Influence through visual storytelling: Think, speak, and work like a designer

Written by

Ryan Orcutt

Written by

Ryan Orcutt

Executive summary

To become a better visual storyteller, you must bravely tap into your inner designer, learn a powerful new language and adopt a simple process for effective slide making.

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Talk transcript

As a kid I remember walking around grocery, and department stores marveling at the world of color, type and texture that existed in labels, logos and ads. I’d think to myself, someone is making decisions about every little detail in this place and I’d wonder how they did it.  

If my parents happened to break my concentration with a question about which breakfast cereal I wanted that week, I found myself pointing to the box with the bold color, script font or the interesting character.  

Which t-shirt did I want to add to my dresser? Well, that would be the one with the same checkered pattern that was on my shoes. Visuals were playing a big role in my decision making. Design was influencing my actions. Or better said, someone was using design to influence my actions. 

I had no real concept of graphic design until I went off to college, and I certainly didn’t understand how to apply the principles, but I did feel the impact. 

Now, as the creative director for a communication company and with years of experience helping leaders influence audiences, I not only understand what I was experiencing as a child, but also know how to apply it. 

My name is Ryan Orcutt and I’d like to start by thanking you for the gift of your time and attention today.   

Design and visual storytelling are all around us. Not just in grocery and department stores, but in all our communication. I’ve worked with enough clients to know that this critical piece, visual storytelling, is missing from most corporate communication. And it’s an essential tool when it comes to your ability to influence. 

By the end of this session, my hope is that you feel more comfortable with the idea that you can influence with visual storytelling and that you walk away with actionable design tips that elevate your everyday communication 

At Duarte, we believe there are 3 major elements of a piece of communication: Story, Visuals and Delivery. A layer of strategy overlays each of these elements and empathy for your audience lives at the center of it all.  

Presentations are one of the main vehicles for business communication. And for a presentation to have influence, it must be designed with intention and skill. 

So that’s where my focus will be: Helping you create compelling visuals for presentations that will have influence. 

But how do you make visuals compelling?  

Well, you think like a designer.  

Speak like a designer.  

And work like a designer.  

And I want to spend some time talking about each. Let’s start by getting into the mind of a designer and demystifying what it means to think visually.  

The good news is we’re all born with some design skills. These skills may have atrophied a bit over the years,  but we’re all wired to be visual storytellers. It’s actually at our core.  

Think about a child in your life. And picture the last drawing that you saw them create. They did so without fear or an inner critic and probably captured an amazing story. 

Here’s a drawing by my oldest son Jaxon. The scene, as my son describes it, is an evil pirate swimming to steal some hidden treasure from a tiny island. Unfortunately, the pirate is unaware of the magical team of underwater sea creates that have sworn to protect the treasure. I’m not sure how this story ends, but it’s not looking good for the pirate.  

Imagine how stiff with fear you’d get if I asked you to draw that scene. But here’s an eight-year-old, totally nailing it and having fun at the same time. He didn’t just have fun. He was proud. Not embarrassed and apologetic that his shrimp were unidentifiable. Proud.  

Jaxon was modeling the first step in thinking like a designer.  

In order to create a great piece of communication, you’ve got to quiet your inner critic and embrace your inner designer. 

But, as you just saw, Jaxon didn’t stop at telling us the story of the Pirate, he moved on to step number two and drew a picture of it.  

Thinking like a designer requires you to capture the visual ideas in your head. And the best way to do that, is to sketch them out. 

I know, I know: “You can’t draw.” Well, here’s a secret. Neither can I. Yep, creative director, head of design. Can’t draw. BUT, I can sketch and you can too.  

Listen, I work with some amazing artists that have spent their whole lives becoming professional illustrators. Their drawings are breathtaking and my drawings, well they look a little closer to Jaxon’s pirate. 

But drawing is different than sketching. And I’d bet the money in my wallet that I can get anyone to sketch.  

Sketching is about combining some basic shapes to capture an idea. And it’s as simple as starting with lines, dots and arcs. Let’s head over to my sketching area and give it a try together. While I take a second to move, I’d encourage you to grab some paper and a pen or pencil.  

<Light board demo>

Welcome to my sketching room! Got that paper and pencil? Okay, let’s start by drawing the three basic shapes I mentioned earlier.  

A line. A dot. And an arc.  

First things first. Lines can be horizontal, vertical or at an angle. Practice a couple of lines.  

Not much to a dot. But they can be big or small. Filled in or empty. 

And last, an arc. Arcs can be perfectly round or oblong, like this. Tall or flat. And most importantly, if you combine 2 arcs, you get a circle. My favorite shape. Draw a couple of arcs, make a few circles.  

