Book review: Resonate — Present visual stories that transform audiences

This review originally ran in the Jan. 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences

By Nancy Duarte

Mark your calendars.

Say No to PowerPoint Week starts Feb. 7. It’s an annual nationwide event aimed at getting business types to deliver PowerPoint-free presentations.

Now, you may be asking why just a week? How about a month, a year or a permanent moratorium?

We can always dream. But for now, let’s make the best of what we’ve got and spend the week setting some ground rules for presenters.

Rule number one. Don’t be boring.

Rule number two. Don’t read your PowerPoint slides word for mind-numbing word. Give us a handout instead and talk with us instead.

Rule number three. Don’t throw up charts and graphs we can’t read and will never understand.

Rule number four. Resist the urge to tell us everything. Stick to the highlights.

And rule number five. Don’t start putting together your PowerPoint until you’re absolutely clear on the point and purpose of your presentation. Know exactly what you want us to do or think once you stop talking. You may even find that you don't need a PowerPoint.

If you break any of these rules, we reserve the right to completely ignore you without having to look like we’re paying attention.

And here’s one other rule. You’re not allowed to stand and deliver until you’ve read Nancy Duarte’s latest book.  What Duarte has to say will be good for your audience, good for the big idea you’re pitching and good for your career.

“Presentations are the currency of business activity because they are the most effective tool to transform an audience,” says Duarte. “Presentations create a catalyst for meaningful change by using human contact in a way that no other medium can. Yet many presentations are boring. Most are a dreadful failure of communication and the rest are simply not interesting.”

Get it right and you can transform audiences. “Movements are started, products are purchased, philosophies are adopted, subject matter is mastered – all with the help of presentations.”

There are no shortcuts to a great presentation. Be prepared to invest long hours thinking about, working on and finetuning your talk.  Audiences can easily and quickly tell when you’re unprepared. If you're not willing to make the effort, why should we?

Preparation starts by getting to know your audience. It’s not about folks tuning in to what you have to say. Instead, it’s all about tuning your message to your audience. What’s on their minds and in their hearts? What unites them? Incites them? What makes them laugh and cry? Know your audience and your big idea stands a better chance of resonating. “Your goal is to figure out what your audience cares about and link it to your idea.”

Don’t be bland and boring. “The enemy of persuasion is obscurity,” says Duarte. “Don’t blend in; instead clash with your environment. Stand out. Be uniquely different. That’s what will draw attention to your ideas.”

Go easy on the facts and stats and tell us a story instead. Structure your story to have a beginning, middle and end. Lead off with an opening that grabs our attention.  Move into a call for adventure where you contrast what is with what could be. And then wrap up with a call to action.  Tell us how to join the journey and play a part.

“Stories are the most powerful delivery tool for information, more powerful and enduring than any other art form,” says Duarte.

Whatever the story, know that you’re not the hero or the star of the show. Your audience is the hero. Put them in the centre of the action. Make it all about them. And make yourself the mentor. Or as Duarte puts it, the audience is Luke Skywalker and you’re Yoda.  

“Changing your stance from thinking you’re the hero to acknowledging your role as mentor will alter your viewpoint. You’ll come from a place of humility, the aide-de-camp to your audience.”

And drive home the big idea at the heart of your presentation by including something they’ll always remember or what Duarte calls a S.T.A.R. moment.  Aim for a profound and dramatic moment that keeps the conversation going long after your talk. Your S.T.A.R. moment can be a memorable hands-on dramatization, a a brilliant sound bite, an evocative visual, a great story or a shocking statistic.

Once you’ve done all this, think about how you can complement your talk with a few slides. Try very hard to stick to images, quotes and key words that reinforce your story. Always remember that we can't read your slides and listen to you at the same time. It's one or the other. So pick your spots.

There’s a whole lot more in Duarte’s book and it’s great insurance for avoiding death by PowerPoint.  “Passion for your idea should drive you to invest in its communication,” says Duarte. “If you can communicate an idea well, you have, within you, the power to change the world. So be flexible, be visionary and now go rewrite all the rules.”

Book review: All marketers tell stories by Seth Godin

This review was first published in the Dec. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

All Marketers Tell Stories By Seth Godin

Portfolio ($30)

The launch of Hamilton’s Innovation Factory tops my shortlist of local good news stories from 2010.

The Innovation Factory will do more than help entrepreneurs bring new ideas to the marketplace. It will also give Hamilton another great story to tell to aspiring entrepreneurs here at home, coast to coast and around the world.

The National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. put out a working paper last year showing that young companies, and especially start-ups, create the most jobs. So if we want more paycheques and prosperity for all Hamiltonians, we need more entrepreneurs to set up shop in Steeltown. And the Innovation Factory gives us a pretty cool story to tell aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking for a helping hand.

If you want to launch and grow your business, choose Hamilton, the start-up capital of Canada.

A great story is at the heart of all successful marketing, says bestselling author and marketing guru Seth Godin. “Marketing is about spreading ideas, and spreading ideas is the single most important output of our civilization.”

