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The Presenter as Mentor

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Drive your seminar attendees to action, not distraction — become a better storyteller. Indeed, two of the most powerful presentations in history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, used storytelling as a structural device.

For speaking to large groups or presenting one-on-one, there’s no more compelling way to package your message than in a story framework. So says Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design, focusing exclusively on presentations. She is passionate about using storytelling to connect with audiences and rouse them to action.

Wrapping a presentation in story casts you as a mentor — the wise storyteller. That goes far to link audiences to your idea and persuade, Duarte says.

In her most recent book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences (Wiley 2010), she reveals how to emotionally connect and make presentations memorable experiences by employing story techniques typically used only for screenwriting and novels.

Duarte Design, one of Silicon Valley’s largest design firms, has created some 250,000 presentations for the world’s top brands. Its clients include Adobe, American Express, E*Trade, General Electric, Google, Microsoft and Wells Fargo Wealth Management, to name a few.          

A Berkeley, Calif., native, Duarte, 48, started out selling office supplies, then custom high-frequency cable assemblies. Meantime, she married Mark Duarte, who, in 1980, founded Duarte Design while in college.

Two years after they wed, Nancy, then 20, joined Mark in what became a family enterprise. A keen strategist, she now heads the Mountain View, Calif.-based firm; Mark is CFO, builds custom databases and oversees I.T.

One recent afternoon, Research talked with Nancy, a dynamic, in-demand speaker herself, about how to build trust through storytelling, the best kinds of stories for FAs to tell — and more. Here is some of what she had to say about merging facts with story to turn flatliner presentations into sparkling gems.

Financial advisors need to differentiate themselves from their competition. Is storytelling a good way?

Advisors have to play this very carefully: They need to come across as very proficient and adding value, but they also need to make that emotional connection. Aristotle said that facts alone aren’t sufficient to persuade — you need three types of arguments: emotional appeal (pathos); analytic, or logical, appeal (logos); and [ethical] appeal (ethos).

So often, especially in the financial world, we jump right into the analytical. But there has to be at least a thin layer of letting audiences see your human side and why they should follow you. A lot of that comes out in the sincere stories we tell about ourselves.

But how effective is storytelling?

Story can connect the audience to your material and whatever you’re trying to persuade them to do. If you and your competitor’s product and offerings are equal but if you connect emotionally with the client and the other firm doesn’t, they’ll choose your product over the competitor’s. However, if you tell stories that are contrived, your credibility can be diminished.

What story form is best for advisors to use?

All the greatest communicators use story structure. It has a clear beginning, middle and end. It has tension and release of tension. A good story form for the advisor is where the tension and release comes from contrasting what currently is, with what could be: You’re currently here with your finances — and here’s where you could be. Using that as a structural device will get you really far in persuading [clients].

What kinds of stories should advisors tell?

You want to use a story that not only amplifies your material but makes it memorable. The story has to be relevant to the material and tie in naturally. It needs to be a story that’s told with personal conviction. It can be a fable or a personal story, but it doesn’t have to be a personal anecdote or a once-upon-a-time kind of story.

For example, data has narrative in it. With a chart, you can explain the reasons for the rise and fall. That’s a story right there. There’s narrative in numbers.

How does what you call “The Big Idea” apply to advisor presentations?

The two elements of your unique point of view and what is at stake put together in a sentence create The Big Idea. If I say, “The Florida Wetlands,” that’s a topic not a Big Idea. If I say, “The Florida Wetlands are being destroyed by humans,” that’s my point of view. But if I add “…and it’s going to cost taxpayers $700 billion,” that’s what’s at stake.

The Big Idea is your guidepost. Connect everything in your presentation to your Big Idea. If you haven’t established your Big Idea, you don’t have that guiding light to help give your presentation laser focus.

How important is it to create a “S.T.A.R. Moment,” as you put it?

S.T.A.R. stands for Something They’ll Always Remember, and every presentation should have that. It could be a shocking statistic; an evocative visual — a powerful slide, possibly; a demonstration; a repeatable sound bite. It’s something the audience will never forget. [Apple’s] Steve Jobs uses suspense before he demonstrates his product, and that’s his S.T.A.R. Moment. You want people at the water cooler chatting about what they’ve learned from you. Your S.T.A.R. Moment has to be planned and be not only memorable but effective.

How does a good presenter minimize the “noise” that can distort his or her message?

If you have too much going on — both a verbal signal and a visual signal — the audience can’t process it all at the same time. Both channels need to support each other. It’s easier to just slap a bunch of stuff on a slide and wing it — throw a bunch of words together — than do something really carefully. If you show a really complex chart and are talking a mile a minute, the audience is either going to be processing what’s on the chart or listening to you — but not both.

So what are some tips for creating slides that will help support what you’re saying?

You’re guiding the audience through complex data. Therefore, you need to make sure the slides are very clear and simple to understand. Use neutral colors except for the parts you want them to focus on; use color in those places for emphasis. That way, you’re drawing their eye to the conclusions you want them to make from the data. It’s both an art and a science!

How does storytelling help create a mentor relationship?

In myths and movies, whoever speaks the most is usually the hero. But I’ve learned that, in presentations, the presenter is not the hero. The audience is the hero because you’re putting your idea out there for them to accept or reject. And when you defer to the audience as the hero, right away that puts you in a completely different position. If the audience is the hero, then the presenter is the mentor.

In myths and movies, the mentor gives the hero a useful gift, a magic tool (something for your S.T.A.R. Moment, maybe) or helps them get unstuck. So it’s not just you trying to make a sale — it’s about adding some piece of value to clients’ lives. In being a mentor, you take a stance of humility.

How can storytelling help advisors learn more about a client’s hopes and dreams?

In a one-on-one, the best thing is to listen and then modify your talk based on what you hear. The only way to resonate deeply with someone is to understand what’s already inside them. So listen very well and then synthesize what you’ve heard and embed it in your talk.

From what you hear or observe, there may be something that reminds you of a story or anecdote, and you can fold it in. If you’re given a limited time slot, make your presentation a part of that and spend the rest of the time conversing and connecting.

How can advisors avoid turning off clients and prospects with jargon?

A mentor wouldn’t use jargon or big words to try to impress because a mentor is someone who genuinely cares about the audience and their understanding of the subject matter. Pulling acronyms and shorthand into your presentation makes the audience feel stupid or not qualified to even understand their own finances. You want to come alongside the investor and make them feel like you’re qualified to mentor them.

You could do the grandmother test: If you explain what you do and why she needs it to your grandmother, and she “gets” it, you’ve stripped out all the jargon. It’s important that we use someone as a sounding board who will be honest with us.

Is telling jokes advisable?

I don’t love telling jokes. What I love is when people laugh. Stories can make them laugh. You’re trying to elicit a physical response. If you can get your audience to relax or lean forward or gasp, all those things mean they’re very involved with your material. You shouldn’t use some random joke just to make them laugh.

But if you have 10 or 15 jokes in your head and know at just the right moment which one to pull out, and if the joke is completely appropriate and timed amazingly, and comes across not rehearsed and is funny, it might work. But just slotting in a joke can seem contrived — and anything contrived can make you lose credibility and trust.

How can storytelling help advisors demonstrate transparency?

Transparency is about sincerity and honesty. That’s the cool thing about stories: They give audiences a peek into you and let them feel like you’re trusted and that you’d be a good friend to them — that you’re going to watch out for them and have their best interest at heart.

Your delivery should be warm, but you don’t want to be hyper-emotional. The tone of a financial presentation needs to be a little more serious in nature but very caring. You have to build a sense of trust.