Nancy Duarte curates a list of the best books on storytelling
Published on February 05, 2024
Nancy Duarte, Duarte’s founder and CEO, is known for championing stronger narratives in presentations and the importance of storytelling for leaders, so it makes sense that she’s asked all the time for her list of the best books on storytelling.
Two reasons for that high profile are Nancy’s best-selling 2010 book Resonate® and her multi-million-view TED talk: “The Secret Structure of Great Talks.” But she hasn’t always been the storytelling expert she’s known as today. Her collection of the best books on storytelling started in 2008, with a different book: Slide:ology®.
“After I wrote Slide:ology, I started to realize that people were making better slides, but it was like they were putting lipstick on a pig … you can doll up your slides as much as you want, but if the content isn’t sound or interesting, it’s just lipstick on a pig. So, I took a journey through story, and storytelling.”
Nancy describes that journey as becoming a ‘student of story’, a multi-year deep dive into movies, poetry, fables, heroes, story structures, and character archetypes. By applying the principles of storytelling to crafting great presentations, she launched a revolution in how we deliver speeches and persuade audiences when she published Resonate, the definitive book on storytelling for businesses and leaders.
To fill in the gaps she found when she began writing about storytelling for business, Nancy began combing through the internet, out-of-print book lists, and famous speeches. She even went to the New York Public Library to hunt down a rare complete version of Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech that the soon-to-be first Prime Minister of India gave in on the cusp of Indian independence in 1947.
11 of the best books on storytelling
So, when we were asked to compile a list of the best books on storytelling, these aren’t AI-generated. Below are Nancy’s picks for storytelling books, as well as the inspirations for The Duarte Method™ and the entire storytelling in business movement, in her own words.
1. The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
Nancy says that when she was writing Resonate, only a few people had written books about storytelling for business, and Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor brought a unique and interesting perspective.
“This is a classic, gorgeous book. If you’re interested in storytelling and structures to change your own life, she also covers how to influence others through the power of storytelling.”
2. Squirrel Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling by Stephen Denning
Another early leader in using storytelling to influence others, Stephen Denning has since written multiple books about storytelling, and Squirrel Inc. is the one that sticks out to Nancy.
“This one is a fable of leadership through storytelling. He talks about how to use story in the process of business.”
3. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Nancy loves Joseph Campbell’s in-depth look at epic tales of every sort. The Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced the world to the iconic steps of the ‘hero’s journey’ story structure.
“These are the kind of stories that transcend space, time, generations! He studied eastern epic-length stories, western epic-length stories, the deep-seated cultural stories. The hero’s journey is what we know that as today [and] I was the first person to tie the hero’s journey to presentations.”
4. The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
When Nancy is asked for the best books on storytelling, Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is her favorite suggestion. She takes inspiration from Vogler’s memo, written when he was an analyst for Walt Disney, about why moviemakers should apply the hero’s journey to their storytelling; the memo is “kind of famous,” Nancy says. “Well, famous to me!”
“If you want to know how to tell a good story, this is the nuts and bolts. When I got ahold of this book, I actually invited [Chris Vogler] up and was like, I want to know everything! I filmed him explaining all 12 major steps of the Hero’s Journey, and I have him, in his own words, describing the Hero’s Journey in my Resonate book online.”
5. The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
A lot of Nancy’s bookshelf space is dedicated to books on story plots specifically: 20 Master Plots, The Seven Basic Plots, and 42 Master Plots just to name a few. She says these are books on storytelling that really tackle new concepts.
“Booker came up with seven plots: overcoming the monster, rags-to-riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. CLASSIC plots. It’s a really good book, and it’s written really well. If you want to be a student of story, this would be another one that I recommend.”
6. The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders
Nancy says The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines goes into different characters and how they express themselves is one of the best books on storytelling and archetypes.
“It helps you be a stronger storyteller! To tell a good story, you have to embody the archetype or persona you play in that story.”
7. The Actor Prepares and Building a Character by Constantin Stanislavski
Getting to know the character archetypes from class stories was something Nancy loved on her journey into storytelling, she says. Her list of best storytelling books includes serious inspiration from Constantin Stanislavski’s The Actor Prepares and Building a Character.
“I would be remiss to have built ANYTHING without a nod to Stanislavski. What a legend.”
8. Great Speeches for Better Speaking by Michael Eidenmuller
Unexpected entries on Nancy’s list of storytelling books are speech anthologies like Great Speeches for Better Speaking and Speeches that Changed the World that helped her develop the connective tissue between a transformative story and a dynamic presentation.
“This one actually comes with a CD, so the ones that could be recorded, I could listen to. This one was a real inspiration to me. It has all kinds of speeches … it was so much fun to keep going back to this. I’d listen to the recordings and try to hear what they were doing. I figured out that it is the rise and fall of the plot that makes the best speeches of all time really, really good.”
9. What’s the Use of Lectures? by Donald Bligh
To show how the storytelling framework would work for anyone who speaks in public, Nancy says she looked at examples of storytelling from people like teachers and that the strong narratives in the academic lectures from speakers like Richard Feynman still make What’s the Use of Lectures? one of the best books on storytelling.
“I wanted to feature Richard Feynman [in Resonate]. He gave ‘verbal organizational symbols’ — he didn’t use slides [because] that wasn’t a thing back then, but he was very good. Hearing him verbally give you clues so you could see the structure of what he was saying was so, so powerful.”
10. Originals by Adam Grant
Nancy remembers this book, about innovation and creativity, being the first to mention the newly-minted Duarte Method™ after she published Resonate in 2010, giving it a few reasons to land a spot on her list of best storytelling books.
“After Resonate came out, I was delighted that Adam Grant talked about my method in his book, Originals — it was such an honor! He talks about the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ as a persuasive device in this book.”
11. HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting
Nancy’s smash hit Harvard Business Review guide on using storytelling to persuade audiences is included in this collection of HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Public Speaking and Presenting.
“If you read nothing else on public speaking and presenting, read these 10 articles,” the HBR publisher says of the collection that includes Nancy’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. “We’ve combed through hundreds of Harvard Business Review articles and selected the most important ones to help you find your voice, persuade your listeners, and connect with audiences of any size.”
Since writing Resonate and revolutionizing business presentations through storytelling, Nancy authored the go-to book for delivering better speeches, the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. She also wrote the best-selling business communication books DataStory, empowering speakers at any level to share compelling data with confidence, and Illuminate™, showing how leaders can harness persuasive presentations to guide important cultural change.