Public Speaking 101: Audience Empathy With Patti Sanchez


When presenting, whether it's virtually or not, you should always empathize with your audience. Learn how to be in their shoes and how they would react to your presentation. Are you talking too fast? Do they have questions? These are all the things you have to think about when speaking publicly. Learn how to empathize with your host, Tony Martignetti, and his guest, Patti Sanchez. Patti is the Chief Strategy Officer of Duarte Design and the co-author of Illuminate. Go through her life story as she talks about finding her passion in PR to her collaboration with writing partner Nancy Duarte. Get a crash course on public speaking and learn how to know who you're speaking to in this conversation.


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Public Speaking 101: Audience Empathy With Patti Sanchez

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Patti Sanchez. She is a communicator with years of experience leading transformative marketing initiatives for brands and causes. She is the co-author of one of my favorite books, Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols. As Chief Strategy Officer of Duarte Incorporated, Patti develops product strategies for the training business and teaches executives and teams how to create authentic connections with their audiences and lead change through persuasive communication. She has a new book, Presenting Virtually, and I know that this is going to be an amazing book. I can't wait to check it out. She lives in Silicon Valley with her high school sweetheart that she's been married to for many years, her rescue dog, Monte and canary, Harry. I want to welcome you to the Virtual Campfire, Patti. This is going to be so much fun.

Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here and can't wait to dive into stories.

When I invited you on, I was anxious because I have been such a fan of your work. For years, I've read all of the articles you post on HBR and all different places in the world. I know that my passion for stories was amplified and catalyzed by the stuff you guys have put into the world, so thank you.

That warms my heart and it makes all the effort worth it.

On this show, what we're going to do is we're going to dig into your story. We're flipping the coin on you and we're going to find out how did you get to where you're doing all this amazing work in the world and what makes you tick. We're going to do that by way of what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that have ignited your gifts into the world. As you're sharing your flashpoints, what we're going to do is we're going to have you pause along the way and see what themes are showing up as we are doing that. With that, Patti, I'm going to pass it on to you and let you take it from here.

There are so many places I could go here, but you say you want to know more about what shined a light on my gifts and motivated me to bring them to the world? There were a couple of moments in my life that were motivating, especially motivating. One was when I was fairly young, about ten years old, my parents divorced. My mom had to find a way to take care of the kids that stayed with her and I was one of them. I watched her get back into the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom for 30 years. There was a lot of pressure on her and it was hard. I remember her first job and the only job she could get right away was calling people in the White Pages, just random strangers to ask them if they could donate things to this nonprofit that she was working for. More often than not, people hung up on her or they told her no one after another. I watched her put her head in her hands at the end of the day and cry because she wasn't having any success. It was hard for me to see that but it was motivating too.

What it has motivated in me was a desire to be successful, find a calling, find work that would be valuable to the world so that I wouldn't have to struggle. That was the first moment where I decided I'm going to have a career. I'm not going to choose another path. That was a significant moment but it was more trying to drive me away from the path that I didn't want to be on. The next moment happened a little bit later than that in high school. When we had an assembly, an outside speaker came in to talk to us. Do you remember assemblies? There was all this buzz. First of all, you were happy that you didn't have to be in class for that hour.

We all gathered in the gymnasium to hear this speaker. He talked about another cautionary tale so maybe there is a theme here. He had been a convict. He made some bad choices early in his life and ended up going to prison. He talked to us about the lessons that he learned and why we should stay in school and not make bad choices. What I am definitely aware of was when I watched him, I thought, "I didn't know that was a career path." I didn't know that a person could go around and speak to people and inspire them. That's when I got the public speaking bug and began to think that that might be something that I want to do or somehow be involved in.

Some of your most meaningful stories come from moments of struggle and difficulty.

I'm going to pause for a moment to say, scared straight, as we'll call it, inspired you into being a speaker.

What does that say about me? The other thing that I didn't tell you is that I was going to a continuation high school at the time, which is where kids go if they struggle in some way with a regular high school. We needed that message. Thank you, Fred Crots. I don't know if you're still alive but I appreciate you.

