Episode 202 – Transforming Your Data And Story Into an Inspiring Message with Nancy Duarte

Steve Shallenberger: A quick message for you! We wanted to let you know that the Becoming Your Best 2020 Planner has arrived and as you’re starting to set your sights on having an extraordinary year in 2020, this planner will be a tremendous resource for you. We want to let you know that, particularly this year, there is a big-time discount for you! They’re here, they’re ready to ship, so if you would like to get yours on the way, just write to us at You’re going to love this planner! 


Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners! This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We’re so excited to have you with us, and we have a very special guest with us today. I’ve been looking forward to this podcast. She is the founder of Duarte Inc. – the largest creative firm in Silicon Valley, and one of the top women-owned businesses in the area. Duarte Inc. is a global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture, and they work with 200 of the Fortune 500 companies. Welcome, Nancy Duarte! 


Nancy Duarte: Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here! 


Steve Shallenberger: Same here. We’re excited! And I’ll just give our listeners a little background on Nancy and then we’ll turn to her and perhaps she can tell us about her story and things that have led to where she is today. Nancy is a communication expert, who has been featured in Forbes, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and CNN. She has also been a contributor to the Harvard Business Review. As a persuasion expert, she cracked the code for effectively incorporating story patterns into business communication. She’s written five best-selling books. Way to go, Nancy! 


Nancy Duarte: Thank you! 


Steve Shallenberger: She’s won a number of awards for that and on the list of the Top 250 Women In Leadership, Nancy ranked 67th; and on the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals for 2017, she was ranked number one! 


Nancy Duarte: That is a long bio! 


Steve Shallenberger: I was telling her before we started, how fun it is to have someone like her on this show today. She’s also spoken at numerous conferences; her TEDx talk has over 2 million reviews. She speaks at business schools and lectures at Stanford University a few times a year. Well, here we go, Nancy, shall we dive right into this? 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, I’m excited! 


Steve Shallenberger: Tell us about your background, Nancy, especially including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you, and maybe even ultimately led to where you’re at today.  


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, that’s a great question. I guess a whole bunch of little turning points make for a great adventure right? I got married really young, I got married at 18, so that was a big one, and it was awesome because I’m still madly in love with the man I married but, I think the one that might be more interesting to your audience is more business-related. What I did, I think one of the biggest turning points that happened in my career was one that was a massively counterintuitive move, when the .com crash was happening or bubble burst. So the economy was really poor in the Silicon Valley and the business contracted by about 25% overnight – and I guess you could say the data would say we were in a downturn or in a state of decay – and I did something that was really counterintuitive in that season. Jim Collins’s book “Good to Great” happened to come out in that same time frame and in it, he has a hedgehog concept. And the hedgehog concept says that if there’s one thing you could do in the world that you’re best in the world at, passionate about, and can be profitable, do just that one thing. So here was the season where the economy is constricting, and we had four services at the time – we did print, web, multimedia, and presentations – and I closed three out of four of those services and chose to focus just on presenting. That was the most fundamental turning point in our business, and it was also the one that was the most counterintuitive because if you think about an economy downturn, a lot of people add to their services, they don’t take away from them. And that took a lot of guts and commitment, and it was the best thing I ever did. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, that’s great! Let’s come back and talk about that, here, in a few minutes. Where were you raised? Tell us about that. Tell us about where you grew up. 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah. So, I grew up mostly in California. I went to junior high in a little small town in northern California, called Chico, but then I went away for high school and a year of college to Mississippi, and that’s when my love, my husband, Mark, came and got me from Mississippi and came back to California. So he and I actually met in junior high, which is crazy, but that’s kind of where I’m from. 


Steve Shallenberger: Wow, you mean Mark went and found you in Mississippi and took you back home? 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, he did. 


