Career & Success

It’s Not About You: Why Effective Communicators Put Others First

In this episode, Nancy Duarte explains why the audience is the real hero of your presentation.

March 21, 2023

It’s easy to feel like the star of the show when giving a presentation. But according to communication guru Nancy Duarte, you’re not the hero of this story.

For Duarte, founder and CEO of world-renowned communication consulting firm Duarte Inc, effective communication is built on the foundation of empathy, which means considering your audience first and foremost. “All the attention is on us. But in reality, the audience is the one,” she says. “If they don’t leave with your idea adopted, your idea is going to die.”

How can presenters use empathy to put their audience at center stage? As Duarte discusses with host Matt Abrahams in this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, it’s about seeking to understand before you start speaking.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: The stories we tell, the presentations we deliver, and the slides we share serve to help us get our thoughts and feelings across to others. The success of these various types of communication comes from our ability to understand others’ needs. Today, we’ll talk about how empathy can make us better communicators. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

Today I am really looking forward to speaking with Nancy Duarte. Nancy is the Founder and CEO of Duarte, Inc., a world-renowned communication consulting firm. Nancy and her team have coached countless well-known companies including Apple and Salesforce. They were instrumental in helping to bring to life Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” which many claim is the most seen slide presentation ever. Nancy is the author of six must-read communication books, including “slide:ology,” “Resonate,” “Illuminate,” and “DataStory.”

Welcome, Nancy. I am super excited to talk to you.

Nancy Duarte: I’m happy to be here, too, Matt. I’m excited.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for being here. Let’s go ahead and get started. When it comes to communication coaching, you and I are of a similar vintage. We’ve both been at this for a long time. We can remember acetate slides and —

Nancy Duarte: [Laughs]

Matt Abrahams: — 35-millimeter projectors.

Nancy Duarte: Yup.

Matt Abrahams: I’m curious to get your thoughts on where we are today in terms of people’s expectations for communication in the channels that we use.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah, I think people don’t have patience anymore for a presentation now well done. We used to be able to get away with it because all the presentations were so bad.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Nancy Duarte: But now, people don’t want to spend their time if it’s not bringing value. So I spoke at South by Southwest. Someone tweeted I was interesting, and 50 people walked in the room. Well, that meant 50 people walked out of other rooms. So people just don’t have the patience for a presentation where it wasn’t rooted in empathy.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Nancy Duarte: And the other thing impacting a lot is virtual or blended —

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Nancy Duarte: — presenting. And —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: — you’re talking to technology instead of having eye contact. And it really takes a lot of work and physical control, almost like you do as a golfer, right, where you physically have to control how you’re showing up so that you come across as empathetic through the technology. Those are two really important things to work on.

Matt Abrahams: This notion of being interesting and capturing interest and being empathetic are really important. So many different channels for our communication. And we have to learn not just to structure our messages [laughs] but we have to learn how to interact with the technology. It makes it much harder. I remember just having to print out my slides and [laughs] put them on top of the projector —

Nancy Duarte: Oh, you’re an overhead transparency guy.

Matt Abrahams: That’s exactly right. I was back in the day. I know you believe storytelling is critical to successful communication. And you did some really impressive research into what makes for a compelling story. Can you share the insights you found and any best practices we can follow so we can craft more engaging and influential presentations?

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. I think at probably the root of every answer I’m going to share is empathy first.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: So thinking through sometimes as a presenter, we think we’re the hero, right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: We’re well lit. We’re up on a stage. All the attention’s on us. But in reality, the audience is the one —

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Nancy Duarte: — who if they don’t leave with your idea adopted, your idea is going to die. So you have to really have an empathy-first mindset. And then there’re some classic points from story that you could pick up around presenting, like most presentations don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end [laughs] —

Matt Abrahams: Right, right.

