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Slide:ology: Nancy Duarte’s Design Secrets and Her New PowerPoint Book

Last updated Mar 26, 2004.

Have you ever attended a conference or other event and seen a set of PowerPoint slides and wondered, why can’t I create stuff like this?

There are two areas to consider — the thematic and conceptual part of a presentation dealing with its content (which I also address in the update on Outlining coming up soon) — and design or the look of a presentation.

Probably the foremost authority on both of these areas, and head of a leading design firm in Silicon Valley with a Who’s Who of clients including Al Gore (yes, she did the presentation for the movie and coached him on speaking) is Nancy Duarte, head of Duarte Design.

It’s my opinion that a designer has natural talent by birth or craft in the visual space that most of us don’t have but following Nancy’s work can do one of two things: either inspire or stimulate you into seeing space and color more like a professional — or hiring someone who does.

Equally important, Nancy has a way of telling stories and inspiring other to “think visually” and emotionally. If you read through her case studies or are fortunate enough to attend one of her sessions and PowerPoint LIVE or another industry event, you will get energized to rethink your presentations from the ground up.

The essence of a good presenter is storytelling, and since Nancy has built a major design practice in Silicon Valley — she has managed to successfully apply her firm’s skilled to some of the driest subject matter on the planet, and make it come alive.

Ms. Duarte has now encoded her years of experience and the concepts behind her success in a new book: Slide:ology. For those of you with Safari subscriptions it’s already available online (link).

What I found really excellent about this book is the ability to follow along with how a professional world class designer thinks — both in thematic and visual ways. You can follow Nancy along on her thought process as she sketches (one of her main techniques) and free associates many ways to communicate the message of a client hours, days, weeks and perhaps months before she ever opens PowerPoint (or Keynote).

On a more nuts and bolts level, you can also follow along with how a designer works with space, lines and color in very specific ways; I suggest that even if you are a designer yourself or have one on staff, there is much to be learned and inspiration to be gleaned from following through the pages of this book as projects are deconstructed and reconstructed.

Three key take-aways for me were:

  • The major differences between creating a document and a slide — reminiscent of Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points. Nancy emphasizes a continuum from a Document to a Teleprompter to a Presentation. Unfortunately most tech presentations resemble the first two, and in the case of a teleprompter serve to remind the presenter of his main ideas — a recipe for disaster. Remember that a presentation is visual and is a specific type of file — mainly to support a speaker and not be the show.
  • Using a consistent set of realistic photos (from a stock site) as opposed to cheesy clip art-like images (handshake in front of a globe is her ubiquitous example). Nancy is a big believer in “Quickstorming” — or brainstorming from a group of bright people. She collects many, many ideas before structuring a presentation, filling walls with sticky notes, and only then opening PowerPoint.
  • The use of text animation to keep pace with the presenter not foreshadow information and annoy the audience (grey out previous points as the current point is introduced and highlighted). When text information cannot be avoided, or when a chart is necessary, it needs to be stripped down to its core meaning and only those parts presented to the audience that are being covered by the speaker. In the case of charts don’t expect the data to tell your story. The key is that the data has meaning — highlight the information that is core of your message and emphasize it. In some cases a simple text slide with the key takeaway can work better — like “20% of a given diseases is transmitted a certain way (or treated by our medicine).” If you plotted this on a graph it would be lost.

The key to the new trend in presentations, visible on Slideshare.net, and the essence of Nancy’s craft is storytelling. While PowerPoint doesn’t natively lend itself to what one might think of as a dynamic narrative with conflict and tension, if you read Slide:ology you will almost certainly be inspired to rethink your presentations along those lines.

Most telling is how Nancy works in PowerPoint — instead of opening a slide with the title and bullets default, she always begins with a blank slide, allowing her imagination and brainstorming to populate it rather than restricting her ideas to the structure of the program.

She describes how PowerPoint can destroy a mythical story like Little Red Riding Hood, and then demonstrates how even program, so often accused of misuse and boring audiences, can be used effectively to tell stories and move people. If you want to take your communications to a new level you should consider presenting Slide:ology to the presenters in your organization.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Creating Sticky Documents and Presentations

Review: Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck

Books and eBooks

Fixing PowerPoint Annoyances (Safari)

Solving the PowerPoint Predicament: Using Digital Media for Effective Communication (Read in Safari Books Online)