TEI 237 Flashback: Effectively pitching your ideas and influencing others – with Nancy Duarte


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Nancy DuarteThe simple way product managers can clearly communicate anything and increase their influence.

During the month of July, 2019, I’m sharing some of the most favorite and valuable discussions from the first 100 interviews. If you haven’t come across this one yet, it will make you a better communicator! It was originally episode 076.


The 2016 Annual Product Management and Marketing Survey identified four skills that are responsible for a significant increase in personal income. Product managers that excel in these four areas earn 25% more than product managers who don’t. One of these skills is called “pitch artist” and is defined as, “the ability to stand up to peers, managers and executives and sell them your ideas and conclusions.” When it comes to being a pitch artist — effectively communicating ideas and influencing others — there is no better expert than Nancy Duarte of the Durate design firm in Silicon Valley.

Nancy is a communication expert who’s been featured in several publications including Fortune, Forbes, and Fast Company. Her firm has created thousands of presentations for the world’s top institutions, including Apple, Cisco, Facebook, GE, Google, TED, and the World Bank and has taught many more people how to create effective presentations. She’s also the author of Resonate, Slide:ology, the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, and co-author of Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols.

There was so much to cover that the interview is in two parts with each addressing a different topic.

In Part 1, Nancy shares how product managers can effectively communicate ideas and influence others to support their ideas. She takes us on a journey through storytelling, movies, and tribal traditions, sharing what it means to be an idea Torchbearer through five stages:

  1. dream,
  2. leap,
  3. fight,
  4. climb, and
  5. arrive.

I had a special co-host, Dr. John Latham, guide the discussion in Part 2. Nancy shared her experience taking a small innovative company and scaling it without losing what makes it innovative.

Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators

Part 1: How Product Managers can Effectively Communicate

  • How has your thinking on effectively communicating ideas evolved over time? My first writing on communicating dealt with the micro view – how to create effective and compelling slides. Over time I have examined the bigger picture. Illuminate zooms out beyond the presentation and connects with the purpose of the presentation, such as driving change and transforming a group or organization.
  • You call innovators Torchbearers – why? [In Illuminate I shared…”Leaders aren’t just the people at the top of the org chart—a leader is anyone who can see a better future and rally people to reach it. Whether you’re an executive, entrepreneur, or individual contributor, you have the potential to motivate people through your words and actions.” Anyone involved with product management and innovation is certainly included in that list.] In fact, Illuminate is written for innovators and how they can influence others to join their plans. If we called them leaders, it wouldn’t really capture what we were trying to convey. We landed on torchbearers and travelers. We were actually inspired by Frodo [in Lord of the Rings] in the sense that he was the bearer of a ring and it came with a burden. You have to be called to be a leader but then you have to accept it, almost like a mantle, but so many people just pass it by. We really liked the concept of bearing a torch, because in situations where you need a torch, usually it’s dark and damp and scary and not well-lit and unknown. You don’t know where you’re going and you need a torch. A torch basically illuminates enough right in front of you to make the next few steps bearable and understandable. That’s what communication does. It casts just enough light for people to join you and say, “I could go there, that’s not that scary.” That’s why we really like this concept of torchbearer and travelers, because it’s a journey and the leader should be on the journey with the team and understanding how they’re feeling, understanding when they’re too tired to keep going, and understanding when they need their wounds healed.
  • For Torchbearers to be effective, you defined a path, called the Venture Scape. Please walk through that for us. Venture Scape is a 5-stage structure. It beings with Dream. The first thing you need to do is have a dream – a dream of an alternate future. As the communicator, that moment needs to be one of inspiration. In the dream phase you need to create a moment of inspiration and to do that, you would use speeches, stories, ceremonies and symbols to inspire people.
  • After Dream is Leap – what is that? After declaring a dream, you need to create action in others, like William Wallace in Braveheart being on the muddy field. You need to understand the hearts of the people when you declare the dream – their hearts will determine who will hear the dream and jump in or not. If you say it in such a way, people will want to commit. If there’s any resistance, you need to create a moment of decision, a moment where they have to decide. Dream and Leap are the first act of a three-act story.
  • Next is Fight? Fight and then Climb. These next two stages go together and make up the second act of the story. They are the messy middle, and that’s Fight and Climb. Just like in story-telling, in a really exciting adventure movie, there’s the challenge that must be overcome, like Frodo getting the arrow in his shoulder, and still having to climb the vast mountain. It’s the most exciting time and you know you’re on the edge of your seat, but it is not fun to be the one going through it. One of the reasons Venture Scape is a visual model is because we really wanted leaders, anyone who’s leading a product or leading change or innovating, to understand how hard this is and how hard it can be on rest of the group. We need to really understand the hearts and minds of the people we’re asking to do this work, and so this fight phase is very important, and this is when you need to create a kind of a rally cry. In myths and movies, what happens is usually at this phase is they have to recommit to what they committed to originally. It’s about reconnecting them to the dream of why we’re doing this in the first place.
  • That brings us to the Arrive stage of the Venture Scape. This is the third and final act. We don’t call this a moment of victory, but rather a moment of reflection, because in reality you don’t always win. We don’t wake up every day having won. Life’s not like that. We lose a lot. When that happens, we need to be able to let those who followed us know we tried and we lost. We need to reflect on what just happened. If it’s a victory, you reflect on the victory. But even in a victory, there were lessons learned. Capture those and then move on. Organizations that are thriving are constantly innovating, which means no sooner do you arrive than you have to move on to the next product.

