Designing the Perfect Presentation

The design firm behind Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth offers insights on improving a presentation

Former Vice-President Al Gore raised the bar on presentation skills with An Inconvenient Truth. But he didn't do it alone. I wrote a column about the movie when the DVD was released because it demonstrates some very good techniques that we all can apply to our own presentations (see, 12/20/06, "Al Gore's Convenient Presentation"). At the time, however, I was unaware of the firm behind the presentation: Duarte Design, based in Mountain View, Calif. I sat down recently with one of the firm's principals, Nancy Duarte, and a group of designers to learn how to turn any presentation into a multimedia powerhouse.

First some background: Gore had been giving talks on global warming since 1989. His lecture consisted of flip charts and photographs in 35mm slide format. In 2003, Duarte transformed the content into a multimedia presentation with animation, movie clips, and images. The difference was like making the leap from a silent movie to Independence Day.

Gore's multimedia presentation caught the attention of producer Laurie David, who turned it into a movie. Fast-forward to February 25, 2007, and Gore is speaking to 1 billion viewers around the world as he accepts an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The key message of Gore's presentation has always remained the same, but the new presentation made it accessible to a contemporary audience in a multimedia world.

Recruiting Evangelists

Listening to Duarte's designers describe the process they take to develop presentations for corporate clients such as Google (GOOG), Cisco (CSCO), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), left me with a sense of what's possible in contemporary storytelling. Many of us who use Apple Keynote (AAPL) or Microsoft PowerPoint (MSFT) presentation software fail to use the tools as effectively as possible.

Of course, most of us aren't graphic designers and may never be able to replicate all of the aspects of Duarte's presentations on our own. However, these techniques apply to every one of our presentations, regardless of our understanding of design concepts. But it does take some brainstorming and, in many cases, a thorough re-evaluation of how to get our ideas across in presentations. But it needs to be done. You see, in order for information to be acted upon, it needs to be clear to our audience and to strike an emotional chord with them. Once it's clear and emotional, we stand a much better chance of winning them over and turning them into evangelists!

In the accompanying slide show, I offer seven keys I learned from Duarte that can be applied to any presentation.

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