Step Out from Behind the Curtain: An Interview with Mark and Nancy Duarte

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Nancy Duarte has driven the vision and growth of Duarte for 20 years, building an internationally respected design firm, which has created over a quarter of a million presentations. She has helped shape the perceptions of many of the world’s leading brands and thought leaders. Nancy is the author of the best-selling and award winning book Slide:ology The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, where her experience was distilled into best practices for business communicators. She continues to advance new forms of presentation through partnerships with innovative forums like TED and PopTech. Nancy serves as a TED Fellows committee member, is a 2009 Woman of Influence and 2008 Communicator of the Year. Nancy’s next book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences will be published by Wiley and in bookstores October 2010.

Mark Duarte started Duarte two decades ago out of a passion for design and technology that burns stronger than ever today. He simply loved doing the work. In addition to keeping an experienced eye on the company’s top and bottom lines – and what’s in between – Mark navigates the leading edges of IT to ensure that Duarte’s teams have the computing power, platform availability, security and communications tools that distinguish Duarte from the rest of the industry. He built and continues to refine Duarte’s acclaimed resource planning and reporting system. And, to keep his versatile design chops current, Mark regularly lends his skills to personally support major client events. A quiet and perceptive man of great faith, Mark is the company’s spiritual leader who helps ensure personal balance and wise decisions across the organization.

Recently, Mark and Nancy Duarte talked with The High Calling about what it looks like to integrate faith and work when you live in Silicon Valley.

We promise you will want to read this through to the end.

How do you define what you do?

Our firm helps write and produce presentations for the greatest brands and thought leaders in the world. We created a methodology steeped in audience empathy and story structure that creates an audience connection with the speaker, enabling the spread of ideas and changes to outcomes. We’re the largest agency in the world who solely focuses on in-person, web, and device presentations.

How did you get your start in communication design?

We fell into this and we often say that if we knew back then what we were getting ourselves into, we would have been too scared to start. Mark started the business with a technical illustration service in 1988. At the same time, the presentation industry was moving away from 35mm slides and onto desktop machines. The price of desktop projectors became reasonably priced around 1992 and by then we were already the go-to shop for presentations by many companies here in the Silicon Valley. We had to invent and innovate along the way because there were no best-practices at the time. So by trial and error, we figured out what types of visual storytelling was effective and what wasn’t. We hired people smarter and more creative than us as we continued to grow and never imagined the influence on business and culture we would have.

What attracts you to the communication design business?

The only difference between a mediocre idea getting adopted and a great idea getting rejected is the way it’s communicated. At Duarte, we love shaping information into story structures and making complex ideas visually easy to understand. If you’re familiar with the Wizard of Oz, we’re kind of like the man behind the curtain making the powerful Oz look awesome.

What life lessons have you learned from your involvement in communication design?

Communication: One big life lesson has come from having to step out from behind that curtain in Oz and take a spot on the stage itself. When Nancy wrote her first book there was demand for her to travel and speak. External expectations were set pretty high for “The Presentation Lady” to be a great presenter, so she had to work hard at the craft herself. As the business grew, our own internal high stakes meetings had to be much more carefully constructed and communicated. We started to lose relevance with our own staff if we didn’t use our own principles to present. And presenting right requires a big time investment.

Passion: Another lesson we’ve learned is to follow our passion. Even though most design agencies hate using the presentation tools available, we embraced them, and built an excellent service in this “reviled” medium over the years. Presentations have left such a sour taste in so many mouths because of how poorly they were developed and delivered, but wherever someone feels pain (presentations) a business opportunity exists. We were persistent in our conviction that oral communications is possibly one of the most powerful persuasion tools known to man. So we stuck with it now for almost 25 years and have re-defined the industry and what a presentation can be.

How can Duarte be successful during challenging economic times?