Nancy Duarte: — which is classic. My seminal work “Resonate” was when I dove way deeply into —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: — story. And in the process of researching stories, I had right beside me a book called “The Hundred Greatest Speeches of All Time.” And I knew that the greatest speeches had a rhythm and a cadence and there was a pulsing in them, and I wanted to figure out why. And I figured out that it’s kind of this rise and fall, this cathartic rise and fall that great storytelling has and that’s — to get that you would structure your talk to kind of have this push and pull between moving people away from what currently is toward what could be. And you use that as a structural device. It turns your talk into an influential talk if you’re trying to transform people.

Matt Abrahams: So you start from a place of it’s about the audience, so it’s audience centric. And then it’s really structure. And those who’ve listened in, I’m a huge fan of structure. And what I love about the work you did of taking people from what is to what could be and it’s not just once. You do it multiple times. And that’s what really drives interest and, as you said leads to influence.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. It brings that pulsing and that cadence and desire. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Can you share one or two speeches that many of us might have heard that do that well?

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. So when I thought I’d uncovered this structure or made this kind of discovery, I knew that it would be true if it applied to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Nancy Duarte: And in the business context, I took Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch speech. Since then, I’ve analyzed almost all hundred that are in the “Hundred Greatest Speeches of All Time.”

Matt Abrahams: Right. And what I like also beyond having that structure and using that as a guide, what’s so important is we have to look back at other presentations and learn from them. And I love that you discovered what you discovered by looking back because a lot of just, especially in academic research, were always looking forward. In the business world, the stories we tell often used slides to help support and reinforce what we’re saying. Your book “slide:ology” is seen as the definitive work on the craft, at least from my perspective. Can you share a few takeaways with us? How do you create compelling slides?

Nancy Duarte: I think to, when that was written, the presentation software apps made really fugly slides by default. I mean fugly [laughs].

Matt Abrahams: Yes, yes.

Nancy Duarte: So by default, everything was really pretty trashy. And so what it did is it explained what good design was. And my favorite quote was from John [Meta], who said, “Wow, it’s the first time someone’s actually made the business case for design.” Suddenly, when you read the book, you can kind of see why your slides are ugly and then kind of do something about it. So what it also does, it makes you step back and not think, oh, I have to lay a bunch of objects on a slide. It forces you to step back and conceptualize what might need to be said.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: So instead of like the classic handshake in front of a globe because I’m going to talk about partnerships —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: — it teaches you how to mine map the word partnership. And your partnership might be more like two peas in a pod, or it might be opposing savory things like salt and pepper. It might be Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire. What is your partnership like, and what’s a metaphor or a concept you can say about your partnership, that we get people closer to understanding what the partnership is, right? So this whole concept of needing to brainstorm out-of-the-box concepts so you show up unique, you show up different, you show up memorable. That’s kind of bigger than just slide making. And it kind of covers that whole gamut.

Matt Abrahams: One of the key takeaways from that book is, similar to what we’ve talked about before, slides are not for you as a presenter.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Slides are for the audience. And so the creative ways you’re talking about, thinking about concepts like partnership. I recently was doing something on collaboration, and I was Googling for images on collaboration. And I found so many hand shakings, high-fivings. Finally, all of a sudden, I got this peanut butter and jelly, catsup and mustard. And all of a sudden, I began to think differently about collaboration. So just getting people to think about slides being for their audience and not just a teleprompter or a tool.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. And do you need slides? Like I think when we update this book, which we’re working on and thinking through, like we had a multinational — leader of a multinational company come to us from India who was going to speak with the CEO of top five [brands] in the world —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: — I can just say that. He was like, “Okay, I’m going to go meet with the CEO. I need five slides.” And we’re like, “You’re going to be in the CEO’s office, asking for a hundred million. Put the computer away.”

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: And then we just rehearsed him sketching. So he jumped up to the whiteboard. He just grabbed a piece of paper. He just drew the concepts. And he walked away with the promised of a hundred million. And he had eye contact. He had empathy. The guy could see his passion. Otherwise, they would be sitting side by side, looking at a laptop and not have built the camaraderie and credibility that it takes to really convey a message.

