27 September 2010

The Zen of Presentations, Part 35: Another presentation book you must own

Almost two years ago, I gushed over Nancy Duarte’s book, Slide:ology. She has now written her first book, Resonate.

Yes, you read right. Her second book came out two years ago. Sort of like how the first Star Wars movies came out a couple of decades after the later films.

Duarte describes Resonate as the prequel to Slide:ology. And she’s right. Resonate is the one to read first, because it is about the reason for giving a presentation: to change people’s minds, to persuade, to take action. In contrast, Slide:ology is more about design of visuals: the things that you work on once you’ve know what you want to talk about.

At the core of Resonate is her thesis that all good presentations have a common structure. Great presentations start with “the way it is.” Then, they make repeated contrasts between “the way it is” and “the way it could be.” Finally, great presentations end with a call to action, and a promise that new, greater things are possible.

It’s simple, but don’t dare think for a second that it’s stupid. Scientists will probably appreciate the repeated analysis that Duarte has done to show that this structure is variable and rich. It’s similar to how stories can follow the same basic plot structure, but differ profoundly in almost every other way.

Another unexpected inversion is in how Duarte conceives of the importance of story. She has something more in mind than anecdotes or telling a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The presenter’s role is not to be someone like Sherlock Holmes, who unravels the plot and explains it to Inspector Lestrade (the audience). If I may jump genres...

The presenter’s role is to be Ben Kenobi. *

It takes a little while to get used to this view. At first, it’s somewhat paradoxical to think of the person given a presentation as a supporting character. After all, this sort of character is not usually the most popular one in the movie. Everyone wants to be the central character. You are not.

These short summaries do not to the justice to the richness of these concepts, and there are many more besides. She talks at length about her work process for developing presentations, and how to persuade people (taking some cues from Randy Olson along the way), for instance.

Duarte has again written a deep book. Wonderful.

Related pages

Book website

* Duarte herself uses a different example from the Star Wars series, but I think Ben is a little closer to the part of the presenter than the example she uses.

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