Feeling warmed up? Let’s do some combining.  

LOCK: If you combine 4 lines, you get a box. If you add an arc on top and a dot in the box, you get a lock. Security is a pretty popular business concept right now… 

SERVER: If you make a taller box, add 3 or 4 dots and matching lines, then you get a computer tower or a server. Also an object that shows up pretty frequently in business communication.  

CLOUD: Try putting a few arcs in a row of different sizes and then a straight line at the bottom. Does that look like a cloud? Heck yes it does.  

PERSON 1: Something more tricky? How about a person? I’ve got two ways to do that. One tall-ish arc, with a line at the bottom. Then use 2 arcs to make a circle. Pretty simple user icon. Want a little more detail. How about two arcs for some hair. 2 dots for some eyes? 

PERSON 2: We can also make more of a full-bodied person by using 3 lines. 2 of them at an angle to create a triangle. Add the head with arcs. 2 small feet. Even some arms. All with lines. Here’s how you can add pants and a shirt. Again, just using lines. Kinda feel like Bob Ross right now. 

BUILDING: A couple more quick ones. Here’s a building all with lines. Add a couple more buildings to create a city.  

GLOBE: A globe with a series of arcs and lines.  

LAPTOP, MONITOR, MOBILE: And some devices. All with lines, a few angles, and dots.  

If you think hard enough, most objects can be created with these simple shapes. And if you can sketch most objects, then you can visualize your idea. Or someone else’s idea. And when you do that, to create the ability to influence.  

Alight, that’s good enough for now. Let’s head back to the main stage.  

<End light board demo> 

I encourage you to spend some time playing with some simple shapes. Let go of the inner critic and have fun. And that brings me to step three.  

It’s going to take some courage the first time you share your sketches. Let alone doing some sketching in front of someone else.  

But by being brave and being willing to share ideas in a rough visual form, you’re not only more likely to get to the right answer, you’re also on a path to add more value to any future brainstorm and to become a partner that people look to for ideas. Frankly you’re on a path to  leadership.  

Here’s a quick story to demonstrate my point. 

Several years ago, I was sitting in a room full of engineers debating how to visualize their latest piece of network technology. It was a heated debate; each person had their own way of describing how the new technology was different from the old. Getting this explanation right was critical, as they would be showcasing it at an upcoming industry event. But the team was a long way from being aligned.  

During most of the discussion I was quiet. This was early in my career, I was surrounded by experts and I was just the designer. I was working hard to keep up with all of the confusing terms that the engineers were throwing around and was frantically sketching in my notebook to make sense of it. 

And then the debate stopped. I looked up from my notebook, surveyed the room, and it was clear they had hit a wall and were at a standstill. I could tell the room was frustrated and was ready to give up and move on.  

That’s when I decided to get up and walk to the whiteboard. I picked up a blue dry erase marker and started to draw a diagram that I had sketched while they were debating. As I drew, I repeated what I heard during the discussion. 

Here’s the kicker: I knew the diagram was wrong. I hadn’t solved it yet. How could I? They were still debating it themselves.  

But I finished the sketch, along with my laymen’s explanation, snapped the cap back on the marker and waited. 

It probably only took 5 seconds before the first engineer stood up and swiped the marker from me. He added 2 new circles to the diagram and a dotted line. Then a second engineer came up and erased one of my icons and replaced it with a sketch of a cloud. Before I knew it everyone was huddled around the whiteboard and we were making real progress.  

The team gained more alignment in the next 10 minutes than they had been able to achieve in the first 45. 

That may have been the first time that I realized the power of sketching.  

Sketching ended the circling debate and moved us into a collaborative discussion.  

Sketching made the hard to comprehend more approachable.  

Sketching allowed us to build upon each other’s ideas and move toward consensus.  

But as cool as all those things are, they weren’t the lesson that I learned that day. 

The lesson I learned was realizing that I have to be willing to draw the wrong thing to get to the right answer. I have to be willing to look a little silly in front of a room of experts in order to facilitate alignment. And it’s that willingness that enables me to bring value to any brainstorm, to any boardroom and to leaders at all levels.  

It’s not my ability to draw, because we know that I can’t draw…  

It’s my willingness to sketch in vulnerable situations. If you can get there, I promise you’ll find yourself with more influence. 

So, thinking like a designer is something we all can do if we start with these steps: 

We’re all born with some natural storytelling capabilities, so learn to quiet the critic and let your inner designer shine. 

Get comfortable with capturing your ideas in sketch form. Simple shapes can communicate big ideas.  

