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resonate April 17, 2011

Posted by Anders Taucher in [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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resonate, by Nancy Duarte

Book review by Anders Taucher

Have you ever seen the eyes of your audience glaze over as you have been presenting? Or thrown together a quick last minute bullet point-based PowerPoint, telling yourself that it doesn´t really matter since it´s just for some colleagues? Or how about creating a presentation doubling as documentation (a “slideument”), so you save time and effort? Can you honestly say that when you stand up to make a presentation, you make it your mission to change the world? If your answers are three no´s followed by a yes, Nancy Duarte´s book “resonate” may not be for you.

Sparkline

Duarte starts her book by focusing on presentations as a vehicle for change, especially stressing their emotional and storytelling aspects. She goes on to build a general structure of presentations, based on lessons from mythology, literature and cinema, introducing the “sparkline” (see figure) as a tool for visualizing the pattern of a presentation.

Duarte uses the sparkline to analyze speeches or presentations by the likes of Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King jr and Ronald Reagan, while building her argument for how to approach the task of creating a presentation that transforms your audience. Her wide range of examples is used well, to incorporate lessons on “the contour of communication” (Beginning, Call to adventure, Contrast, Call to action, End), as well as on the importance of understanding the audience, creating meaningful content, establishing structure, and so on.

You might think that more than 200 pages of this would be a bore, but the examples are (largely) very inspirational, and the book is very well illustrated, so it is actually a pleasurable read. It does get a bit long-winded and repetitive in some parts, and not all the case studies resonate (a word I will not use again without thinking of this book) that well with me. Some of her advice may seem a little obvious (“Give a positive first impression”) or extreme (“Go online and figure out how much money [your audience] make”), yet these irritations don´t get in the way of the points she is trying to make.

resonate” is not a tutorial on how to create great PowerPoint presentations. There are other books for this. (She, perhaps not surprisingly, recommends her own “Slide:ology” and “Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds for this purpose.) The book should instead be viewed as a general primer in the art of communicating a message to an audience. Therefore the book might be useful even to readers who belong to the growing number of PowerPoint-skeptics.

All in all, the book is a worthwhile investment, at least for those not very well versed in the art of communication. If you are like me, the first two or three chapters are the real eye-opener. That is where you may have the transformational experience, and perhaps realize the need to inject some passion when communicating your ideas. The rest of the book can be leafed through at leisure (the layout is exquisite), and used as a reference. There is a particularly useful two-page spread of the process of creating a presentation that I will definitely use as a checklist for building the structure of future presentations. (I dare not post a copy of that useful illustration, since Duarte has not made it available online.) The process recap shows how the journey of creating a presentation starts with ideation, how ideas are filtered and clustered and turned into coherent messages, how messages are arranged dramaturgically and finally visualized.

Among the many memorable quotes in the book, is John F. Kennedy´s statement that “The only reason to give a speech is to change the world”. Few of us are in the position he was in, yet it is clear that whether one is arguing for putting a man on the moon, or presenting a new idea to some colleagues, the aim is always to achieve some change of the status quo. And doing so requires not only compelling arguments, clear structure, contrasts, calls to action, and hard work. Most of all it requires passion. Reading Duarte´s book helped me realize that, and I think that would be a valuable lesson to many people, judging by many of the presentations I see.

You can watch Duarte´s Webinar on the topic of the book here: http://blog.duarte.com/2010/11/that-resonates-with-me-video-recording/

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Comments»

1. Darren Kwong - April 19, 2011

I take interest in this with regard to teaching. Aside from injecting passion, how well do the principles presented in the book apply to the classroom chalkboard? I’ll watch the webinar sometime; maybe that will answer my question.

Anders Taucher - April 19, 2011

Hi Darren. That´s an interesting question. I must admit I hadn´t thought about that context, but I think the principles should apply to a great extent. The book points out how individuals and society have been shaped by the art of storytelling throughout history, and tries to define a general structure (the “sparkline”) of stories, that is applicable in all kinds of contexts. The sparkline is used to analyze a number of different modes of communication, like a business presentation by Steve Jobs, “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King Jr, a dance performance by Martha Graham, musical performances, and a lecture by Physicist Richard Feynman. So, yes, I do think her message is very applicable to the chalk board as well. In fact, I can think of few settings where great storytelling is more fitting than in a classroom. Whether Duarte´s approach to storytelling is the “best” one, is another question, but it was certainly useful and inspiring to me.

2. Jon Pittman - April 19, 2011

Anders – I liked your review. It was very concise but and I thought it conveyed the gist of the book. On the question of teaching that Darren raised, I can give you a bit of my philosophy. The real question is whether the goal of teaching is imparting information or facilitating a behavior change. My own view is that it is less about imparting information (although there is some of that) and more about change in behavior and perspective. One reason this is important is that the half-life of knowledge and information is short – and getting shorter. Whereas perspective is enduring.

In my view, this means that appealing to emotion may be more important that appealing solely to intellect. It may cause a change in perspective that a pure intellectual appeal might not. You might want to consider the lessons in Switch by the Heath brothers that I referenced in class.

3. Nancy Duarte - April 20, 2011

Great review Anders! Very thoughtful views.

As for Darren’s question, yes, there are insights in the book for teachers. My daughter teaches high-school science and has seen the enthusiasm for the subject matter and test scores increase by using the principles.

Feynman in particular was known as “The Great Explainer”. Yes, he taught physics well, but he had a sense of wonderment and passion for his subject matter that transferred to his student. Non-Physics majors would attend his class because he was a great teacher. I wonder what our education system would be like today if teachers had students swarm to their class to take units not required for their major.


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