Even hearing the first story, which I think a lot of people can relate with that. We see our parents struggle for us and struggled to make a living. It's hard because they wanted the best for us. I know that's the intention. Most parents want to see us do better than they have. Even though there's that struggle, it's also the message that it sends. What is the underlying message of that struggle? It's about us trying to learn from that. What can we do differently from that struggle? It's to work smarter, not harder, that kind of thing. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think what that instilled in you is, How can I create something better for myself, so I don't have to struggle like that?

It's the truth about stories. Some of the most meaningful stories in our lives and work come out of those failures. There are moments of struggle and difficulty. I've started looking at my own life experiences, specifically to failures to find the lessons in them because people like you want to talk to me about that. I also can't teach other people how to use the failures in their life as teaching moments if I don't do that myself.

It's only through that reflection that you get the gold of what is the thing that taught you these lessons and brought you to life. I can't wait to find out more about this. Here you are, you hear this speaker talking about his trials and tribulations, stay in school type of message. You say to yourself, "I want more of this." What do you do? What happens now?

As with any other teenager, I still had other interests. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do with my career until I learned a little bit more about the field of communication in general. We had a big fat careers binder in the library at schools. After I heard Fred, I thought, "Let me find out what kind of work could be interesting." Flipping through that binder, I saw a chapter on communication. One of them was about public relations and that was interesting to me. It talked about the role of a professional communicator can play in building bridges between a corporation, an organization and its constituents. That appealed to me, not just being an ad copywriter but having a mission that I'm trying to achieve and trying to bring lots of different stakeholder groups together to achieve that mission. That was attractive and that's what I ended up studying in my undergrad years was PR. As part of that program, public speaking was a requirement so I had to give many speeches.

Back in the day, we wrote them on index cards and that was the job aid. I didn't have slides. It instilled in me a respect for the spoken word when it's done well and the importance of delivery. I had to hone that craft, which was hard for me because I was naturally introverted and shy. In fact, before every talk, I would get so nervous that I would have problems with my bells. I'll just put it that way. Not just sweaty palms. It got real in technicolor. It was nerve-wracking for me, every time I had to get up, even if it was a three-minute speech in class. Thank goodness I did because it served me well in this career as I've become a speaker myself, but also had to help people overcome those same fears.

It's so amazing because that's one of the things that people don't see. They don't see that part of the speaker. They just see the person on stage. They see the glossy side or the hero on stage. They don't know about the courage it takes to get up on stage, this part of the process. One of the things that are interesting is as a coach, I've realized how important silence is and slowing down, and allowing that silence to be part of the talk. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you use silence as a weapon or a tool.

I believe in the power of the pause. It's something that I wrote about in the new book that I have, Presenting Virtually. Vocal variety is important especially in this virtual medium to keep people interested. That doesn't mean increasing the pace of your pitch or your voice. Sometimes it also means slowing down and pausing. That adds contrast to your voice and it makes your voice more interesting to listen to. It's also a powerful way to underscore a key point, to pause and to let it sink in. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that. I certainly have been a person who's tried to fill this space because I was nervous. I've learned that pausing is powerful.

The power of the pause. I love it. I could talk about that for an hour because as much as it seems like a simple thing, the hardest thing people have is being able to embrace that as a tool. I want to get into your career path. Here you are, interested in PR and going down this path of becoming the person you are. What did you do next? What were the steps along your way that got you to the place of partnering up with Nancy and starting Duarte and just where you are today?

How did I get here? I studied just as an undergrad. I got my BA and needed to start earning money right away. I didn't get to have the gap year. There wasn't any cash in the bank that let me play for a while or go to grad school. When I graduated, I wrote a bunch of letters as my best persuasive appeal to employers that I wanted to work for. I ended up getting a position at a small boutique consulting firm in Silicon Valley called Pearson. I worked my way up there and worked there for twenty years, which is a long time. It became odd in my peer group. A lot of people moved around much more frequently than I did but my needs were being met. I had a lot of opportunities to work with many different brands and solve a variety of problems for them and learn and grow and move up in the organization. That was all good for me.

At the same time, I would encounter Nancy's firm Duarte over the years because it was founded the same year that this other firm was founded in. We had some of the same clients and we would bump into each other from time to time on projects where we were both being hired to solve a different part of the need. One time, Nancy had published her second book called Resonate, which was all about storytelling applied to presentations. I thought it was amazing. She sent me an email because we got connected at one point on LinkedIn.