And most importantly, be brave when brainstorming. Silly ideas, even bad ideas, lead to great ones. A willingness to be vulnerable will lead to more opportunities to influence. 

Now that we have begun to think like a designer, it’s time for us to start to speak like a designer. 

We all need to learn the language of design. I know what you’re thinking. First I have learn to sketch, now I have to learn a language?! I get it. My wife is a native Dutch speaker and I’ve spent the last 12 years trying to learn snippets of that language. Here’s everything I got:  

Goedemorgen. Ik hou van jou. Slaap Lekker. Alstublieft. Dank je vel. Doei, Doei. Blauwe Paraplu. Good morning. I love you. Sleep tight. Please. Thank you. Bye, bye. Blue Umbrella. 

12 years and that’s all I got of that language. 

I promise you, the language of design is much simpler.  

Having this common language will help you verbalize feedback when working with a designer. And if you’re a designer, it will help you rationalize your decisions to a client or colleague. In other words, this is about embracing the language of influence. 

Today I’m going to ask you to add 3 key terms to your vocabulary.  




Whitespace, also known as negative space, is open or empty space around an object of interest. And no, it doesn’t have to be the color white, it just needs to be clear of any other visual element that competes for attention. 

Using white space gives room for your content to breathe. And when a slide can breathe, elegance isn’t far behind. 

Take a look at this example. It feels crowded with content and overly divided into boxes. No breathing room. No elegance. But, after simplifying the text and adding in white space, you get this 

Removing the boxes and reducing the amount of text created space for the slide to breathe. Doesn’t it feel more elegant? Guided by the animation, your eyes move easily move from headline, to product to key stats.  

The next word I’d like you to learn is Contrast. Contrast helps the audience focus their attention because our eyes are drawn to what is different. Contrast can also help create drama, ensure legibility and set hierarchy.  

You can create contrast lots of ways: Things like size (small vs. big), 

shape (round vs. square), 

shade (dark vs. light), 

and color (green vs. gold).  

These are all techniques to create contrast and these techniques can be applied to all sorts of visual elements…text, charts, icons, photos, tables. You name it.  

A slide without contrast is flat, dull and maybe worst of all, confusing. Ask yourself what should stand out, and then add some contrast! 

Let’s take a look at this example. 

This slide already looks really good. There’s an excellent use of white space and enough contrast to ensure legibility. But what if I wanted to focus the audience on the first chapter? 

Then we could do something like this. We’ve used size by making the number one much larger, color by adding a block of royal blue and shade to dim out chapters 2 and 3. The audience knows exactly where their attention belongs and we’ve added some visual interest.  

Our last word for the day is Hierarchy. Hierarchy gives us an order of importance to a set of objects or a block of text. Like I mentioned a moment ago, you should be applying contrast to the most important object on the slide. Now, I’m asking you to use hierarchy to tell the audience what is the second and third most important thing on a slide.  

Hierarchy is why titles are bigger than subtitles, and why subtitles are bigger than body copy. Let’s take a look at a third example.  

This slide lacks hierarchy. Most of the text is the same size and everything looks of equal importance. It takes time to sort through and decide what the key points are.  

To set an order importance, I’ll use different sizes, weights and colors of text.  

You can immediately see that there are 3 levels of text hierarchy. The slide title, headers and bullets. The type size and weight go down as the importance goes down.  

By giving the content some hierarchy, we make it skimmable for our audience. 

It speeds the processing of information. And that is a gift. 

Mastering the principles of design is a journey but speaking like a designer is easier than you think.  

Having a shared language makes the creative process more efficient and less ambiguous. It allows for objective feedback and clear rationale. Most importantly, it allows you to be a stronger advocate for your ideas. 

So consider white space, contrast, and hierarchy each time you build and evaluate a slide. And get comfortable using the words during a critique or brainstorm.  

You’ll end up with better slides and your audience will thank you.  

With a few new words in your vocabulary, you’re now able to move on to working like a designer 

Designers spend their career learning and perfecting this process. The process can be messy, most of the time with multiple rounds and lots of iterations. Unfortunately, I can’t teach anyone to be able to work like a seasoned designer overnight, but what I can do is introduce you to 5 steps that will kick start your development and get you on your way. 

Duarte has come up with the easy to remember acronym “S.P.A.C.E.” to help you remember the 5 steps to the design process. 

Simplify, Plan, Arrange, (and apply) Consistency and Emphasize 

We’re not going to be able to go deep on any of these today. But, if you’re interested in learning more, I’d highly recommend attending our Slide:ology® workshop. During which you’ll spend significant time practicing each step in the process.  