Matt Abrahams: The fact that you, who are associated with beautiful, wonderful, impactful slides, saying maybe you don’t need slides is a lesson everybody needs to think about.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: You run a large organization that’s focused on communication. And I would imagine you and your employees have a high bar, high —

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — expectations for quality and clarity and your communication internally. What are some approaches you yourself use to better communicate with your employees? And what techniques do you suggest other leaders use in their internal communication?

Nancy Duarte: I love this question because people ask me all the time, “What’s the hardest presentation you’ve ever delivered?” It’s like —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: — every internal one I ever have to do because like I can get paid money to travel and speak, and people are like eating out of my hand. But when I stand up and speak to my employees, they know I’m going to ask them to change in some way. And also, as a presentation company, if I don’t have great slides, I don’t have a great narrative, and I don’t nail my delivery, it’s like [laughs] — oh my God, the expectations on me as the presentation lady are just off the charts. And so the call to action always usually involves — like most CEO’s don’t present unless there’s a call to action that’s asking them to change in some way. And so I have to have a great structure, great story. And one of the things that we’re really good at is doing listening tours. We do listening tours, we do surveys, and we have a culture club. And so I have multiple ways to tap in to the sentiment. I can test early messages about the change that we’re going to be going through. I can get really good feedback. We do an annual kickoff meeting every single year.

Nancy Duarte: We do it the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday because — it’s “I Have a Dream,” right? So we cast the dream and the vision for the next year during that week. So we nail the talk, which is usually 90 minutes. People get excited. But then we have what we call Shop Day that follows it.

Matt Abrahams: Hm.

Nancy Duarte: Now that we’re virtual, it spreads across a few days, like a few hours for a few days. And it’s to immerse them in the dream. How do I immerse them so they could see it through our eyes? And we found that when we deliver the talk and then immerse them in what it’s going to look like when this dream is realized it gives them fuel for the whole year to keep going, keep their head in the game. I mean, we keep doing the internal comms around it, but just that ability to declare a future and then immerse them in it really propels us really far and gets — get everyone aligned.

Matt Abrahams: The thing that strikes me most about what you just said is that you spend a lot of time thinking about your internal comms.

Nancy Duarte: Oh yes.

Matt Abrahams: And I think many leaders see it as a necessary evil —

Nancy Duarte: Oh no.

Matt Abrahams: — and something that they just spend — just gotta get it done —

Nancy Duarte: Uh-huh.

Matt Abrahams: — versus spending the thoughtful time.

Nancy Duarte: And we have a monthly meeting, too. And we carve out half of one of our three-hour-long execs to just work on the messaging for those meetings because they’re that — they’re just that important, [unintelligible].

Matt Abrahams: So taking the time, being —

Nancy Duarte: Oh yeah.

Matt Abrahams: — being thoughtful. I like how you focus group and listen.

Nancy Duarte: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: Tell me a little bit more about a culture club. That brings me back to my youth when —

Nancy Duarte: Yeah, right?

Matt Abrahams: — there was a band.

Nancy Duarte: I didn’t come up with the name. They named themselves that. So I heard Indra Nooyi speak at Sheryl Sandberg’s house. She used to invite all these women to her house. She said that out of all of the hundreds of thousands of Pepsi employees, there were about 40-50 of them that actually drove the culture, which was so interesting to me that they were actual drivers and ones that made the culture healthy and all of that. And that always struck me, which made me really proud of the fact that we have this committee. It’s a little volunteer army of my strong employees who are the ones that kind of know laterally across the whole organization how everyone’s doing. And they meet on their own. So what they do is they are the ones who design this immerse. So we say the vision, and then they immerse it. They come up with the concepts. They come up with the metaphors. They come up with the job aids, the activities. And yeah, they’re the ones who love and care enough about the company that they drive that whole thing.

Matt Abrahams: Cool practice.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: And I can see —

Nancy Duarte: It’s beautiful.

Matt Abrahams: — how that can really empower the employees but give you —

Nancy Duarte: Uh-huh.

Matt Abrahams: — insight into —

Nancy Duarte: It does.

