Nancy Duarte – Communication Expert

Nancy Duarte is a communication expert who has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Wired, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Economist, LA Times and on CNN. Her firm, Duarte, Inc., is the global leader behind some of the most influential visual messages in business and culture and has created more than a quarter of a million presentations. As a persuasion specialist, she cracked the code for effectively incorporating story patterns into business communications. Resonate, her latest book, spent nearly a year on Amazon’s top 100 business book bestsellers list.

Duarte, Inc. is the largest design firm in Silicon Valley, as well as one of the top woman-owned businesses in the area. Nancy has won several prestigious awards for communications and entrepreneurship and was recently honored in Watermark’s “Women Who Have Made Their Mark 2011” ceremony. She has been a speaker at a number of Fortune 500 companies and counts many more among her firm’s clientele. She also speaks at business schools and teaches classes at Stanford University several times a year.

Nancy has 20 years of experience working with global companies and thought leaders, and she has influenced how the world perceives some of the most important brands and entities, including Apple, Cisco, Facebook, GE, Google, HP, TED, Twitter, and the World Bank. She is the author of two award-winning books. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences identifies the hidden story structures inherent in great communication, and it spent more than 300 days on Amazon’s top 100 business book bestsellers list. Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations teaches readers to think visually and has been translated into eight languages.

Nancy has three grown children who walk in their destiny and a husband who has loved her for over 30 years. She has two grand-dogs, Bear and Necessity, and a grand-frog named Hubert.

Describe yourself in 3 words: Generous problem solver

What is your life motto? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I can’t say I “pursued” my career. It’s more like I wake up each day and follow my passion that day and it led me to a successful place.

How much time and effort did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? I work hard because I love what I do. My hobby is my work so it’s all a bit of a blur. I spend all my creative energy on what I do and it’s been since 1990.

What are the challenges in your line of work? We work under crazy deadlines all the time. We have to finish well and finish on time because the presenter will walk on stage and needs to be prepared. Our motto is “the show must go on”. We do everything we can to make sure the presenter feels like he’ll be a rock star (and, uh, presenters are sometimes as temperamental as rock stars, which is a challenge).

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? I remember in 2007, I was delivering the vision presentation to the company and I could smell an economic downturn (I had been through 3 of them by then). I did a dramatic plea for the organization to shift so we could be recession proof during the impending disaster. The organization was relatively young and we’d been in a season of enormous prosperity. The entire company thought I was crazy and trying to manipulate them by a “the sky is falling” strategy. One manager said it’ll take all year to “repair the damage I’d caused”. Well, the downturn did happen, so technically I was right. But in this particular case, I didn’t deliver this news in a way that motivated my team. Instead they resisted it and also questioned my credibility.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? When Jim Collins’ book Good to Great came out it completely narrowed the focus of my company. In that book he poses a challenge, “if there’s one thing you are passionate about and can be best in the world at, do that one thing”. When I read that, we decided to focus on the presentation niche and it has paid off.

In your mind, is formal training essential? We have a few formal training programs that glue our culture together and are absolutely essential. Now that we’re over 100 people, we’ve added a full time trainer to the team. Training is a big part of our culture. 

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? I found my first mentor only 7 years ago and now I can’t imagine where I would be without her. To find a mentor, you could go to industry events and pursue people you admire, you could go to local events or become a member in a group that interests you. The more people you pursue relationships with, the higher the odds are that you’ll find a mentor that’s a fit. I have now surrounded myself with 5 mentors that make up my advisory board. They’re the smartest people I know.

What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career? My first job was selling office supplies for a small business. Did I want to sell office supplies for a career? No. But what did happen is at the age of 19, I quintupled the sales at this small business. The owner had me do everything. Sales, purchasing, payroll, tax reporting, inventory management…all of it. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have had the guts to run my own firm. Every experience you have prepares you for your future, so make the most of every situation so you gain skills from it. Eventually, you’ll figure out what you love. Many people get scared and decide not to pursue what they love. Having a successful career will take a lot of work and if you’re doing what you love, it won’t feel like work to you. Don’t try to move too fast. The lessons you learn along the way are valuable and are what make you strong enough to be great. 

What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? The business grew very fast at one point and I was exhausted. I would get home after the kids were in bed and I would cry into the carpet so my crying was muffled. My husband and friends could tell I was over doing it and one of my dearest friends joined my firm just to hire roles off of me to help set me free. Support from family and friends kept me going.

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? I do think it’s about being at the right place at the right time. But why is it that some people are at the right place so often? Because they have the guts to get themselves there. Many people envy my success but wouldn’t make the sacrifices I did to get here. Being at the right place takes wisdom, tenacity and sacrifice, not just wishing you were in the right place.

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