Ten Questions with Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte has a new book coming out in 2008, and you can be sure it will be innovative. Nancy and her husband Mark run Duarte Design in Silicon Valley, and are more than on the cutting edge of design – they ARE the cutting edge. We’ve talked about their work before, but thought you’d like to get more in depth on the importance of design to our communications and presentations (particularly considering PowerPoint abuse!)

So the Ten Questions for Nancy Duarte:

1. Question: You’ve made a great impact in the design and presentation world. Why is design important in the first place – why not just put out information?

Answer: To most people the words “presentation design” are an oxymoron. In reality presentations should not be delivered without careful thought and planning going into the visual aides. Presentations that are designed well are easy to interpret and give stronger credibility to the presenter. We should design our presentations well for the sake of the audience

2. Question: What is the one most important principle of design?

Answer: Simplicity is by far the most important principle. If visuals aren’t simple, they aren’t clear. We need to guide audiences to where they are supposed to start to process the information and in what order. Many presentations today create visual vertigo by too much complexity, too many visual vantage points and annoying animations. Remove anything that isn’t adding value to the message.

3. Question: Why do you think design is neglected when people put together presentations?

Answer: There are oceans of ugly PowerPoint out there. The bar is set so low in this communication medium that few people have ever even seen a well-developed presentation.  Renowned presenters like Al Gore invest in powerful visuals to tell their story but more importantly they invest extensive time into rehearsing the content so they can use their visual aides effectively.  It takes a tremendous amount of time to pull together a great presentation.

4. Question: You are finishing your first book. Why did you write it?

Answer: I’m writing this book (title in process) as a clarion call or manifesto. Each revolution begins with unrest. The people finally shout “enough” and then someone brave enough to take a stand and have a compelling rally cry changes history. Presentations are scorned by designers, derided by industry luminaries, and abused by companies and individuals. Oh, the unrest is there all right but who is doing anything about it?
I feel at times a bit like William Wallace from Braveheart. This book serves as my grand speech to try to get the troops to press forward. Granted, Wallace was disemboweled at the end (which could happen to our audiences if we don’t change).

5. Question: And of course, what’s the quick summary?

Answer: Over the last fifteen years, professional communications have changed drastically. Presentations are the primary way we communicate. There is a proliferation of presentation software in the workplace, but there are no documented best-practices for how to communicate optimally in this ubiquitous medium.
This is not a how-to book; it’s intended to challenge a presenter’s current approach, thought process and behavior toward developing visual support. It is a blend of conceptual thinking, inspirational design, solid principles, insightful interviews, and many before-and-after examples. It is full of practical approaches to the visual story development process. Most of the existing books about presentations address the digital tools or delivery, but none explain how to apply proven design principles to develop more effective visual aides.

6. Question: Why the Presentation Ecosystem? (See following page for Nancy’s Presentation Ecosystem graphic.)

Answer: I built this presentation ecosystem to begin discussions around all the facets of a presentation and to show their interrelated nature. So many times presenters only put effort into a small subset of what it really takes to pull together a well thought through and designed presentation. When my friend Jim Endicott referred to the presentation development process as a three-legged stool, it made sense—message, visual story and delivery. Ironically, an enormous number of books dedicate themselves to message development and presentation tips, but little information exists on crafting graphically compelling presentations.

7. Question: When you put together the design elements for Al Gore’s Academy Award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth” (and maybe you can take some credit for the Nobel Peace prize he won?), what was the biggest challenge?

Answer: Working with such a successful thought leader has been very rewarding. He is gracious, open and smart. Many people don’t realize that he still travels around with just as much fiery passion delivering his presentation. The biggest challenge in reality is keeping up with him! His file is close to 600 slides and is translated into eight languages. He’s a busy guy!

8. Question: Who is the best and worst communicator you can think of in this year 2007?

Answer: There isn’t a single communicator that stands out for me which is sad to say during an election year.  One of the best things that has happened for communicators over the last year is that TED has begun to circulate their presentations via the web. Each presenter is a compelling communicator plus they have to constrain their talks to 18 minutes so the messages are rehearsed well and the content is succinct.

9. Question: What’s next for Duarte Design?

Answer: We believe that presentations, when done well, are quickly becoming a much more valuable communication medium.  Many of our clients are beginning to realize that presentations prepared well have an extended reach beyond just the traditional face-to-face delivery methods. Technology has matured to where presentations are being delivered via the web and devices in increasing numbers. We are pushing out presentations on just about any device and just about any web scenario you can dream up. We’re creating video slides, filming presenters on chroma screens, syncing slides with audio, pushing them into virtual worlds and putting them on video iPods, you name it! The options are endless.

10. Question: What’s next for Nancy Duarte?

Answer: As soon as I hit “send” to the publisher I want to take a looooong overdue vacation and sleeeeeep.

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