By Nancy Duarte
Two years ago, I set out to uncover how story applies to presentations. There seemed to be a story-like magic to the presentations that caused change and spread broadly. Since I already had the context of thousands of presentations my firm had created for smart companies and causes, I studied what I didn’t know: screenwriting, literature, mythology, and philosophy—allowing myself to be led on a fascinating journey.
Early in my research, I stumbled on this graphic made in 1863 by German dramatist Gustav Freytag that he used to visualize the five-act structure popular in Greek and Shakespearean dramas. It shows the “shape” of a dramatic story. The drama builds toward a climax and then resolves.
When I saw Freytag’s pyramid, I knew that powerful presentations must also have a contour. I just didn’t quite know what the shape looked like yet. I also knew that presentations are different from dramatic stories because in a presentation, it’s rare to have a lone protagonist whose story builds toward a single climactic moment. Presentations have more layers and have disparate pieces of information to convey. Dramatic stories have a single climax as the crowning event whereas great presentations move along with multiple peaks that propel them forward.
I’ll never forget the Saturday morning when I finally sketched out a shape. I knew that if it was accurate, I should be able to overlay it onto two very different yet game-changing presentations. So I painstakingly analyzed Steve Jobs’s 2007 iPhone launch and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Both mapped to the form I had sketched. I cried. Literally. It felt like such a mystery had been revealed.
There’s something sacred about stories. They have an almost supernatural power that should be wielded wisely. Religious scholars, psychologists, and mythologists have studied stories for decades, trying to determine the secret to their power.
It’s still the dawn of the information age, and we are all overwhelmed with too many messages bombarding us and trying to lure us to acquire and consume information (then repeat the process over and over). We live in a more selfish and cynical era, which makes it tempting to be detached. Technology has given us many ways to communicate, but only one is truly human: in-person presentations. Genuine connections create change.