She said, "This business is going to start blooming. A lot of people are coming to us asking Duarte to help write speeches for them and tell their stories. I don't have a content practice here. I'm curious, do you know anybody who has this skill that would be interested in leading this practice for me?" I said, "Me, me, me. Did I mention me?" We met for drinks, lychee martinis at a local bar. We connected and I got excited about the potential. I ended up joining Duarte right on the cusp of the next big growth wave. I am honored to have built a strong team of speechwriters and speaker coaches who work for the top CEOs in Silicon Valley. It's been fun to watch that team and company grow.

There was one thing about building this out, which is interesting. When you know how you operate and how you want to create something for yourself, but to actually create a team of people to do the work of creating speeches for the people and to do the work at the same level of quality. How do you get comfortable with all that?

It's not been fun. It hasn't been uncomfortable. My favorite thing is developing people, finding the spark in them. Breathing life into that spark and seeing them grow. It starts with hiring people that are smarter than you and giving the freedom and the encouragement and of course, the support and resources to grow. It's been a fun ride.

What has been the biggest challenge if there's been any challenge at all? It sounds like this has been a dream come true coming into the right organization with the right people, and then having the work that lights you up. Have there been any challenges along the way that have put you out of your comfort zone, if you will?

Your audience is not going to pay full attention to you unless you give them a good reason to.

The events of 2020 were some of the biggest challenges I've faced as a human, as all of us have, but also as a leader. I moved into a new role at Duarte. I built a product team for the academy business. We had a long list of projects that we were going to work on, new products that we would build, and then COVID happened. My new priority became flipping all of our in-person workshops to virtual workshops. That was a challenge. It was a stretch challenge because it all had to be done quickly. It's not like it was necessarily rocket science. There were a lot of things we had to experiment with and failed at quickly so that we could find the ideal format for these workshops.

I wanted to challenge us to make a better virtual experience than an in-person experience because I know that we give up a lot when we're meeting virtually. Technology gets in the way and it's a less rich experience than when we're in a room together. We needed to make it as good as if not better than an in-person experience. I think we succeeded at it but it meant trying some things and failing and adapting. That's probably not my favorite thing. I don't love failure. It was a challenge.

Part of what you just said sounds like that's also potentially the advice you're giving to people. When you're doing a virtual experience, you have to almost amplify it because it's not the same as being in person. You have to add a lot more energy because it doesn't translate quite as well as being in person.

I think there were a few things you have to do differently but it starts with empathy for your audience and learners. That's a big part of my philosophy anyway, naturally. In the virtual setting, we're distracted. All of us, even if we don't want to admit it, are multitasking when we're in a virtual meeting or watching a recorded video or something like that. As a presenter and as a trainer, you have to acknowledge that your audience is not going to pay full attention to you unless you give them a good reason to. You have to combat that distraction by making your content more interesting using novelty. Mixing things up. Injecting change more frequently into that experience so that it holds their attention. It draws them back in away from their inbox or whatever other things. The dog gets their feed or the kid or whoever it is at home that wants their attention instead of you.

Novelty is one tactic to make things more interesting for people. Brevity is important to you. You can't go on as long sessions need to be shorter. Your content needs to be shorter, in small bites, and energy and connection. Connection is the hardest part because we have to bridge the gap that the technology creates. I'm not able to feel your presence in the same way as when we're in a room together. It's on me as the facilitator or speaker to bring my energy level up to use more vocal variety. Ultimately, to make strong eye contact and almost squeeze myself through that tiny little black dot so that you feel the fullness of me. It's not diminished by this screen that's between us.

There's one moment that everyone always talks about when they talked about presenting on Zoom. It's this moment when everyone's on mute and you're the one talking. All of a sudden, it's like you're all alone in this room. You just want people to come off mute. Even if you make a bunch of little noises, I feel like I'm not alone.

That's especially true for extroverts. Our facilitators who love standing in front of a room of people, entertaining them while they teach are the people who hate this format because they don't get the laughs. They don't get the feedback that they need. As an introvert, it doesn't bother me as much but I do work hard at getting people to interact in different ways. There are different kinds of interactions, text-based and through applications and things where I can draw you out, I get the feedback I need and you feel like you're fully participating but it's not the same.

I want to get back to your story and then talk more about stories in general. Where there any other parts of your story that you feel called to share that we haven't touched on yet?