Steve Shallenberger: How fun! That’s great! Well, let’s get back to this big decision, your counterintuitive decision of really focusing on one area. Tell us about this area that you’ve been working on. 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, so we focused solely on presentations because we knew we were really, really good at it. I remember that in 1999, 2000, the default of most of the presentation tools created hideous slides as a default, they were just ugly – I don’t know if people really realize how much we’ve come along in the last 20 years there. So, I had a service business, we would write and produce really amazing talks for you and slides and stuff. And so, we focused just on that. Within eight years of that focus, I wrote my first book, “Slide:ology” – and I thought I just wrote a book, I put a book out there, and it did really well, and then the phone started to ring for training. And I thought, “Oh, we’re not a training business, but I’ll build one.” So now, we’ll either create your slides for you and your talk – we’ll work on your strategy, your story, your slides and coach you in your delivery. So whether we do it for you, or we could teach you to be really excellent at it yourself. So that’s our whole training business and that’s growing like crazy. So that’s been really fun. 


Steve Shallenberger: So what you did is you’ve scaled that business and really focused on and expand in that. What are the services that you provide to your customers? 


Nancy Duarte: So, on the services side, we will help write a communication strategy because to really drive change as a leader, you really have to think through it strategically – and we do that through story exercises – we will help you write your content, and we will, like I said, build your slides and your delivery. So we work with execs, get them ready for the stage, help them with their thought leadership platform, really make them stand out amongst other CEOs, as smart thought leaders. And then, we also work with brands. So we work a lot with brand communications, we help a lot with events – really large staged events that are just stunning – but we also make brilliant sales enablement packages, work on corporate overviews, lots of marketing materials, because a lot of that’s done in presentation software tools now. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, I’m just going to stay on the business side a few more minutes, then I’d like to go back and really talk about, specifically, how you do this. It sounds like you’re really doing great. Congratulations! I mean, that’s awesome! Ain’t that wonderful? 


Nancy Duarte: We have a lot of fun, yeah! I feel like what we do is just spectacular and fun. 


Steve Shallenberger: So, as you’ve been growing the business since that time, 1999 to 2000, and you really focused on presentations, you’ve probably learned a lot, would be my guess, may have had a setback or two. Do you want to talk about any of those? Of how you just kind of pivoted and learned to stay focused, to get positioned in a great place? 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah. It’s hard sometimes to stay focused because we get tempted by a lot. I think I have some of the brightest storytellers and the brightest visualizers, visual thinkers, and so, we get questions all the time, “Hey, can you make a great big brand identity? Can you do this huge video project?” And we have to say “no” a lot. And we try to be what we call, “generous experts”. That means if we do turn someone down, we either turn them to someone who can help them or we give them away something for free, because we need to feel good about telling someone “no” – and telling someone “no” is hard sometimes – so we try to be really clear on what we’ll take in. We just also had to make a scorecard, so even when we do think maybe some clients are a great fit, we have a way to filter ones out, because we’re just so busy and to stay focused, we have to be really focused and fierce about it. 


Steve Shallenberger: All right! Well, let’s talk about, specifically, some of the things that our listeners can learn from what you do, some advice that you have for them. How do you define a story in relation to communicating data? 


Nancy Duarte: I love that question! So even though we’re known for presentations, if you think about communicating data, that is a communication problem, and when I say the word “story”, I don’t mean fiction or fairy tales. I’m talking about the construct of a story, the three-act-story structure, that’s just so timeless and so powerful as a communication device. So, now that we can hook up fMRI machines to the brain, we can actually see what’s happening in the brain while the story is being told. While the story is being told, our brain does very specific brain activities. One of them is that, like, if I was telling you a story, right now, my brain and your brain would be firing in the exact same order and synchronize – they tick at the same time together. The other thing that happens is that all of the sensing parts of the brain light up, and there’s really no other medium that can do that. So, when communicating data, there’s a structure you could use, it’s a three-act-story structure. Our brain, like I was just saying, is wired to understand and comprehend the structure. So, if you have a new dig through your data, you found a problem or an opportunity in your data, you can actually frame your problem or opportunity you found in the data in a three-act-story structure. That way people will see it, they’ll understand it, and you’ll be able to make a decision about it quickly. So it’s a lot of framing it in the shape of a story, it actually makes it so clear it helps with decision-making. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay. And so, what’s act one, act two and act three? Can you give us an example? 


