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To See the Future, Stop Feeding the Fire

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: April 11, 2016

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If you’re feeding the fire, you’re not seeing the future. The easiest way to feel productive is to feed the fire—to address all of the stuff you see piling up right in front of your face—but that comes with a cost. And it’s a kind of cost that money can’t take care of,” Patti Sanchez began.

Sanchez is the Chief Strategy Officer at Duarte Inc., a visual storytelling company in Sunnyvale, California, that was founded by CEO Nancy Duarte back in 1988. Duarte Inc. fuses the foundational elements of storytelling with visual thinking to help clients craft the kind of persuasive, behavior-changing communications that can ignite movements.

Sounds cool, right? But it’s not just good company copy. Many consider Sanchez and her team at Duarte Inc. the best in the world at what they do.

Sanchez has helped teams at Nike, Cisco, and Compassion International shape their stories for maximum impact. And Nancy Duarte has worked in similar capacities for TED, Apple, and Google. Who did Harvard Business Review turn to when they needed the perfect author for their HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations? Nancy.

Together, along with their 115-strong team, they’ve helped over half of the top 50 brands in the U.S. convey their stories. In short, if you’ve ever been moved in some capacity by a recognizable brand’s communication efforts, you’ve likely felt the influence of Duarte Inc.

I was especially interested in how the leadership at Duarte Inc. seemed to lead their team not by doing, but by seeing. When they saw everybody using Powerpoint slides to present their ideas, for example, they were able to see into the future enough to realize that many audiences would be better served through a hybrid slide/document.

Whereas Powerpoint could serve as a great visual aid for a presentation, nothing existed to help people blend the aesthetic capabilities inherent in a slide, with the important, more in-depth information contained in a document. They thought about the what ifs:

What if you needed to convey your message to a large audience but not through a presentation?

What if you wanted a more visually engaging style than what the typical drab document allows?

So they created Slidedocs, the middle way, a visual document, developed in presentation software, that is intended to be read and referenced instead of presented and projected:

Along with several other books on the topic of mastering the art of visual presentations, including slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, and Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Duarte Inc. carved out their place as pioneers in this burgeoning new method of storytelling in business.

As an outsider looking in, I wanted to know how they repeatedly stayed one clip ahead in the communication industry—which is all it takes since they’ve built a team around them who is ready and able to transform that one clip ahead into what becomes the new norm.

Much of seeing into the future, what Nancy has done exceptionally well over the years, comes down to some of those basic quadrant rules from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Sanchez says.

At this point, she started talking about the difference between urgent work and important work, about how too few leaders carve out space to focus their time and energy on what Covey referred to as “Quadrant 2.” For those unfamiliar, here’s a glimpse into what Covey’s four quadrants are all about:

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As you can tell, seeing into the future isn’t urgent but it is important.

If you plot the activities of your days for a week or so, and you see a lot of your activities are in the urgent but not important quadrant [bottom left], you’re simply not going to spend time thinking about the future,” Sanchez says.

This is where the Duarte team disagrees a bit with traditional ideas of leadership. You know, the ones like this:

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While they see it as important for leadership to spend time in the trenches, and certainly believe leaders should pull their load, it’s awfully difficult, perhaps impossible, to at once be in the trenches and have the perspective necessary to envision a long-term plan.

But check out the boss in that image. He looks angry as all get out, sure, but he’s also able to see from a different vantage point. The middle way, once again, is where Duarte Inc. shines. They believe leaders must consciously spend time at both levels in order to present an authentic, realistic vision of the future. Sanchez puts it like this:

Probably the hardest thing for leaders is deciding what they’ll have to say no to, how to hand off those urgent/non-important requests. Many times it’s easy not to, because you know what needs to be done and you know how to do it, but if that’s the case someone else on your team likely does as well. It comes down to the fundamental process of beginning and ending; if you’re going to make something new, you also have to let something go.”

For Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, it’s especially important to carve out time in the schedule to step away from the activities in Quadrant 3, and constantly learn to delegate the urgent items from Quadrant 1. With competitors always nipping at their heels, and new startups forming each day, if they aren’t spending time thinking about the future they’re bound to be burned by the same fires they couldn’t stop feeding.

Patti Sanchez & Nancy Duarte

As much as seeing into the future is truly at the heart of their continued success, they simply couldn’t do it if they hadn’t hired rockstars, and worked to nurture and unite them at every step of the way.

Sanchez told me the most profound moment of her career wasn’t the writing of Illuminate, their latest book, or landing some major long-term deal, it’s what happens at an annual event held by Duarte Inc. called “Speak Up.”

Speak Up is a night of storytelling, in house. Eight employees speak, TED talk style, for 8-minutes. The event is kept private just for the employees and their families, and because of the profound stories shared and vulnerability shown, Speak Up has taken on an almost sacred nature. To prepare, Duarte Inc’s senior writers help the employees build out their story, visualize and practice presenting it, and shine for those 8 minutes.

One result, of course, is that the employees get to feel the Duarte Inc. method at a deeper level because they’re actually practicing how to do it. But the primary result is the transformational experience that can happen when, surrounded by a team you trust, you share one of your life’s most personally meaningful moments. A team, even one that has worked together for years, can unite and bond in brand new ways. The Speak Up presentations aren’t just about conveying, they’re about connecting.

What moves us as a team is our commitment to helping people move others. Our chosen medium is presentation and visuals, but it’s really about helping other people make their change in the world,” Sanchez told me.

The Duarte Inc. team sees visually presented stories not so much as “presentations” but as what they call “impassioned pleas.” When someone takes the stage, or otherwise stands with their story in front of others, the implicit message is this:

Come with me on this journey, and be open enough to be transformed by it.

The Duarte Inc. way is about harnessing the timeless power of stories to change others and build movements. And this is a process that demands seeing into the future, while knowing precisely how to persuade others to join you. It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were able to do, and it’s what many value most about Steve Jobs.

“Everybody who wants to make a change in the world has to ask others to get involved, and we think this is a crucial part that’s often neglected,” Sanchez began.

A leader might grab all the attention for creating the movement, but the movement itself is then driven by the people. A movement takes immense trust and buy-in. And this is the reason we exist: To help people make their impassioned plea so eloquently that their ideas have a chance to take off in the world.”

The team at Duarte Inc. is fired about what they do and why they do it, but many other companies can say the same. What sets them apart, what allows them to stay at the forefront of their industry, is their radical commitment to letting some fires burn so they can gaze out into the future.

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-For more information about Duarte Inc., visit Duarte.com.

-Image of Boss vs. Leader: Flickr/David Sanabria