Being a good steward in the good times, gives you cushion in the bad times. We are fiscally conservative and hole most of our income away during feast years so we’re prepared for lean times. In the downturn, we have cash in the bank. That said, the most important thing we do during the good times is innovate. We did just that. In 2007, before a downturn was on anyone’s radar, Nancy could see the downturn coming. She knew she needed to write a book. It was like a fire inside of her. In fact, she only went with a publisher who promised they would have it on shelves by September 2008 because she just knew it had to be out by then. Her first book Slide:ology , catapulted us onto a global stage. That year instead of dipping in sales, we stayed flat. (Flat was the new grow back then, remember?) Since 2008 the firm has doubled in size. Much due to the success of Nancy’s 2nd book, Resonate which opened up doors higher up in the executive suite. The books spawned a training organization, so instead of just being a creative agency, we also have an academy arm now as well. Diversifying also helps weather tough economic times.

What qualities do you look for when building your team?

Our recruiting process is pretty intense. We’re picky! To get noticed, and make it past HR, candidates have to already be pretty exceptional. Then, the interview process is mostly a quest in making sure they’re a cultural fit and determining which team to put them on that’s the best for their skillset. Our culture is like one big family and we like to hire people who are friendly team players—we filter out prima donnas. Our culture forms white blood cells against arrogance. We are attracted to people who will challenge us to higher places of excellence and bring alternative perspectives to the table. System thinkers, clever problem solvers, and cookie bakers usually fair very well here.

What are your current goals at work?

We are working on re-imagining presentations. Do they all have to be a one-directional diatribe from a stage or can they be audience driven conversations? Is there a way to build navigable presentations on handheld devices? Can we create an environment where real-time audience feedback changes the direction of a talk? We are hoping to innovate how presentations are delivered. We are also validating our persuasion methodologies through neuroscience and market research.

How do you define a "successful" year in terms of business?

We manage our business through four lenses: Creative output, Team development, Client satisfaction and Financial health. Financial health is last for a reason. We can have a rocking financial year but if relationships are strained, there’s turnover or employees aren’t happy, we consider that an unsuccessful year. There are plenty of scriptures about not oppressing your workers and treating them fairly…even generously. It’s tempting in a service business to treat employees like units of production. Instead, we invest in the employees so they’re growing and creating work they’re proud of—which makes the business more successful and clients happier. Win win.

Who are/have been your mentors?

For many years we didn’t understand the value of mentors and only relied on each other. Our temperaments are polar opposite so usually the counsel we gave each other kept us balanced. It wasn’t until about 6 years ago we started an advisory board. They’ve become our lifeblood and we consider them mentors and friends. For years we were the only agency that specialized in presentations. So it wasn’t like we could pull on the jedi-master of presentations. Now there are small presentation firms popping up all over the place. We are pleased to have created jobs in the downturn by bringing this industry to light. We mentor young presentation firms around the world in how to build a successful presentation business and make a difference. Sounds odd to invest in competitors? We believe that if your industry is healthy, you’ll be healthy. Besides, if you aren’t better than all your competitors, you have a problem. For years before there was a viable competitor, we would make up the existence of a young, smart, less expensive firm that was nipping at our heals. Now we have them nipping and are teaching them the ropes.

How do you handle failures? What do you think failures teach us?

We have had our share of failures. We’ve had painful miscommunication with a handful of former employees, we’ve innovated things that fizzled and have, yes, screwed up on client projects here and there. We’re good at objectively examining what happened and what to do to avoid it in the future. As a culture we try to amplify employee strengths and minimize areas of weakness. Thankfully the staff does the same for us as owners. They let us do what we’re best at and fill in the gaps of our weaknesses.

The big trick though is avoiding as many failures as possible. If you wake up each day and humbly walk with your God, many problems can be avoided. It would be impossible for us to count how many near-misses we’ve had but because of insights from prayer and nudges from the Holy Spirit we’ve been able to navigate through some tight places and make some critical and timely decisions.

Part of being innovative means taking risks. Part of taking a risk can result in failure. If someone in our culture takes a risk and it fails, there's no consequence to them because they took the risk and without risk there’s no reward. On the creative side we ask our employees to take daring risks. So, our culture isn’t risk-averse per se, they’re just calculated risks.

How do you balance work with other life responsibilities and interests?