But let’s get started on a quick overview. The first step in the process is to simplify.  

Lots of slides begin in script form; a long paragraph of text or a string of bullets without any visuals. Not every word in that paragraph should show up on the slide and not every word needs to be transformed into a visual. A designer works to identify the key message and keeps the rest of the text in the speaker notes.  

Other times, there’s a source slide that exists and it’s the job of a designer to use the SPACE process to make improvements. The approach is the same, ask yourself what needs to stay? What’s the most compelling data?  

During the simplification process live by this rule: 1 idea per slide and don’t be afraid to split things up over more than 1 slide.  

And if you’ll allow me just one, quick soapbox moment: Slide count restrictions are ridiculous. Teams will put rules in place saying, you’re only allowed to present 10 slides in an attempt to keep the presentations concise. Slide count has nothing to do with conciseness. If you’re presentation is too long and rambles on, you need to cut content not slides.  

Density is the enemy. Not slide count. Okay, off the soap box. 

After you’ve simplified, it’s time to draw up a plan before creating new graphics. This is where you can use some of your new found sketching skills to brainstorm possible visual solutions.  

Remember to be brave and to push yourself beyond your first idea. It’s true that first ideas can sometimes be the best ideas, but first ideas tend to pull on familiar thinking not original thinking. Sketching out multiple ideas will help you avoid being cliché and lead to more creative solutions.  

Once you’ve picked your favorite sketch and developed a plan, you’re ready to start making graphics and arranging them on a slide.  

The arrangement of elements on a slide can be tricky. 

Does my title work best here or there? Where should the axis of my chart fall? If you go slide by slide, making gut decisions about each arrangement you run the risk of having your slides feel “off” and inconsistent.  

Designers  have trained their eyes over the years to make good arrangement choices, but they also have a secret weapon: It’s called a grid!   

Without the use of a grid, your slides may feel unorganized and misaligned. You might also be missing an opportunity for a more interesting layout. 

With a grid in place, its easy to see arrangement options that create structure, balance and consistency to your slides. Experiment with different placements and find one you like. 

Things are looking better. But we’re not done yet. 

The next important step is to make everything consistent. Not just by arranging things in a consistent fashion but by applying a unified look and feel to the entire presentation. 

On this slide, it means being consistent with your use of color, and the font system. 

Let’s address those issues now by using the right colors and the branded font. But don’t let it stop there. 

Be consistent with the style of icons and illustrations as well as treatments for tables, diagrams and photography. I’m not going to lie it’s a lot to keep track of. And it’s why companies spend oodles of dollars defining and writing brand guidelines for their teams to follow.  

And when it comes together, It’s a beautiful thing.  

Beautiful and important. Your brand is your promise to the audience. When your visuals are consistent, your audience can can identify your brand, and then you can leverage the trust that’s been built by your brand. You’re one step closer to having the influence you’re seeking. 

And finally, our last step is to emphasize. This is when the designer reviews the slide to ensure that the key message has plenty of contrast and that the rest of the graphics have a clear order of importance.  

A slide without emphasis is like a monotone speaker; dull and flat. This may be consistent the system, but it lacks contrast and hierarchy.  

Add emphasis by scaling the important things up, and the other things down. Add color and saturation where you want the audience’s eye to go first 

Anyone remember where we started? Dense, complicated and without a clear visual system.   

We added whitespace, contrast and hierarchy and used the SPACE method to create a compelling visual with a clear message.  

Annnd, as simple as that, you’re working like a designer! Right? Well, at least you’re on your way. By understanding the steps and using this method more often, your slides will not only have more polish, they also have more influence. And that’s the ultimate goal.  

With practice, this becomes less procedural and more like a flow. It’ll become like second nature.  

So I hope my talk today gave you a better understanding of design’s power and how it can take your influence to the next level.  

Influence can small, everyday, moving the needle type of influence OR sweeping, cultural, changing the world type of influence, either way you’ll need to become a visual storyteller.  

Learn to bravely tap into your inner designer and sketch the ideas in your head. Compelling visuals begin with simple sketches.  

Embrace a powerful new language so that you can better critique your own work and pass along clear feedback to others.  

Adopt a simple, repeatable process for slide making. What feels like steps will soon turn into a flow. And what felt like slides will soon become compelling visuals.  

In short: influence with Visual Storytelling by thinking, speaking and working like a designer.  

Thank you for your time today. 

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We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

Take the next step

We offer flexible, individual and team training to help build critical communication skills as well as hands-on, one-on-one coaching and full-service strategy, consulting and presentation design support. Learn more below:

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