The secret structure of great talks

From the "I have a dream" speech to Steve Jobs' iPhone launch, many great talks have a common structure that helps their message resonate with listeners. In this talk, you'll learn practical lessons on how to make a powerful call-to-action.

Nancy Duarte


Executive summary

From the “I have a dream” speech to Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch, some of the greatest talks in history have a secret – but common – structure that makes the message resonate with listeners. In Nancy’s groundbreaking TED talk, now with over 3 Million views, you’ll discover the secret structure of persuasive presentations and get some practical and inspiring tips on how to create a powerful call-to-action that can change your world.

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Talk transcript

It’s, it’s really, really great to be here. I, you have the power to change the world. I’m not saying that to be cliche. You really have the power to change the world. Deep inside of you, every single one of you has the most powerful device known to man, and that’s an idea. So, a single idea from the human mind. It can start a ground swell, it could be a flash point for a movement, and it can actually rewrite our future.

But, an idea is powerless if it stays inside of you. If you never pull that idea out for others to contend with, it will die with you.

Now, maybe some of you guys have tried to convey your idea, and it wasn’t adopted. It was rejected – and some other mediocre or average idea was adopted (instead).  The only difference between those two is in the way they were communicated. Because if you communicate an idea in a way that resonates, change will happen, and you can change the world.

So, in my family, we collect these vintage European posters.  Every time we go to Maui, we go to the dealer there and he sells these great big (vintage) posters. I love them. They all have one idea and one really clear visual that conveys the idea. They’re about the size of a mattress. They’re really big. They’re not as thick as a mattress, but they’re big. And the guy will tell the story (of each) as he turns the pages.

And this one time I was flanked by my two kids. And, he turned the page and this poster’s underneath, and right when I lean forward and say, “Oh my God, I love this poster!”, both of my kids jump back and they’re like, “Oh my God, mom, it’s you!!”  And this is the poster. (Laughter)

So yeah, I’m like fired up. The thing I loved about this poster was the irony.

Here’s this chick all fired up, headed into battle as the standard bearer, and she’s holding these little Suavitos baking spices.  It’s like something so seemingly insignificant – though she’s willing to risk, you know, life and limb to promote this thing. So, if you were to swap out those little Suavitos baking spices with a presentation. Yeah, it’s me. Pretty fired up.

I was fired up about presentations back when it wasn’t cool to be fired up about presentations. I really think they have the power to change the world when you communicate effectively through them. And changing the world is hard. It won’t happen with just one person with one single idea. That idea has got to spread, or it won’t be effective.  It has to come out of you, and out into the open for people to see.

And the way that ideas are conveyed the most effectively is through story. You know, for thousands of years, illiterate generations would pass on their values and their culture from generation to generation, and they would stay intact (through story).

There’s something kind of magical about a story structure that …when it’s assembled… makes it easy to be ingested and then recalled by the person who’s receiving it. So, basically, with a story, you get a physical reaction. Your heart can race, your eyes can dilate. You could talk about it and say, “Oh, I got a chill down my spine.” or “I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.” We actually physically react when someone’s telling us a story.

So, even though the stage is the same, a story can be told (and resonate) – but a presentation’s told, it completely flat lines. And I wanted to figure out why!  Why is it that we physically sit with rapt attention during a story, but it (our attention) just dies for a presentation?

I wanted to figure out how do to incorporate story into presentation.  We’ve had thousands of presentations back at the shop – hundreds-of-thousands of presentations actually. So, I knew the context of a really bad presentation.  And I decided to study cinema and literature and really dig in and figure out what was going on and why it (presentation) was broken.

So, I want to show you some of the findings that led up to what I think I’ve uncovered as a presentation form.  It was obvious to start with Aristotle. He had a three-act structure:  a beginning, a middle, and an end. We studied poetics and rhetoric, and a lot of presentations don’t even have that in its most simple form.

And then I moved on to studying hero archetypes, and I thought, “Oh, okay. The presenter’s the hero. They’re up on stage, they’re the star of the show.”  It’s really easy to feel that way as the presenter — that you’re the star of the show. Well, I realized right away that that’s really broken, because if I have an idea, I can put it out there, but if you guys don’t grab that idea and hold it as dear, the idea goes nowhere, and the world will never change.