Nancy Duarte: The point of view is what you’re creating, you have to form a point of view about the data by finding out what is the problem and the opportunity that’s actually in the data. And then, the three-act-story structure is a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning of any great story establishes the protagonist or the hero as likable; the middle is the messy middle – in a movie or a story, this is where the boy loses the girl, is impaled by a monster, has to climb out of a ravine and still hit the soccer ball over the goal, whatever; and then, it usually ends, in western story structures – it has a happy ending – would be the third act. So, if you look at the three acts, what happens is, in the first act, you say, “Oh, this is the problem or the opportunity I found in the data.” The middle is the data that you want to see changed – you either want it to go up or go down – and then the ending is, “If we make these changes in the messy middle, the third act will have a happy ending, and if we take these actions, this is how we will fix this messy middle.” Basically, the middle is the number that you want to see changed because data is historical – how we behave today could change most future data. So the middle is, “This is what I found in the data and I want this particular data point to change.” And then, the third act is, “If we all go and do this action, this is how we will change the messy middle of the story.” So it is a much more articulate three acts than that. 


Steve Shallenberger: It helps you think about the data and what you want to accomplish and puts it into a process you can deal with. 


Nancy Duarte: Exactly! And it’s not formulaic. People that work in data, if you think about it, they’re kind of analytical, and they like structure, and they like constructs and they like ways, and for some, it’s not as natural to communicate in those analytical positions as it is for others. So it just gives them a nice construct to make sure it’s very clear what you’re saying in the data as an analyst or as a business owner, and then it’s just a super simple way to communicate really clearly what needs to be done about what you found. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay! And is this the process for transforming numbers into inspirational narratives to drive action and get results that you’ve just described? 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, so that’s kind of this three-act structure. I think the process of turning the numbers into narratives it’s also word choices. I think it’s kind of a different part of your brain that crunches numbers versus carefully crafts word choices. So, part of it is understanding that analyzing the numbers is very critical thinking, but wrapping words around the number is creative thinking. So they’re two different kinds of modalities, and you need to make sure you kind of understand that. Because if you approach how you craft the narrative around it, analytically, it’s just not going to be that interesting of a narrative. 


Steve Shallenberger: Well, I hope I can ask this next question, right. Regardless of whether it’s a multi-billion dollar company, or really a two or three employee company, anybody that’s trying to get their message out, has to struggle with this. How do I tell my story? How do I put it in words? What have you found the best way to do this? Storytelling techniques or ways to hone your message? What’s your advice to our listeners? Because that’s a hard one. How do you take this message with so much noise in the world and especially if you have a really great product and you’re trying to describe it correctly? 


Nancy Duarte: That’s a good question. So, one of the things you have to do when you’re describing your product is not make it all about your company and not make it all about you, but to make it all about whoever it is that’s using or buying the product, because really, your product should help someone else get unstuck. And that’s a storytelling principle, where so many times the company thinks they’re the hero of the story, and in reality, their customers are the hero of the story. Their customers are going along in their own life and suddenly, this product or service enters and helps them get unstuck or it becomes this useful tool that they needed. And sometimes we forget to flip the narrative, and when we talk about a product, it’s like, “Our product has these features, and our product is awesome!” – it’s not really about, “This product is going to change you and make your human flourishing amazing!” And so, that’s one thing about the product. 


Nancy Duarte: When you stand on a stage and communicate, I studied, for a long time, the greatest speeches of all times and I wanted to figure out what is it that they do – there’s like a rhythm and a cadence and this power and almost like an energy that comes off the stage and hits you in the face. And I thought, “What are they doing?” Because it felt like they’re using some sort of attributes of storytelling, maybe, that no one has ever seen. And they do – they create this rise and fall and then this rise and fall, and it’s this cathartic release. And so, my book “Resonate” covers how great communication is. And my TED Talk has a couple of million views now – it covers how you can use, from storytelling, that rise and fall that everyone loves about a great story and how you can apply it to your speeches and your talks, even your meetings. I can get my husband to do chores for me using this structure, it’s awesome. It’s like a story that helps you get influence and stuff. 


