March Reading Club: Stories > Data

Sneaking in just before April does, I've decided to come out swinging with an frankly uncontroversial idea which may still split my colleagues, but only one this month.

Resonate, by Nancy Duarte


I first got this book when I worked as a stooge in a Change Management team, though I know my boss at the time would severely resist my characterisation as a stooge (I was the IT person). We were struggling to find fresh ways to get across a dull, but also rather worrisome, message to our colleagues about a major system upgrade which in true English tradition, sounded less like an upgrade and more like a massive inconvenience. Resonate was refreshing in its clear illustration of complex ideas particularly non standard format and layout, which values the use of spacing and diagrams. It's a slightly odd book to read from cover to cover but like its subject matter, it takes you on a journey. This is because Resonate, on its face reduced to that much underrated/disparaged art of presentation, is really about the big bad wolf behind presenting, which is story telling.

We think in stories; we told stories before we could write, and certainly before we could count (or indeed, make charts about counting). Before most of us could read, one of the most revered jobs in medieval European society was that of the story teller. The power of a good story and the damp squib of a terrible one is I think one root of why people get worried about presenting, because fucking it up is an error on your most basically human, yet also most advanced, cognitive heritage.

Duarte dissects famous stories, speeches and presentations to demonstrate her points about presenting and story telling, demonstrating the arc which she outlines that more works (like presentations) should follow (my favourite example being the one for Star Wars). I found it packed full of very useful advice about giving better presentations, which have stayed with me six years after reading it the first time (which I have boiled down to on a daily basis as 'why am I telling you this?'). Often, the reason why someone is telling anyone anything is because they want a response, whether something as simple as empathy or needing the other person to do something to help them. However, without context, that response can often go wrong, because I don't know why you're telling me something, or, I don't know why I should care that you're telling me something. This relationship point of view analysis is really invaluable because the subtle message behind viewing it this way is that the person with the information isn't the centre of that instance of the story - it's the person you want a response from.

This is not just relevant to presentations, but also to visualisations, infographics, meetings... you name it. I have a physical copy and it is a slightly oddly shaped book in order to accommodate the diagrams and structure of the content, but there's also an e-book version available on Duarte's website.

As such, although the book focuses on presentations, I would recommend it to anyone who may have to fight their corner and persuade people in their work - it's as simple as telling a story.