So, in reality, the presenter isn’t the hero. The audience is the hero of our idea.  I you look at Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey – just at the front part – there are some really interesting insights there. There’s this likable hero in an ordinary world, and they get this call to adventure.

The world is kind of brought out of balance, and at first, they’re resistant.  They’re like, “I don’t know if I want to jump into this.” and then a mentor comes along and helps them move from their ordinary world into a special world. And that’s the role of the presenter. It’s to be the mentor. You’re not Luke Skywalker. You’re Yoda. You’re the one that actually helps the audience move from one thing and into your new special idea. And that’s the power of story.

In its most simple structure, it’s a three-part structure of a story. You have a likable hero who has a desire, and they encounter a roadblock, and ultimately they emerge transformed. That’s the basic structure.

But it wasn’t until I came across, Gustav Freytag’s pyramid. He drew this shape in 1863. Now he was a German dramatist. He’s a German dramatist. He believed there was a five-act structure, which has an exposition, a rising action, a climax, a falling action, and a denouement,  which is the unraveling or, or the resolution of the story.

Well, I love this shape.

(Let’s) talk about shape. Story has an arc. Well, an arc is a shape. We talk about classical music having a shapeliness to it. So, I thought, “Hey, if presentations had a shape, what would that shape be?” and “How, how do the greatest communicators use that shape? Or do they use a shape?”

I’ll never forget, it was a Saturday morning.  After all this study –  it was a couple years of study – I drew a shape and I was like, oh my gosh, if this shape is real, I should be able to take two completely different presentations and overlay it and it should be true.  So, I took the obvious. I took Martin Luther King’s, I Have a Dream speech, and I took Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch speech and I overlay them.  And it worked.

I sat in my office just astounded. I actually cried a little, because it was like, “I’ve been given this gift and here it is.”  This is the shape of a great presentation. Isn’t it amazing?  I was crying.  (Laughter)

So, I want to walk you through it because it’s actually pretty astounding. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I want to walk you through it because the greatest communicators of all time (use this shape). I went through speeches and everything, and I can actually overlay this shape. Even the Gettysburg address, follows this shape.

At the beginning of any presentation, you need to establish what is, you know, here’s the status quo, here’s what’s going on, and then you need to compare that to what could be.  Now, you need to make that gap (between the two) as big as possible because there’s the commonplace of the status quo, and you need to contrast that with the loftiness of your idea.

So, it’s like, “Here’s the past.  Here’s the present.  But look at our future.”  or here’s a problem but look at that problem removed.  Here’s a roadblock.  Let’s annihilate the roadblocks.

You need to really amplify that gap. This would be like the inciting incident in a movie. It’s when suddenly the audience has to contend with what you just put out there and they have to say, “Wow, do I want to agree with this and align with it or not?”  And then the rest of your presentation should support that.

So, (in) the middle, it goes back and forth. It traverses between what is and what could be, what is and what could be. Because what you’re trying to do is make the status quo and the normal unappealing, and you’re wanting to draw them towards what could be in the future with your idea adopted.

Now on your way to change the world, people are going to resist. They’re not going to be excited. They may love the world the way it is, so you’ll encounter resistance. That’s why you have to move back and forth. It’s similar to sailing. When you’re sailing against the wind, there is wind resistance, and you have to move your boat back and forth and back and forth so you can capture the wind.

You have to actually capture the resistance coming against you when you’re sailing. Now interestingly, if you capture the wind just right and you set your sail just right, your ship will actually sail faster than the wind itself. It’s a physics phenomenon. So, by planting in there the way they’re going to resist, between what is and what can be, it’s actually going to draw them towards your idea quicker than should you not do that.

So, after you’ve moved back and forth between what is and what could be, the last turning point is a call to action, which every presentation should have. But at the very end, you need to describe the world as a new bliss: This is utopia with my idea adopted.  This is the way the world is going to look when we join together, and we solve this big problem.  You need to use that as your ending, in a very poetic and a dramatic way.