Steve Shallenberger: Don’t teach it to my wife! So, we’re talking about storytelling techniques. What are some really great storytelling techniques that help people do that – kind of create this crescendo and just blow people away? 


Nancy Duarte: Well, there are a few things. Like, if you’re talking about a formal presentation versus communicating data, which is completely different, I think every time you have a high-stakes talk – it could be an all-hands meeting, it could be a super important sales meeting – like, when it’s really high stakes, there’s this thing that we call, “a STAR moment”. And STAR is the acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. Like, if they were to be chattering around the water cooler afterward, what is it that you’d want to have repeated and keep going and take on a life of its own? And those moments have to be designed by you. I mean, maybe you say something stupid, and that’s the water cooler talk – hopefully you don’t – but, how do you design this moment is either a story or it’s an emotional image or a shocking statistic or there’s a handful of ways you can create this moment – it could be a demonstration that blows people’s minds. But it’s something they’ll always talk about or something they’ll always remember at the end, and I think that’s important. 


Nancy Duarte: Another thing that’s really important is how you end it. How do you end your talk? And one of the things I discovered in the speeches I wrote, is they all end with what I named, “The new bliss”. They all paint a picture of what the future is going to look like with this idea adopted, what the future is going to look like. Like, Dr. King, even Nehru, and Gandhi and very famous people, they paint a picture of, “This is what the world is going to look like in the future if we’re free.” Or Steve Jobs – “This is how I’m going to give you revolutionary new products in the future.” And that was Steve Jobs’ new bliss – “I’m going to continue to get you new revolutionary products.” So they all end with this promise that the future is going to be different and they paint that picture very clearly at the end. 


Steve Shallenberger: Lovely! Those were great thoughts! I love it! STAR – Something They’ll Always Remember. Good! And then, you design the moment and then finish with the promise of the future – if they do X, this is what they can expect. Great advice! Let’s switch that around a little bit. What are some ways that award-winning brands communicate data? 


Nancy Duarte: Oh, I love this story! So, because I have this service business I kind of talked about in the beginning, we’re here in the Silicon Valley, and we have had the privilege, the humbling privilege of working with the highest performing brands in the world. So I’ve been at this for 31 years, which is ancient, there are so many younger people than me, today. But anyway, we’ve been doing this for a heck of a long time and what I did is I went into our archives, I took our seven highest-performing brands, the ones that performed the best on the stock exchange and as a brand. I pulled their data slides, I pulled out all the data from about 2000 slides that had data on them, and what I did is I looked at the type of chart they chose – obviously, I was looking at what were they trying to say? What chart did they choose? And what words did they choose to put on that slide to support that chart? And I looked at all the parts of speech – what were the nouns, what were the adverbs, what were the verbs, what were the adjectives – I literally geeked out, I had all these spreadsheets, tallied things. What was interesting is there were two findings there that I thought were the most profound. One of them is that when high performing brands are talking to a broad audience, they only use three types of charts. Even though these brands probably generate more data than any other brands in the world, when they’re communicating to a broad audience, they either use a pie, a bar or a line. So all these fancy business intelligence tools and chart making things, it was very interesting to me to see that when they really, really want to make it clear, they’re using a universal visual language of chart types, that everyone knows. That was interesting! I was disappointed because I thought, “Oh, I know! Oh my God, I’m going to be the first person to come up with this crazy chart chooser that it’s going to blow the minds of everyone.” No, that didn’t happen, and I was actually disappointed initially, like, “What the heck? Why are they only using three?” And then I thought, “Wow, that’s actually kind of profound in its own simple way.” 