The other part of my story that influenced the work that I'm doing in the book on Virtual Presenting is the career that my father had. It's been inspiring me lately. I go back to it and had fun researching it. He was a radio and television engineer way back when it just got started. He was in the Navy during World War II and working as a radar tech. He learned that this new medium was emerging called television and he wanted to know more about it. He moved to Chicago and joined a trade school where he could learn about television. He used to tell me stories about what it was like working in TV in the early days back in Chicago. He was at the NBC affiliate. At the time, I don't think anybody realized they were breaking ground. Not only was television coming into its own as a medium, but it was also just coming into being. It was a playground for innovators. When we had to pivot our training to this virtual format, I found myself thinking back to those stories he told me.

Thinking about how people find the potential in a new medium when it emerges and the courage it takes. Not just creativity but the courage it takes for people to exploit that medium. People like Ernie Kovacs or Dave Garroway, these people whose show is my dad worked on, now I think about. To me, they were motivating and inspiring to think about how my team and I could push ourselves to not just see virtual as an adjacent extension of presenting but a new medium that we could exploit.

I love that you brought this up because there's something about this that also makes you think about all the things you've done in the presentation space too. There are so many things that I've seen you guys create, Duarte in general, that has been groundbreaking in the space of building presentations for people and thinking differently, the slide docs and things like that. It creates a new way of telling people's stories in presentation format. I thought about Clubhouse, the new medium. It takes a lot of courage for people to break into that field when it's new and start saying like, "Should I be here? Should I not be here?" Until everyone gets there and becomes loud and omnipresent. The innovators, pioneers, trailblazers are the ones who get there and they start to play with the medium and see what it's possible. I think about what you guys have done in the presentation space as being, in a sense, groundbreaking. I'm looking to you guys to see what you're going to do next.

I'm looking to my colleagues to see what they're going to do next. I don't know that I can take credit for that, but it's a fun petri dish to swim in, to be surrounded by many creative thinkers. The dirty secret of me, maybe there were many, but this is one I'll tell you about. I am a fearful person. I don't think of myself as courageous. It's only through collaborating and partnering with other brave people that I have developed that muscle. Nancy Duarte is an entrepreneur through and through. True entrepreneurs are pretty fearless. They're so driven and motivated to make new things that don't stop them from experimenting and failing. Being in her ether has made me more willing to take risks to try new things. It's cool. I celebrate those people. It's also one of the reasons why I had fun writing Illuminate. Sometimes we say as authors that we write the book where you need to read. That book also encouraged me to lean into my dreams, to be willing to take leaps, to be courageous in battle.

I love the way you describe that. First of all, there's something about this. I've interviewed a lot of cofounders. I've literally had two people from the team on the show before or people who've been partnered up with another founder or another person in an organization. What I found is that when you find a complimentary person who, when the two of you come together, it creates, not one plus one equals two, but one plus one equals a far larger number. You start to unlock your potential in the face of that other person. I can imagine that Nancy has found some things in you that she's learned and you've been able to share with her. I'd love to hear if there are any things you can share that Nancy has learned from you?

I don't want to put words in her mouth, but I have heard her say that she learned some things about empathy from me. Thinking of the experience of writing Illuminate with her, we had a lot of conversations about theory. Also, how to apply that theory in real situations that we were struggling with Duarte, the internal communications challenge. A lot of times, the posture I would adopt in a conversation with her about something that's not going so well inside the company. Maybe, somebody who is resisting an idea, we're not getting traction because this group of people is not bought into it or whatever. The posture I would adopt is their perspective.

Let's talk about why that might be so. I wonder why they might be potentially afraid of this idea. Maybe sometimes, to a fault, I can over empathize, over-identify with the other side but you have to do that when you're trying to influence people. In my opinion, trying to influence people starts with understanding them first and what motivates them and what demotivates them. The more you understand what demotivates or what they push back on, the more you can craft messages that will overcome that resistance and get them to buy-in. She would say that that's what she learned in the writing of Illuminate. She learned empathy and I learned courage. We're like a little Wizard of Oz story all by ourselves.

I was just thinking about what being in a company meeting at Duarte is like. Do you guys judge each other's presentations?

Write the book you want to read.