Balance is different for everyone. We realized that balance would look different in each phase of our lives. When the kids were small, we ran our business from the house. As they grew into school-aged, we got an office. Nancy’s schedule was more rigid because she worked with clients and Mark’s more flexible in his role as CFO and IT/MIS Director. So Mark picked up the kids from school and took them to activities. We shared home-cooked dinner together almost every night when the kids were home. When we became empty nesters, Nancy started writing books and traveling extensively. We make it sound so simple but it wasn’t. Yes, there were nights where Nancy got home so late she didn’t get to see the kids. Sometimes she’d come home and have so much guilt and remorse she’d cry with her face in the carpet so it would muffle the sound and not wake anyone up. But, when our daughter Rachel was in high school, she had a guilt-busting insight for us. She said “Mom, you shouldn’t feel bad about how hard you work. I can learn to cook from the cooking channel. But what I’ve learned from you is the lifelong skill of communication. I couldn’t have learned that from just anyone.” Model for your children life-shaping attributes and they’ll do just fine. Both our children are passionate about the Lord and walking in their professional destinies.

How has your faith influenced you as executives?

Our faith is pervasive.

It’s the filter through which all of life is looked through. It has shaped our generous nature, insightful innovation and our kind, fun culture.

We also aren’t in business for the money. Whaaaaat? Instead, our focus is caring for the people. When we drive through the parking lot, we don’t gloat about the size of our building or how many people we employ. Instead we have an awesome sense of responsibility to be good stewards so that each employee makes enough money to make their car payments in good times and in bad. You can’t love God and money or you make the wrong decisions. It’s all a test.

During the dot com bust, a client in San Francisco was shutting their doors and taking $220,000 of our dollars with them. Companies here rise and fall but not all have to go into bankruptcy. We held all the cards to throw the company into bankruptcy because we assembled five vendors that had enough debt owed. A bankruptcy for a start-up CEO is a big scar on their record. We asked several Christian business people, and they all basically advised us to “push them into bankruptcy because the CEO isn’t a Christian and scripture only says not to sue a brother and besides…that’s how the game of business is played.”

We assembled the other vendors and started calls with a lawyer but it just didn’t feel right. Then, our corporate chaplain called and said: “Haven’t you been freed from hell and death? How can you hold this tiny debt against them after all you’ve been forgiven?” That was all we needed to hear. We made the decision to forgive the debt. We were so happy with this answer and our decision that we walked to the park up the street from our office and danced. Literally, sang and danced. Nancy called the CEO and told him we were dropping the case. He was dumbfounded. Nancy told him “We believe in the teachings of Jesus. We’ve been forgiven of so much and we want to forgive you of this debt. Our only request is that you pay it forward some day.” He started a stunned, muffled reply, “My father-in-law, who is a great venture capitalist in the valley, just led me to the Lord six months ago. I never knew people actually lived this way at work. Thank you, thank you. I will pay it forward.” We exchange emails with him every few years and he tells us each time that this was a defining moment he’ll never forget in his life.

We had no idea there would be something in all this for us too. We had passed a test about the love of money. Once we released this debt, our business started to pull out of the dot com decline. We really feel that if we had handled this differently, our company may have failed. Instead, each day we heard His voice, did what He said and we were rescued.

How do you manage the tensions between your personal faith as an executive and of those in the company of different faiths or of no faith at all?

We live in an area where only a tiny amount of people share our beliefs. Our perspective has been that if you treat the employees fairly and generously, your faith won’t be challenged. And it’s not. Jesus was loved and pursued by the non-religious and that’s what we’ve always wanted. We wanted to surround ourselves with people who have never seen a loving generous version of Jesus modeled—love that doesn’t condemn, but instead loves.

If we meet the financial and social needs of the employees and are fair, transparent and clear, it minimizes any tension. If you follow the teachings of Jesus accurately, there won’t be pushback from people who don’t believe like you because you’ll be SO appealing to them. Hypocritical Christians will have higher tension.
So far, Mark is still able to pray a blessing on Monday morning before staff meetings even though most of our employees don’t believe the way we do. We get notes and comments, especially when an employee is going through a rough patch, that the prayer brings them peace. We try to model faith that loves, ushers in peace and gives generously—like giving all our employees iPads for Christmas. Don’t you wish you worked here?