Nancy Duarte: And then, the other thing I found that was fascinating was the word choices, and specifically the verbs. What was the verb or the action that they associated with a chart? Because that means, “Hey, this data happened, therefore, let’s do this ‘verb’ because of the data.” And verbs are important because that’s the activity that you’re asking people to do because of the data, and that was fun! So I captured and tallied all the verbs, and then looked at them, and I originally sorted them into four categories, but then, one of my brilliant content people was like, “Oh my gosh, Nancy, you could simplify this down to two.” And there were two types of verbs there. One type of verb was a performance verb – which is almost like a KPI, it’s a big, strategic verb – and the others were process verbs – and those are the actions that you do in service of making a KPI happen. And so, that was fascinating! And there’s a whole page in my book about verbs and how they kind of tuck under each other and how you use them in association with data. That was fun. Because I am a pattern finder, I like finding patterns, I like uncovering insights maybe other people hadn’t seen, so that was really, really fun! And I had a really good time! 


Steve Shallenberger: That is fun, isn’t it? When you can dig into the stuff like that and come out and you have these a-ha moments, saying, “Yeah, this is something that makes a difference!” 


Nancy Duarte: Yeah, it really does! 


Steve Shallenberger: Which book is that one in? 


Nancy Duarte: That’s in “DataStory“. That’s the premise, practically, of the whole book. That’s the one that just launched in September. 


Steve Shallenberger: Good! Well, we wish you well with that! 


Nancy Duarte: Thank you! Thank you very much! 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay! Well, I’m always amazed by how fast time flies in this podcast. So, before we end the day, this has been so interesting, so many juicy tidbits here that we can use and kind of warm things up. What final tips could you leave with our listeners, that you think would be most important for them? 


Nancy Duarte: I think I’ll stay within that data category, and that would be that there’s this moment in every career, like, if someone listening to this has a job where your role is primarily data, there’s a decision you could make that will be a real career-maker, and that is to work on your communication skills. That’s like a career threshold thing, like, you may always stay an individual contributor if you don’t learn to be a communicator. This book was written for them, and what happens is when you add communication skills to your data skills, you wind up moving from an individual contributor to a trusted advisor. And becoming a trusted advisor is like the gateway drug to becoming a leader. And so, if you have dreams of becoming a leader, learning how to communicate data is a critical, critical skill that you need to add to your tool belt. 


Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I love it! And I’ll bet your book helps! 


Nancy Duarte: It does! That’s why I wrote it. So, all of us geeks out there can become stronger communicators. 


Steve Shallenberger: Tell us the inspiration of why you wrote the book. 


Nancy Duarte: I have this training business, and we had a lot of people saying, “Oh, I love that you’ve taught me how to do an all-hands meeting or staged to talk, but can you help me with this really complex data?” So, scientists, engineers, project managers, data analysts, and they’re like, “We don’t stand and deliver but we love story!” And so, our workshops covered part of what they did, but they really wanted a way to explain data. And so, it’s really hit a nerve. The book is doing really well, I’m super pleased! 


Steve Shallenberger: That’s so good! Well, Nancy, how can people find out about what you’re doing? 


Nancy Duarte: Our website is I’m up on Twitter @Nancy Duarte and also @Duarte. I connect to people who connect me on LinkedIn and that’s about it. 


Steve Shallenberger: Okay, that’s a good lead, great information. Thank you, Nancy, for being part of this show today! 


Nancy Duarte: Thank you so much for having me, thank a ton! 


Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, you bet! It’s been a delight, it’s been really productive and useful, and we wish you the best as you’re out there, making a difference all over the world! 


Nancy Duarte: Thanks a ton! I appreciate it! 


Steve Shallenberger: And to all of our listeners, you’re doing exactly the same thing! Wherever you are, you’re learning, you’re growing, you wouldn’t be on this podcast listening today, if you didn’t want to do that, if you didn’t want to learn new ways and get new ideas and find ways to improve. That’s the very heart of Becoming Your Best – it’s learning, it’s gaining new insights, taking that and adding your creativity to it, and what happens in the process and especially as we treat other people extraordinarily well, you make a huge difference! So it’s an honor to be able to be on this podcast with you, our listeners today! This is Steve Shallenberger, with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, wishing you a great day! 



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