Nancy Duarte’s resonate – a guide to presenting visual stories that transform audiences – is an exploration of the power of emotion as a tool for moving and motivating an audience. Duarte’s elegant blend of inspirational guidance and hard-truths makes for an informative read that presents a well balanced mix of case studies, personal anecdotes and original insight.
Whether resonate will help to improve your presentations will largely depend on whether or not you are willing to buy into its ‘touchy-feely’ approach to audience engagement. While Duarte’s enthusiasm is infectious, her guidance is based on her own unique style of presentation – a very personable, intimate approach – which will not sit comfortably with many readers, nor prove practicable in all circumstances.
Where Duarte shines, however, is in her ability to push people into a new and more productive mindset for creating engaging presentations. The advice offered is most effective in addressing how the audience and subject matter should be perceived, and how the presenter should orient him or herself to be the most effective communicator they can. This is where Duarte’s experience and insights come into their own.
Where the text falters somewhat is in its utility as an aid to creating better presentations. For while Duarte’s tone works well in establishing a character for the presentation, her expectation that in every case, you should elicit an emotional response from the audience is purely idealistic , and far from the robust, informative guidance that those who buy the book will presumably be looking for.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Resonate is the pre-cursor to slide:ology – Duarte’s successful book on visuals in presentation. Whereas the latter dealt with creating visually inspiring presentations, the former takes a step back and explores what necessarily need come before: approach, aims, content, structure and delivery. In this volume she tackles everything but the presentation.
The book is broken down into chapters that guide you through the stages required to choose your message, shape it, enhance it and edit it. Throughout the sections runs the main message of the book – what it means to resonate, why you should strive for it, how it has famously been done, and how you can do it yourself. Duarte’s conversational style makes for an easily-accessible text, and the book is littered – as you might expect – with beautiful graphic illustrations of the points in question. Both help the book fly by, without feeling as if you are getting bogged down in heavy theory or irrelevant anecdotes.
The book opens with the importance of story, how it is effective, why it is effective, and why it should be applied to presentations. Duarte then singles out elements within this concept such as drama, character, change and journey, and takes each one in turn, justifying how they can be brought into the presentation world. Some ideas are a natural fit: the idea of taking the audience on a journey from one state to another (more enlightened) state makes a lot of sense. Others – such as characterising the audience as the hero of the piece, one who must face drama and overcome – are a little over-egged. The idea of a story is concise and approachable, but I’m not sure it is applicable as a carbon copy, as Duarte would like.
The remaining chapters guide you loosely through a process to begin pulling together material for your presentation. Chapter headings such as ‘Define the Journey’ and sections like ‘Murder your Darlings’ give a good indication as to the tone of this guidance. Duarte outlines practices that have worked for her and her reasons why she believes this is, but fails to underscore the text with any empirical evidence. Much is based on anecdote; little on science. While you may argue that the aim of this book is to teach the art of invoking emotional responses – which do not lend themselves to scientific study – I would still feel more comfortable seeing the foundation on which these practices had been built.
Insert presentation here
The book’s trump card is Duarte’s ‘Presentation Form’ – a diagrammatic analysis of the requisite elements of a successful presentation or speech, which ‘maps the journey’ that a narrative should take in order to hit the right emotional beats, in the right order, at the right time. Key points are marked out that work as a checklist, and placeholders allow you to tailor the form to suit your topic.
The key to this form is an oscillation between the ‘what is’ (informative) and ‘what could be’ (aspirational). Your presentation should be structured to move between these ideas, ending on an aspirational close that encourages your audience to move forward or make a change. Underpinning these undulations is the idea that contrast between the two creates drama, triggering an emotional response, which leads to action.
Sceptics will view the ‘Presentation Form’ as nothing more than an elegant post-rationalisation – something that nicely (and conveniently) collects together successful elements from a range of sources, but is of little practical value as a tool. However, I do not think this is true.
Often in these cases, standard forms and prescriptive guides are written to be so generic that they are of limited use. Shoehorning in examples to widen the evidence base can lead to an over-simplification that greatly reduces the form’s applicability. Many a ‘Write your own screenplay’ book has fallen into this trap – enlightening their readership that only three ingredients are needed to create a cinematic masterpiece. Unhelpfully, these are usually a beginning, a middle and an end.
Duarte however, steers clear of this territory. Her framework is flexible yet specific, acting as a guide rather than a truly prescriptive form. It is structured just enough to be helpful; loose enough to be workable.
Twinkle, twinkle little S.T.A.R, how I wonder where you are
Each chapter of resonate follows a standard form – introducing the point in question, discussing the theory behind it and an example of its successful implementation from Duarte’s experience. In addition, each theory is evinced with a real-world example – often a famous speech that demonstrates the application of Duarte’s idea. Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Steve Jobs are each taken in turn, exploring speeches that – for one reason or another – represent a turning point in modern history. The author overlays her ‘Presentation Form’ as an analytical tool and neatly illustrates the commonality between many great speeches. The exercise is insightful and genuinely interesting.
Where the author veers off course is in her lack of follow-through. Aware that the book is a pre-cursor to slide:ology, and not expecting a hand-holding exercise through the whole presentation prep experience, I still felt a little short changed.
A good example is Duarte’s necessitating a S.T.A.R moment (Something They’ll Always Remember) – either a dramatic development or reveal to peak the audience’s interest. One such example given is Bill Gates releasing a swarm of mosquitoes into the audience of his 2009 TED talk on malaria. The impact of the moment cannot be denied, but the arena will be different for the vast majority of presentations. Not all subject matter lends itself to such a dramatic climax, and not all presenters can command the World’s media attention. After the importance that is laid on the S.T.A.R moment, and the reverence in which Duarte holds it, it is easy to imagine readers struggling to find such a moment in their material, and resorting to the release of dangerous insects into the room, simply to make an impact. This is not advised.
Elements of resonate – in particular the S.T.A.R moment theory and the drive towards an emotional shift in the audience – seem better suited to larger, high profile presentations. Much of Duarte’s guidance focuses on high-impact, dramatic presenting, which for the majority of presenters and meeting room agendas is out of reach. Although it does not affect the relevance of the text, it shifts the lessons in the book from something you could implement to something you should aspire to. Whether you feel this is a fault of the book depends entirely on why you chose to buy it. Those looking for a beginner’s guide to presenting or a cut-and-paste process should look elsewhere.
Happily ever after
In the opening sections, Duarte promises great things – not merely an intellectual education, but an emotional one. We are led to believe that our entire perspective will be shifted, our eyes opened; that we will learn to resonate with our audience. By the end of the first chapter it seems as if the entire universe is within our reach. And yet upon coming to the end, things do not feel complete.
Where we would expect the inspirational opening to be underlayed with a bedrock of direction and best practice, it is not. Aside from the excellent ‘Presentation Form’, Duarte does not provide enough solid structure to get us going. Her advice – excellent though it is – remains high level, conceptual and inspirational, without revealing to us the engine behind. In my experience, readers are more grateful of practicable processes that they can use rather than post hoc rationalisations that justify their work. I would have been more receptive had each chapter provided exercises to guide you in the process, to help craft your message in the resonate style.
In conclusion, resonate by Nancy Duarte is an excellent read to acquaint yourself with the way you should be presenting. It encourages you to develop a structure, provides guidance on the emotional pathway you should tread, and most importantly gets you to think through your message from the audience’s perspective. Though it may fall short on concrete exercises to put into practice, there is more than enough powerful theory and interesting analysis to justify a read. For me, the book does not do enough to move beyond the inspirational, but in terms of a place for a book to get stuck – inspirational isn’t half bad.
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