TED | Nancy Duarte: The Secret Structure of Great Talks

Posted on February 9, 2012


The most powerful device known to man: an idea. A single idea from the human mind; it can start a groundswell, a flashpoint for a movement, and it can rewrite the future. But, an idea is powerless if it stays inside of you.

The only difference between an idea that is adopted and an idea that dies is the way it is communicated.

Changing the world is a big job.

The way ideas are conveyed most effectively is through Story. There’s something magical about a story structure that makes it so that when it’s assembled it can be ingested and recalled by the person receiving it. When a story is told, the heart quickens. When a presentation is told, the heart flat-lines. Why do we sit with rapt attention at a story, but are bored with a presentation?

How do you incorporate story?

Aristotle had a three-act structure. And, there are heroes and archetypes. But if you look more closely, the audience is really the hero. In the stories there are the following…

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting With the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold

As a “presenter” or “story-teller” you are the mentor.

So, in it’s most simple structure, you have a likeable hero, and they encounter a roadblock, and ultimately they emerge transformed.

Freytag’s Dramatic story structure (5-act structure):

Story has an arc, a shape.

So, if presentations had a shape, what shape would that be? Here it is:

The greatest communicators use this shape.

The gap between “what is” and “what could be” needs to be big. The middle of this shape goes back and forth.

On your way to change the world, people will resist. People love the way things are. This is where the resistance comes in. You have to move back and forth. This is similar to sailing. If you capture the wind (the resistance) just right, and you set your sail just right, you’ll actually sail faster than the wind itself.

After you’ve moved back and forth, there’s a call to action. There is a new bliss. You need to use that as your ending in a very dramatic and poetic way.

You can use this as an analysis tool.

There is also much involvement from the audience.

Here is MLK’s “I Have A Dream Speech.”

The future is not a place that we get to go. It’s a place that you get to create.