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Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc

Nancy Duarte tells The Industry Leaders about her experiences with adversity, both in her professional and personal life, and how they eventually contributed to her many successes as Principal of Silicon Valley communications agency, Duarte, Inc.

How did you end up sitting where you are today?

It's been a more arduous journey to get here than most. I was raised in an economically and emotionally starved environment, which came with neglect and abuse. I met my husband in junior high and went to college for a year, where I got a C minus in speech communications and a D in English. And so I dropped out of college and did what every bright, young girl shouldn’t do: I got married when I was 18. It was, however, to the love of my life, so that was a huge blessing.

Then, I basically bounced down to the Bay Area just with that credentialing from college. But I also had a lot of moxie. I was well read; I read every new business book and every new strategy book, so that by the time I was 28, I could walk into the office of CEOs and tell them, “Hey, you're not doing it right. Here's how you should be influencing, and here's how to do spoken word in a way that creates influence.”

I got where I am today through a combination of moxie, hard work, and being at the right place at the right time.

Check out the full interview with Nancy interview, here:

How did you get through the door of these Silicon Valley CEOs? And how did you get them to take you seriously as a young, 28 year old without an Ivy League background?

In 1988, we entered the market of presentation development and design. Back then, PowerPoint was still in black and white, and before that, you could hire professional companies that made 35 millimetre slides. Then everything went from the hands of professional designers to the hands of the masses. Average users didn't know how to do any of this, so we entered the market right then, during this transition.

We were one of the first agencies that specialised in building presentations. My husband was a technical illustrator — he could look at a device and draw it photo realistically at a time when people used to use black electrical tape and exacto knives to plot charts and turn them into stats. So when I started pitching to people that we could do that on a computer and make it look photorealistic, it generated a lot of interest.

And then, in ’93, once we had gotten into the C suite and gotten into some of the really big brands here in Silicon Valley, one of the most significant things happened: Apple had a massive layoff. It was terrible for them, but great for my business. All my clients that had been with Apple were scattered across Silicon Valley, and they joined other organisations. So that was a big benefit to us.

It sounds like you credit a lot of this to you being in the right place at the right time, but there's obviously much more to it than that.

Yes, there is. Being an entrepreneur certainly isn't for the weak. When my kids were small, and the business was exploding, I only got one REM cycle a night. I would sleep for four hours on average. I don't recommend that — now I sleep eight to nine hours every night — but it's what I had to do so that I could be a mother and build a business at the same time. So it was not without sacrifice. There were a lot of skinned knees and learned lessons along the way.

Your company is now one of the largest employers of female talent in Silicon Valley. How important is that to you, and what do you think it does for the perception and direction of the Duarte brand?

I'm very proud of how diverse we are, and we're working on becoming even more diverse. Currently, we are 47 per cent BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of colour) and 67 per cent female, and that's really fantastic. In fact, one of our clients is on the Fortune Five Hundred, and they said that we are in the top 10% in diversity out of all of their suppliers.

I wish I could say it was intentional, but since I’m female and my husband is Hispanic, our business was just seen as a safe place to be female and BIPOC. You tend to attract people to you that are like you. Actually, in order to be recognised as a female-led supplier, I had to buy one per cent of the company from my husband, so that I could own 51 per cent.

We've been auditing all of our own suppliers to ensure that there's diversity there as well. That mix of cultures within one business hasn’t been an issue because the psychometrics have really helped us in understanding each other. We're actually coming out with a beautiful listening course. I don't think it's what people would expect from us, but it is so powerful. There's nothing like it out there, and part of it’s beauty comes from our deep understanding of each other and our valuing of psychometric tools.

Nancy Duarte working alongside a male colleague

As your company revolves around communications, how do you determine someone’s skill at being a good communicator or a good salesperson when you’re looking to hire them?

We look for lifelong learners, and we ask a lot of questions about their curiosity more than anything. We want to know how and what they want to learn, and whether they stay curious. Knowing why you want to learn more is the biggest part of being confident in who you are, and it helps you to influence others. Influence is an art; leadership is an art — it’s almost like performance art. So, when looking to hire people, I want to know how they’d show up and portray themselves.

Before I interviewed a couple of salespeople, I asked them to show up as if they were selling to a public CEO of a massive company. The first person showed up on the video call, and he was in his kitchen. I could tell that it was a messy kitchen, but he did have on a suit and tie so I gave a little credit for that. The second person called me from his baby's nursery wearing a plaid shirt that was too small for him, so much so that it kept gaping open and showing too much of his chest.

I wasn’t expecting much, but we do require people to have a natural sense of presence and know how to give that good first impression. We have requirements so that we can see how self-aware people are, as well as how open they are to getting to know themselves better. Know thyself and manage thyself. Only then can you influence others.

