a D in English and a C- in speech communications—and I actually got an F in being able to connect with the audience. That failure, almost like proving to that teacher that I do know how to connect to an audience, is what sparked my body of work.
And two years ago, the university I dropped out of gave me their Entrepreneur of the Year award. It was like closure in my heart. Life isn’t all rosy, but I’ve always tried to take everything as a fresh challenge and a new thing to learn from and overcome.
Srini: That’s a perfect setup to get into your Torchbearer’s Toolkit. Let’s say that I wanted to take those concepts and apply them to discussing my book, Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best. If I were to translate that into a presentation, what would that look like?
Nancy: My book is about taking innovation and turning it into a movement. So let’s say you were trying to create a movement around something that’s unmistakable. We position the leader as a torchbearer, and you have travelers that need to make this journey with you. These are the people you need to lead en masse to believe that your book is true, and they’re going to go through a five-step process.
First, they need to understand the dream, which is like your moment of inspiration. Then they arrive at a moment of decision, and they’re going to make a leap. Then they have to fight—they have to be brave, maybe defend your work. And then they have to navigate when there’s this fog of war. They have to climb, which is the moment of endurance. And then they arrive, which is when you create a moment of reflection.
“It’s part of the human condition—we’re wired for rites of passage.”
There are these moments along the way where people need to hear speeches and stories, and be part of ceremonies that create symbols of meaning. Now this is the long game—sometimes you can go through all five phases in one day, but most of the time it [takes longer]. A lot of times an initiative is a year or two long.
Your travelers could be an audience, your employees, your customers—or in your case, your readership. As they read your book and start to go through these phases, they’re like, “I’ve got the dream!” Then they start to apply it, and that’s the leap—but it’s a fight. They might try it for two days and give up, so your job is to arm them with things that keep them brave as they try to apply your principles. When they start to feel like, “Making this come true is too hard—I just want to give up,” then it’s your job as a communicator to tell stories, give a speech, write a blog post—those things keep them in the fight. They help them endure as they try to put [your ideas] into practice, and it’s your job to make sure that they ultimately arrive transformed.
Srini: What’s really interesting to me is ceremonies and symbols. I’d love to hear how that applies to creating a movement.
Nancy: Some of the artifacts that we find from the earliest civilizations were used in rituals, so I was like, “Why don’t corporations intentionally have ceremonies?” It’s part of the human condition—we’re wired for rites of passage. Almost every religion and culture has some rite of passage—a Bar Mitzvah, a Quinceañera, a wedding. You show up single, you go through a ten-minute ceremony, and then you’re married. Part of creating movements is letting go of the past and embracing the future. A ceremony does that. It says, “We’re no longer this and now we’re that”—and it helps everyone acknowledge that transformation.
Now, if you do this in a corporate setting, you could really screw it up—it has to come from the hearts of the people. Some companies undergo a merger and acquisition, and they just take the name of the company off the building and throw it in a dumpster, and put the new company name up there. That’s bad. But with grace and honor, you could do a ceremony around pulling the old name off and putting the new one on.
“Everyone that leads should care enough about their team to consider their perspective, and communicate from there.”
One of the most interesting examples of this was when Steve Jobs was trying to get all the Apple developers to move from Mac OS 9 to OS 10. The developers were pretty entrenched and skeptical, but Jobs had a new dream of the future, where Mac OS 10 was the hub. In fact, there’s a speech he gave where he talked about Mac OS 10 being the hub, and what was fascinating is that the next decade of Apple products was foreshadowed in that speech. It’s a pretty big dream he had—but the developers were still complaining about not wanting to move from 9 to 10.
So he opened up Worldwide Developers Conference in 2002 with a mock funeral. Smoke came out from under the stage, stained glass went up on the slides, and a coffin raised up. Steve Jobs comes out with an oversized box of Mac OS 9, walks over to the coffin, puts it inside, closes the lid, puts a rose on top, and eulogizes Mac OS 9. That’s not a speech or a story—it was a ceremony.
It was a funny eulogy, which was good. It sent a clear message to the developers in the room that there was no going back, that OS 9 was dead. He never addressed Mac OS 9 again, ever. It was done.
Charity: Water is a nonprofit that’s steeped in storytelling. [Founder] Scott Harrison is such a good storyteller, and one of the ceremonies he did was a ceremony of empathy. In poor countries, women often have to walk eight hours a day—carrying a 35-pound jerrycan that’s usually used for diesel fuel—just to get water for their family. So at these fundraisers, Scott sets up a catwalk, and he has these jerrycans full of water, 35 pounds each, and he asks you to pick one up and walk 20 feet. Not for 8 hours, just for 20 feet. And what it does is make you go, “Oh my God, I see things from their perspective. I can’t do this.”
That is an immersive ceremony, almost like a baptism, where you dip under water and come out changed. Scott has created a ceremony in which you try to lift these cans, you become immersed in the lives of these women, and you’ll never be the same again. You catch his dream of clean drinking water for everybody in the world.
Some people are naturally better at this than others, but it’s a skill that can be taught. Everyone that leads should care enough about their team to consider their perspective, and communicate from there.