What does persuasion look like?

That’s how Nancy Duarte opens her short video summarizing Sparklines, one of the most compelling structures I've ever seen for building a persuasive presentation.

She’s certainly qualified to explore the question – her company, Duarte, is a Silicon Valley firm that helps organizations like Google and Apple tell effective stories through presentation. She even worked with Al Gore on the slide show that’s seen so prominently in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

The odds of winning a new business pitch will change in your favor when you use STAR moments to give a presentation a life beyond the 90 minutes you’re allotted in the conference room.

Sparklines is a tool for visualizing the shape or contour of a presentation in the same way a story arc describes the shape of a great story (and if you don’t know what a story arc is, or why you should care, check out this post and this one too.

hose of you who follow me regularly know that my mission is to help ad agencies and creative services firms communicate more persuasively. This can be challenging because most agencies are stuck in the rut of talking about themselves with surprisingly little consideration for the point of view of their clients and prospects. So, when I find a tool or technique that has the potential for changing that behavior, I pass it on. Sparklines is one of those tools.  

Essentially, it’s is a method for drawing an audience over to your side of an argument by presenting a series of contrasts between what is and what could be. Duarte figured it out while listening to two extraordinary presentations: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch in 2007.

As she listened, she mapped out the key moments and saw this back-and-forth pattern start to emerge. When you overlay this structure on the iPhone presentation, it becomes abundantly clear how Jobs drew the audience in by contrasting the underwhelming technology of the day with the promise of a product so revolutionary it would change our world forever.

Duarte uses a sailing metaphor, which I also love because I’m a sailor myself. When a sailboat needs to move in the direction the wind is coming from, it can’t go forward in a straight path. Instead, to make any progress, it has to tack back and forth, sailing at an angle to the wind.

She turns that into a metaphor for the resistance we almost always encounter when we are in the act of persuasion. It’s not effective to simply force our point of view on someone else. Moving back and forth by showing opposing perspectives makes your argument more persuasive because you’re working with, not against, the resistance of the audience in the same way a sailboat works with, not against, the resistance of the wind.

Sparklines provides other useful guidelines for making a great presentation:

  • Don’t forget the big idea – it nestles in the gap between what is and what could be and it should be significant enough to shock the audience out of their complacency.

  • Always end on an upward “what could be” moment. Duarte calls it the “new bliss.” You want to leave your audience thinking about how the world is going to be better once your idea is spread.

  • Always include a STAR (something they’ll always remember) moment. It can happen at almost any point, but every great presentation has one. The STAR moment in the iPhone launch was at the point when Jobs went from showing the iPhone as an abstract picture on a screen to holding, and then turning on, the actual product (thereby communicating to the audience, “yes, this mythical creature exists and can be yours too”).

These moments give the audience the thing they’re most likely to recall. Think about how your odds of winning a pitch will change in your favor if you can use STAR moments to give your presentation a life outside of the 90 minutes you’re allotted in the conference room. As Duarte points out, a crucial point in the process of persuasion isafter your presentation is done, when the audience is left to ponder the idea, wondering “Do I agree? How does this change my perceptions?”

So, how do you apply this technique to your next pitch presentation?

You’ll have to wait for my next post for that one. Besides, I’m giving you homework to do in the meantime. Watch Nancy Duarte’s video overview on Sparklines (even better, buy and read her book Resonate on how to create better presentations). Also watch another video she did where she illustrates how Sparklines maps to Jobs’ 2007 iPhone speech. It does so much more than I can to bring this innovative technique to life.