Nancy Duarte changed my life. Well, my life as a keynote speaker anyway.


Like many people, when I was on stage (often terribly nervous), I used to rely on prompt cards, pages of notes, or if I was lucky, presenter view on powerpoint, just in case I got lost during my presentation. Some years ago I started to study the best presented and set out on a quest to study what made their messages so powerful. I read all kinds of books, from Dale Carnegie’s Art of Public Speaking to more recent books like Talk like TED and Steal the Show.  (I’m really looking forward to Chris Anderson’s new book The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking).


I learned all kinds of interesting things from those books, but there are two things in particular that I have never forgotten:

  1. In Dale Carnegie’s book (written over 100 years ago back in 1915) he explained how presenters should not spend more than 75 seconds presenting their opening pitch, because people’s attention spans were too short!
  2. In Talk Like TED, I learned how the best TED speakers dedicate up to 10 hours per minute that they present, in order to make their presentation as powerful as possible. (For an 18 minute TED talk that’s up to 180 hours time for preparation and practice!)


“Don’t practice your presentation until you get it right, practice it until you can’t get it wrong”.


What all these books also taught me was that great storytelling takes the form of 3 acts. A beginning, a middle, and an end. It has been this way for thousands of years going back to Aristotle. It is the reason why screenplays and theatrical productions are written in 3 parts. Each part has a specific purpose, with the objective being to take you on an emotional journey that connects you with the characters and the storyline.



This was the format for all my talks and they generally went something like this:

  • Act ONE: Introduce my characters and  set the scene for a big challenge that needs to be overcome.
  • Act TWO: Tell stories about the people (and brands) who have been fighting these challenges and explain the positive (and negative) outcomes.
  • Act THREE: Finish with the finale of some great insights and an uplifting (business) lesson that leaves the audience more informed and entertained.


Or at least that was how I used to structure my keynotes until I heard Nancy Duarte give this amazing TED talk back in 2010:


I won’t labour the point as it’s just easier if you watch the clip ~ but I highly recommend watching it. And if you do, bear a thought to how it might impact the kind of presentations and stories that you tell.


These days, instead of having to rely on powerpoint notes or reminder cards on stage in case I get stuck, I just write every keynote on one open page in this format. (This will only make sense if you’ve watched Nancy’s talk, but believe me, it’s 18 minutes well spent) >>


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Writing my keynotes in this form means that I have all the facts and quotes I need in one view, just in case I need to rely on them. Of course, this only works if I have put in the hours of preparation running through the talk itself, (because I need to be looking at the audience and not my notebook), but that is not the purpose of this format. It’s not to help me remember facts and figures, it’s to remind me that I am telling people a story. There are emotional highs and lows… challenges and victories… big problems and glorious solutions…


And if I have done my job well, in the end we are all hopefully better off, having something useful and practical to take back to the office, to apply the very next day.


Steve Jobs famously wrote his keynotes in a format devised by the scriptwriters at Pixar. (You can actually overlay the original iPhone launch back in 2007 with Finding Nemo, released 4 years earlier. Airbnb used Pixar storyboard architects to help them rebrand in 2012/13, knowing that they needed a better format to help their guests and hosts connect emotionally with their brand. Fast Company wrote a good article about the whole process here.


As with all these things, the most simple idea is usually the best. I was scared at first when I started to go on stage without all my cue cards and slide notes, but I’ll never forget the first time I presented in this format and got a huge ovation from the audience. Something unexpected for a business presentation about disruptive technology.


Try it for yourself the next time you need to give a talk, interview for that new job or pitch your new idea to investors. Good or bad, I’d love to know how you got on! Let me know @jeremywaite.


  • Nancy Duarte has published a book about the art of storytelling, Illuminate, with coauthor Patti Sanchez. Duarte is also the author of the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, as well as two award-winning books on the art of presenting, Slide:ology and Resonate. Her team at Duarte, Inc., has created more than a quarter of a million presentations for its clients and teaches public and corporate workshops on presenting.

Communications Designer @IBM • Climate Reality Leader • Lover of Old Business Books, Clever Technology and the NHS • Based in London, UK.

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