What do you think should be more important to the founder of a new startup? Fantastic copy or fantastic design?

The Duarte method is made up of three things. One of them is content; the second is visuals; the third is delivery. If I were to rank them, I would say that the content — what we call story — is king. Content comes first, and that’s followed by delivery, and then visuals comes third.

Content can be structured in the form of a story. Our brains are wired for story. We’re naturally open to that, which is why content is first. Delivery refers to the medium you’re using to communicate that content. The only reason I stack visuals third is that you have to have the ability with the spoken word first in order to craft your words into vivid imagery. So, even if you don't have the opportunity for designed visuals, you can still create a very vivid narrative with words alone.

But I don’t want to diminish the power of visuals either; all three together are powerful. If these three things were circles in a Venn diagram, the centre, where they overlap, would be empathy. That's the number one thing. Empathy for your audience will guide you to the appropriate content, delivery and visuals. Don't do a single thing without first considering what your audience needs.

What would you say is the biggest thing that you've bounced back from, either personally or professionally?

I think resilience is a muscle, and some blows are harder, and they make you a little more sore, but the blows teach you how to plan for new crises. The pandemic, for example, is my fifth crisis. I haven’t had it easy, but I’ve learned forgiveness, adaptability and resilience from these experiences.

Being an expert in stories, I’ve learned to focus on the messy parts that make up the middle of the story. Movies might spend ten per cent of their time on the beginning and ten per cent on the ending, but the middle, the messy part, takes up the majority of the story. It’s the crises — it's the car chase; it's the monster; it's the getting impaled in the shoulder. Life is messy, and we need to talk about that. As long as talking about it brings hope to others, I'm going to talk about it. So I'm just super open to sharing about my big, old mess.

There are a lot of victories there, too. Every mess has an ending, and thinking of the ending works as a good coping mechanism. There's always resolve, and that's what always gives me hope. The third act of the story will come, and there will be resolution.

Do you ever cringe when you share your messes? I know I do if I share something particularly personal. I’ll wonder whether putting something like that out there is the best thing to do. Do you ever have that feeling, or are you just over it now?

Well, it comes back to empathy. There are some audiences I would never go there with where the most I’ll share is a lighthearted self-deprecating comment. Then there's other audiences, more female audiences, who I’ll go there with. There's times I've wept openly from the stage. It depends on the audience. You can have a stronger emotional appeal to some and a more analytical appeal to others.

What's the best advice that you would give to someone just starting out and dealing with the struggle, or to someone who has been having a rough time and can’t get to where they want to be?

I have two bits of advice. Firstly, it took me a long time to realise that I could buy back time. How you make bets with your time is the most important thing a leader can do. You can tell a lot about someone’s value system by analysing their calendar. One of the things early on that saved me and my marriage was hiring a housekeeper to come in and take the responsibility of housekeeping off of me. Now if I can hire someone to do something, I don't do it myself anymore because I know how to manage my time. I always have two hours a day on my calendar set aside, and I make sure that I only do so many internal and external meetings a week. It took me a long time to protect my calendar and leave the right gaps for those surprises that come up.

A second piece of advice is for the leaders and managers that forget that they’re generalists. I was really struggling when the company was made up of about 36 people, and I was still at the hub. I was not working sustainably, so I hired my best friend who'd worked at Stanford in the animal lab, which is hysterical because he was probably the most qualified to come and deal with my little zoo I was trying to form, and I asked him to watch me work throughout the day and to write up descriptions of jobs he thought I needed to delegate to new people.

Each time he wrote one up, I saw it as a part of my job that was going to be peeled away. I would take it home, and I would weep over the loss of it because I knew that if I didn't consider that role as dead to me, the new person coming in to do it would not be successful. I would be expecting them to do the job like I did. So I had to learn to delegate properly and let those things go.

As we enter 2022, what's next for you personally, and for Duarte Inc.?

We set up a vision in January, right before COVID hit, and the vision was so profound and motivating for our team. We wanted to transform how a million people communicate and influence, and everyone was so excited. And then the pandemic hit, but we stuck to our strategy anyway. And that's one of the things that a crisis tests — your strategy. It tests your vision, your values, everything. And everything stayed true despite the crisis.

Patti Sanchez, who’s on my team, co-wrote Illuminate with me, and she just came out with her own book called Presenting Virtually. You're gonna see a lot more books from Duarte being fed to you through different forms of media. It's very exciting. I don't want to share too much because we haven't announced it at all, but I'm more sparkly about the future than I've been in a while.

Where should people follow you so that they can see these drops when they happen?

You can subscribe to our newsletter at There's also where people can pick up a bunch of super valuable free resources.

I’m also on LinkedIn; I'm super active on there. Duarte, the company page, makes a lot of announcements as well.

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