Matt Abrahams: — what you should be thinking.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: That’s great.

Nancy Duarte: It does.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Nancy Duarte: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: Regardless of how well thought out your presentations are —

Nancy Duarte: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: — we often run into hesitation and resistance. How do you advise people to think about and address these audience concerns that can come up?

Nancy Duarte: The most important thing is to pull together what I call a skeptic committee.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Nancy Duarte: So you come up with people who are actual skeptics, if you have that kind of a healthy psychological safe culture, or you come up with people who can play a skeptic —

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Nancy Duarte: — and just come up with some of the most ridiculous things. And people actually think those. Like we think they’re ridiculous. But someone actually feels that way or thinks that way.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Nancy Duarte: And so we have people try to put out on the table every single way someone might resist every single way someone might be hurt, every single way someone might entrench. And then we put that into the presentation. Let’s say you’re going to present some data, but it’s kind of controversial. You have to say, I chose this dataset because X, Y, Z, M, L, N, O, P. I rejected this dataset because X, Y, Z, you know. And we need to be really honest and forthright about what we have chosen to reject and why. So it’s not all about pushing people towards something. You also have to get people to let go of some things —

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Nancy Duarte: — and let them — let go of this dataset or let go of this old norm that used to be in our culture, or let go of this customer, like whatever those things are. Sometimes moving forward is a lot about letting go.

Matt Abrahams: That’s a really powerful thought that a lot of us focus on pushing, pushing, pushing —

Nancy Duarte: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: — in the direction we want to go. And yet sometimes we would be better served to focus on the things holding us where we are.

Nancy Duarte: And sever those things. So that’s what “Illuminate” was a lot about. A lot of people forgot how hard it was for Steve Jobs to move people from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS 10. And literally, he was getting frustrated with the developer community. He literally had a coffin onstage with stained glass, played eerie music, and held a funeral for Mac OS 9 [laughs], right?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: It’s like let it go. It is —

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: — gone. Move on. And so there’s powerful things and ways you can communicate outside of a presentation —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: — like a ceremony. And that really worked.

Matt Abrahams: And the fact that you pull skeptics together and encourage —

Nancy Duarte: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: — people is helpful.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: This notion of opening up the insight through your culture committee through bringing skeptics together I think could be really helpful. I hear that you’re expanding your offerings to include trainings on listening. Can you talk more about the importance of listening in communication and highlight one or two key listening techniques we should all work on?

Nancy Duarte: We contend that building on active listening — this [is an] instead of that, yeah, make it really clear you’re listening and all of the active listening tools, that building on that is how you respond is part of listening. And even part of active listening says to withhold judgment. But what if the person talking to you wants you to judge their idea? Like what if that’s the very thing they’re seeking? So two gals on my team, [Megan] and [Nicole], did a couple of years of research, pretty deep research —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Nancy Duarte: — and have built an assessment where you could figure out what your default listening style is. So you have one of four default listening styles. We define empathy — oh look, empathy came up again —

Matt Abrahams: Yeah [laughs], yeah.

Nancy Duarte: — we define empathy as know yourself, understand others, and adapt yourself. So it’s a little bit more I can’t walk in your shoes if I don’t know what shoes I wear, [laughs] you know myself so that I can step into yours.

Matt Abrahams: And by the way, you have some really cool shoes on. Thank you.

Nancy Duarte: Oh yeah. I’ve got — my grandkids picked these out for me.

Matt Abrahams: [You’ve got] great —.

Nancy Duarte: So by understanding how you show up as a default, as a listener, and then I can assess you, can understand you and how you want me to listen, I need to adapt. So my default is to advance. Like I listen to advance. And a close second of mine is discern. Well, I do that because I’m a CEO. People are coming to me with questions all the time — discern-advance, discern-advance, advance-discern. And that’s just my modality all the time.