So, Interestingly, when I was done, I was like, “You know what? I could use this as an analysis tool.” I actually transcribed speeches and I would actually map out how much they mapped to (this structure with) this tool.  So (now), I want to show you some of that today. I want to start with the very two people that I used when I first did (this).

Here’s Mr. Jobs, who has completely changed the world of personal computing. He changed the music industry, now he is on his way to change the.. mobile device industry.  He has definitely changed the world, and this is the shape of his iPhone launch speech from 2007 when he launched his iPhone.  It’s a 90-minute talk. You can see he starts with what is, traverses back and forth and ends with what could be.

I want to zoom in on this. The white line is him speaking. He’s just talking. The next color line you’ll see popped up there. That’s when he cuts to video. So, he is adding some variety and he cuts to a demo. So, it’s not just him talking the whole time. And these lines are representative there.

Then towards the end you’ll see a blue line, which will be the guest speaker. This is where it gets kind of interesting. Every tick mark here is when he made (the audience) laugh and every tick mark here is when he made them clap. They are so involved physically. They are physically reacting to what he is saying, which is actually fantastic because that’s when you know you have the audience, like in your hand.

So, he kicks off what is and what could be, with, “This is the day I have been looking forward to for two and a half years.” He’s launching a product that he’s known about already for a couple years. This is not a new product to him.

But look at this. He does this other thing. He marvels. He marvels at his own product. He marvels himself more than the audience laughs or claps. So, he’s like, isn’t it awesome? Isn’t this beautiful? He is modeling for the audience what he wants them to feel.  He is actually doing a good job of compelling them to feel a certain way.

He kicks off with what could be with this, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”  He starts to kick in and talk about his new product. Now, at the beginning of it, he actually keeps the phone off. You’ll see that the line is pretty white up until this point.  He goes off between, here’s this new phone… and… here’s the sucky competitor’s… and here’s this new phone … and here’s the sucky competitor’s.

And then right about here, he has the star moment. That’s something we’ll always remember. What he does, is he turns the phone on, (and) the audience sees scrolling for the first time.  You can hear the oxygen being sucked out of the room. They gasped. You can actually hear it. So, he creates a moment that they’ll always remember.

So, if we move along this model, you can see the blue where the external speakers are going, and then over towards the bottom right, the line break, that’s because his clicker broke. So, what does he do? He wants to keep this heightened sense of excitement. So, he tells a personal story right there, where the technology didn’t work.

Here’s the master communicator who turns to story to keep the audience involved. So, (at) the top right, he ends with the new bliss. He, he leaves him with a promise that Apple will continue to build revolutionary new products. And he says, “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love. ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.’ We’ve always tried to do that at Apple and from the very, very beginning and we always will.”  He ends with the new bliss.

(Now) Let’s look at Mr. King. He was amazing visionary. He’s a clergyman who spent his life working hard for equality and this is the shape of the I Have a Dream speech. You can see he starts with what is, moves back and forth between what is and what could be, ending with a very poetic new bliss, which is the famous part that we all know.

I’m going to spread it out a little bit here, stretch it for you. And what I’ve done here is I’ve put the actual transcript there along with the text. I know you can’t read it, but at the end of every line break, I broke the line there because he took a breath and he paused.

Now, he was a southern Baptist preacher. Most people hadn’t heard that. So, he had a real cadence and a rhythm that was really new for the people there. So, I want to cover up these lines of text with a bar, because I want to use this bar as an information device here. So, let’s walk through how he actually spoke to the people.

The blue bars here are going to be when he used the actual rhetorical device of repetition. So, he was repeating himself, he was using the same words and phrases as, so people could remember and recall them.

He also used a lot of metaphors and visual words. This was a way to take really complicated ideas and make them memorable and knowledgeable so people got it.  He actually created… almost like scenes with his words, to make it so they could envision what he was saying.

There were also a lot of familiar songs and scriptures that he used. This is just the front end of it that you’re seeing.  He also made a lot of political references of the promises that were made to the people.