Part 2: Scaling an Innovative Company

  • What issues did you face with Duarte, Inc. regarding the design and implementation of the new systems to fit your growing creative organization? It’s like what women think before they go into childbirth – I knew it’d be hard, but I didn’t know it would be that hard. When you are a creative firm, the biggest thing you need your staff to do is take risks. As we were looking at trying to go global, I knew that I couldn’t just copy Duarte as it was – we had a goofy structure. I had account teams that acted like business owners and the artists answered into my account team. That’s unheard of. My designers couldn’t be developed because they weren’t led by a creative person, and so I unbundled all of that. I had the designers answer-in to designers, I had the account people answer-in to a powerful executive. We faced other challenges with our information systems [details in the transcript]. We are getting to the flexible organization I want.
  • Work is personal and our identities are often intertwined with our work. With Duarte, Inc. what influenced your decision to go fast or slow? Everyone needs something different in a season of transformation. Half the shop was like…”take the Band-Aid off fast!” And the others were like…”slow down, slooow down.” You just can’t make everyone happy at the same time. Some were excited, some were terrified. I actually created this big matrix around the polarity of perspectives on different issues. On the same issue, the polarity of gaps and the perception around it varied 180 degrees. After carefully listening to employees and customers, we made some really swift decisions. I had a cross-functional team do what I called an empathy walk. We took five different project types and talked through what our process looks like to our customers. We realized we have too many steps in our processes and started hacking away to eliminate what didn’t add real value. It was really remarkable.
  • You noted in the book that some of your people had not been managers before. In addition to tolerance for imperfection or mistakes, how did you prepare your workforce to take on new roles and responsibilities? They had to go from not manager to manager, and we just kind of turned the switch because we didn’t have a choice. I used this metaphor of the huge shoes they’re going to step in. If you’ve ever seen a clown with really large shoes, it’s just awkward at first. The clown metaphor might not have been the best, but that’s how it is. It will be a little awkward, but then they’ll grow into the shoes and they’ll be normal-sized shoes. The first thing I did was to leverage my little bank of literature. I gave them One-Minute Manager, which is such a classic, and the book Gung Ho. I now ask them to read a couple of books a year. This year, the whole company is going through Crucial Conversations.
  • Many successful leaders of organization transformation have noted that they were transformed along the way as well. Do you think that you have transformed as a leader along with Duarte, Inc. and if so how? You know what is fascinating is it was really meta to be working on a book about transformations while my own organization was going through the largest transformation ever. I have definitely changed. I’m reading my own material and applying it to my own life.

Useful links:

Innovation Quote

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” –attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Raw Transcript



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