When you tell us a great story, we’re far more likely to pay attention, believe what you’re telling us and retell your story with friends and family. “Either you’re going to tell stories that spread, or you will become irrelevant,” says Godin.

We’re hardwired for storytelling. Stories make it easier for us to live in a complicated world where we’re too overwhelmed with data to drill down into all of the details.

“We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth, but it works, so we embrace it.”

We don’t buy facts. We buy the story. “The facts are irrelevant. In the short run, it doesn’t matter one bit whether something is actually better or faster or more efficient. What matters is what the consumer believes. It’s the story, not the good or service you actually sell, that pleases the consumer.”

According to Godin, great stories succeed because they capture the imagination of large or important audiences. All great stories are true because they’re consistent and authentic.

“Storytelling works when the story actually makes the product or service better,” says Godin.

Great stories make a bold and audacious promise and inspire trust. Great stories are subtle, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Great stories happen fast and engage us immediately. Great stories don’t appeal to logic and they’re rarely aimed at everyone.

“If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one,” warns Godin.

Great stories don’t contradict themselves and they agree with our personal worldview. Our worldview is built on our beliefs and biases and it’s the lens we use to look at every decision we’re asked to make.

The best stories don’t teach or tell us anything new, says Godin. The best stories agree with what we already believe and remind us how smart and right we are. None of us like to change our minds or admit that we’re wrong. “Don’t try to change someone’s worldview is the strategy smart marketers follow,” says Godin. “You don’t have enough time and you don’t have enough money. Instead, identify a population with a certain worldview, frame your story in terms of that worldview and you win.”

Godin says the best stories promise to fulfill the wishes of our worldview by offering a shortcut, a miracle, money, social success, safety, ego, fun, pleasure or belonging.

“The organizations that succeed realize that offering a remarkable product with a great story is more important and more profitable than doing what everyone else is doing just a bit better. Make up great stories. That is new motto. “If what you’re doing matters, really matters, then I hope you’ll take the time to tell a story. A story that resonates and a story that can become true.”

We’ve got a great story to tell here in Hamilton when it comes to helping entrepreneurs succeed. Here’s hoping we spend 2011 telling that story far and wide and close to home.

Book review: Do More Great Work

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 25.

Do More Great Work

By Michael Bungay Stanier

Workman Publishing Co ($14.95)

When coworkers suddenly start leaving to unexpectedly pursue other opportunities, playing it safe can seem like the smart bet.

So you stay well within your comfort zone. You make yourself busy and useful, sticking with productive work that’s familiar and predictable. Work where there’s little chance you’ll screw up. Work that you’ve done a thousand times before.

You settle for good work and take a pass on what author and senior partner in Toronto-based Box of Crayons Michael Bungay Stanier calls great work.

Great work takes a great deal of effort. Great work comes with a great deal of risk. Great work takes you to the outer edge of where you’re capable and competent, to a strange new world with a whole lot of uncertainty, self doubt and more than a little discomfort.

“The discomfort arises because the work is often new and challenging, and so there’s an element of risk and possible failure,” says Stanier. “It can be a time of uncertainty, groping forward when you’re not sure of where you’re heading. It can mean picking yourself up off the floor and carrying on after the unexpected has just slapped you around a bit.

“The very nature of doing more great work means there will be times when you stumble, times you lose the path, times when you’re hacking through the jungle.”

So during a time of budget hacking, pink slips and unplanned pursuits of new opportunities, forgoing great work in favour of good work might seem like the better, smarter and safer bet.

But it’s not. And here’s two compelling reasons why.

All of us want to make a difference. To do work that matters. Work that makes an impact and has a real purpose beyond just earning a paycheque. We want our work, and our lives, to count.

That’s what great work delivers.

Great work is engaging and energizing. It inspires, stretches and provokes. Great work is where you’ll develop new skills and build new strengths.

“Great work is the work that matters. It is a source of both deep comfort and engagement – often you feel as if you’re in the ‘flow zone’ where time stands still and you’re working at your best, effortlessly. The comfort comes from its connection, its sight line, to what is most meaningful to you – not only your core values, and beliefs, but also your aspirations and hopes for the impact you want to have on the world.”

Doing great work is your best safeguard against falling into a rut and getting pushed off to the sidelines or out the door altogether. Great work will make you a more valuable and valued employee. And most important of all, great work will make you a happier and better person.

Not only is doing great work great for you. It’s great for your employer.

“For organizations, great work drives strategic difference, innovation and longevity. Often it’s the kind of inventive work that pushes business forward, that leads to new products, more efficient systems and increased profits.”

To find the great work that’s right for you, Stanier offers up a series of 15 exercises. You’ll start by figuring out where you are right now in terms of your mix of good and great work and what great work is best for you.

“You don’t need a coach or a shrink or a consultant or a weekend retreat to figure out how to do more great work,” says Stanier, who was named Canadian Coach of the Year in 2006. “You just need a pen, some paper, and a little bit of time to get clear on what matters and to build your own plan to do it.”

We spend more than half of our lives at work. We owe it to ourselves, our families, our employers and our community to make sure we spend as much of that time doing great work that matters and makes a real difference.