So, if we look at the very first end of what is, at the very end of what is, was the very first time that people actually clapped and roared really loud.  At end of what is, is when he said this, “America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check, which is come back, marked insufficient funds.”

Well, everyone knows what it’s like to not have money in your account. So, he used a metaphor people were very familiar with. But when they really charged up, the very first time they really, really screamed was (when he said), “So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” That’s when they really clapped. It was when he compared what currently is, to what could be.

So, when we move along a little farther in the model, you’ll see it goes back and forth at a more frenzied pace –  this is when he goes back and forth, and back and forth. Now, the audience was in a frenzy. You know, they were all excited – and you can actually do this to keep (people) in a heightened sense of excitement.

He says, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” So, you can see (used a little orange text there) to remind him of the promise that the politicians had made to him or that this country had made.

Then he moves back and forth between, I have a dream that one day…. I have a dream that one day…. I have a dream that one day… and then at the end, it gets really interesting, because he uses… you can look at the four shades of green. There’s a lot of blue there, which was a lot of repetition. He had a heightened sense of repetition, and the green was a heightened sense of songs and scriptures.

So, the first batch of green was an actual scripture from the book of Isaiah. The second batch of green was My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Now, that’s a familiar song that was specifically, very significant for the black people at the time because this song was the song they chose to change the words to as an outcry, saying the promises had not been kept.

So, the third batch of green was actually stanza from My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and then the fourth was a Negro spiritual (where he said) “Free at last, Free at last. Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” So, what he did was to actually reach inside of the hearts of the audience. He pulled from scripture, which was important. He pulled from songs that they’d sung together as an outcry against this outrage.

And he used those as a device to connect and resonate with the audience. Ending, by painting a picture of this new bliss, using the very things inside of them that they already held as sacred. So, he was a great man. He had a big, big dream.  And there are a lot of people here… You guys have really big dreams. You have really big ideas inside of you that you need to get out.

But you know what? We encounter hardships. It’s not easy to change the world. It’s a big job. You know (Martin Luther King), his house was bombed. He was stabbed with a letter opener, and ultimately lost his life, you know, for what he cared about.  But a lot of us aren’t going to be required to make that kind of sacrifice.

But what does happens is, it’s basically is a little bit like that basic story structure. Life can be like that, where you know, you guys are all likable people. You have a desire. You encounter roadblocks. And we stop there. We’re just like, you know, “I had this idea, well, I’m not, I’m not going to put it out there. It’s been rejected.”

You know, we … self-sabotage our own ideas and we just butt up against the roadblocks instead of choosing to let the struggle transform us. In choosing to go ahead and have a dream and make it real…. And, you know (laughs), if anyone, if I can do this, anybody can do this.

I was raised in an economically and emotionally starved environment.  The first time I got to go to a camp with my sister, I was abused. It wasn’t the first time I was abused though. It was just the most aggressive.  And my mom and dad, they married each other three times.  (Audience gasps) Yeah, that was tumultuous – and when they weren’t fighting, they were helping sober up some alcoholic that was living with us because they were both sober alcoholics.

My mom abandoned us when I was 16 years old, and I took on the role of caretaker of my home and my siblings. And I um, married.  I met a man, fell in love. I went to a year of college. I did what every single bright young girl should do, ’cause I got married when I was 18 years old.

And you know what? I knew, I knew that I was born for more than this.

Right at that point in the story of my life, I had a choice. I could let all these things push me down and I could let all my ideas die inside of me. I could just say, you know, “Life is too hard to change the world. It’s just too tough!”  But I chose a different story for my life.

(Shows Suavitos Baking Spices Poster- Audience laughs) Don’t you know it?

And so, I feel like there’s people in this room that you’ve got those little Suavitos baking spices and, and, and you’re just like,  “You know, it’s really not that big a deal.  It’s really not the whole world I can change.” But you know, you can change your world. You can change your life. You can change the world that you have control on. You can change your sphere, and I want to encourage you to do that. Because you know what? The future isn’t a place that we’re gonna go. It’s a place that you get to create.

I want to thank you. Bless you. God bless you!  Thank you.