But there’s a lot of times my exec team doesn’t need that from me. One time I was away for like ten days on vacation, off the grid — which is really rare — came back; they were updating me. And they didn’t want me to jump in and say this-this-this. They wanted me to be — support them and say good job. They didn’t need me to do my default. So the acronym is SAID, S-A-I-D — Support, Advance, Immerse, or Discern. And those are the four types. And then you may want me to show up and immerse and not discern. So I need to understand the situation — look at you through a new lens. And then how I respond to you makes you feel like I listened, or it makes you feel I didn’t. It’s powerful. It’s changed me as a leader. It’s changed me as a mother. It changed my relationship with my children. It’s been really good for me, so —.

Matt Abrahams: Well, it sounds like it would be good for all of us, just —

Nancy Duarte: It would be.

Matt Abrahams: — taking the time to understand how we listen and how we need to adapt to connect with other people.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. And [unintelligible] — I mean, it’s [only] research based.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Nancy Duarte: It grows sales. It helps employee engagement. All the things that people are hurting right now, like really hurting on, it holds the key. So it’s exciting.

Matt Abrahams: The more and more I do the work I do, the more and more I do this podcast, the more and more listening becomes a critical element. I’m really curious to getting your answers on the three questions I ask everybody who joins me. Are you up for that?

Nancy Duarte: Yeah [laughs].

Matt Abrahams: All right. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that be?

Nancy Duarte: [Laughs] So it doesn’t mean I necessarily have a mastery of this title, but I would say it is seek first to understand, and then speak.

Matt Abrahams: Seek first to understand, and then speak. So that’s all about empathy. But the seeking part seems to me to be even more active than just say be empathetic, but seek to understand.

Nancy Duarte: Like I think I’m working on staying curious and staying really curious and not showing up thinking I know. And so that’s why it’s seeking to understand.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really powerful. And I agree, it’s much more active. And the fact that you have to be curious first. Question number two, and this I’m going to be really fascinated because you have worked with just some amazing communicators.

Nancy Duarte: [Laughs] Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?

Nancy Duarte: My favorite communicator on the planet is Scott Harrison. He is the CEO of charity: water. And he started this nonprofit years ago. He’s like a clubster in New York, has an existential moment when he was on the Mercy Ship seeing small children drink filthy water. What he does, his use of story and how he communicates and how he reveals information over time is unprecedented. He just weaves it. So he’s got the master structure and can weave story in so elegantly. And he tells personal stories. Like one of my favorite moments was when he had been doing it for ten years, and he was even getting numb. You know, you can go to TED and these conferences. And eventually, it’s like you just have to get to a place where it rolls off your back. So he had kind of lost his own like fire — he felt his own fire —. So he went out and sought out a story. He traveled back to Africa because he’d always heard this rumor of a story that was really tragic about this gal seeking out water. And he went and found that story and re kind of gulped that story in again. And it gave him the emotional energy to keep going.

Matt Abrahams: Sounds like wonderful work he’s doing and wonderful storytelling.

Nancy Duarte: Yeah. Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: And he’s keeping himself immersed in it. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Nancy Duarte: Well, you probably would guess, the first one’s empathy.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Nancy Duarte: [Laughs] And incorporate story. Story framework, story structure, and stories into it, like plant little stories throughout. And then also your delivery. So how you come across, it either diminishes your credibility or amplifies your credibility. And so just make sure that you’re coming across the way the audience wants it. Now when I say delivery, I don’t just mean stand and deliver and eye contact. And maybe the best thing you could have done is send a slide doc, a presentation to read ahead, and they don’t even need to meet. Like delivery is expansive. It could be a video. It [could be send] a video. So it’s delivery also kind of means the medium and not just your body language and stuff like that.

Matt Abrahams: Mm. So empathy and listening, story and structure, and delivery and really thinking about the medium of the message. Very, very helpful. Well, Nancy, this whole thing was helpful. And I really appreciate you taking time and sharing with us how we can all be more empathetic, curious, and powerful communicators. Thank you.

Nancy Duarte: Oh, it was fun to be here, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Michael Reilly, and me, Matt Abrahams. For more information and episodes, visit Or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @Stanford.GSB.

[End of recorded material]

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More