It's a tough audience. We have some talented presenters at all levels of the organization, but everybody gets nervous before they present in an all-hands.

I think you need some more empathy in that room. You can just be like, "It's okay. We can be perfectly imperfect."

Would you tell some of my employees that too? Just kidding.

I want to take a moment and pause and think back to your journey to getting here. Think about what you've learned about yourself, maybe a few lessons. I love that you shared the story of your father, your mother, and your own scared straight moment. All had this underlying theme of communications at the heart.

It is my calling and I feel lucky to be able to pursue it. What have I learned? I say that I'm not that courageous. I know that there were moments in my life where I have shrunk back from something because I was afraid that I would fail. I have learned that I'm braver than I thought and that I can change so that I can build muscles that will help me take bigger leaps in the future. That feels good. It's still good to be empathetic. Although, I also know that I can over-emphasize with people and that's always the dark side of being an empath. You take on their problems or you identify too deeply. As a leader, you still have to push through the resistance. You still have to be resolved in your vision and not let necessarily resistance from others hold you back.

We've talked a lot about your book, which I think is going to be fantastic. I can't wait to read it. If you were to share 1 or 2 things that are present for you, what are the things that are on your mind from a business perspective that you want to share with people?

I'm sure everybody reading had some challenges in 2020. I think the questions that you're asking are great ones for them to ask themselves. What have you learned about yourself? I want everyone reading to realize that their bad-asses. The fact that we have survived this pandemic, we've come out the other side and we have new skills because of it, it shouldn't be lost on any of us. Use this moment to dream a little bigger. I certainly want to. I believe you can do it.

That's the message we needed. That's for sure. I'm so grateful you said that. It's also this element of being empathetic. I'm going to use this term of the empathetic warrior. That's your new mantra. You're going to be the empathetic warrior. That's the way we need to be. We need to be empathetic. We also need to be strong and be able to persevere through these tough times because we're building resilience and that's what it's important.

I do think that empathy is one of the soft-core skills everybody needs to develop. For sure, if any leader is reading, I encourage you to adopt the perspective of your people from time to time. Listen more. Listen to those challenging voices, especially as we're trying to build a better world and more inclusive cultures. It's hard to be criticized. It's hard to be told you're not doing enough. Make people feel they're a part of your community, a part of your culture and create space for them to grow and contribute. That hard truth, that tough feedback is what we need to hear.

This has been such an amazing conversation so far. I've loved all the insights. We're going to take a slightly different turn now to our last question, which is, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why? It can be from any time in your life, whatever you're called to share.

One of the books that impacted me was Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird, for a lot of reasons. It's beautifully written, iconic characters, real archetypes. Atticus Finch and Scout and Boo Radley. What I took away from it was empathy, a willingness to meet others to know them. Scout wanted to know who Boo Bradley was and didn't take at face value all the things the other kids said. At least that's how I remember it. I think that's the life lesson I took from that book. That's one.

 Just to be silly, I might talk about management books or many that have influenced me but I went on Amazon and bought a book that I loved as a kid because I wanted to reread it. It was a book by Richard Scarry. It was something about what people do all day or something like that. I loved those Richard Scarry books, maybe because they were just so fanciful. Also, it's a way to help me understand the adult world but through the eyes of something more interesting to me, which is little animals.

It's so funny you say this. As soon as you said that, I was like, I love those as a kid. I loved it because that's how I started to learn all these things and made connections and became a visual learner that way too through those books.

They're visual books. It's come full circle. Visual storytelling was something I learned to appreciate at a very young age. I recommend them. I don't know if anybody reads those books anymore but I thought they were fun.

When you're trying to influence people, it starts with understanding them first.

I love that you brought it into space. It's funny about To Kill a Mockingbird and how it's such a great timepiece. When you think about these books, there are snapshots in time. They tell you a story about dropping you into a period of time that was very different from where we are. You get to feel the emotions of what it was like in that period in time. That's also part of the beauty of sharing a story or a book like that to experience it, how you were at the time when you read it and how the book was meant to be read at that time.

That's the beauty of the story. When it works well, it transports us.

This has been so amazing. I'm grateful that you came to the show. You've shared your insights and your stories. I want to thank you.

Thank you. This was so much fun, slightly uncomfortable fun but in a good way and asking questions.

Thank you. Before we go, one more time, maybe a little bit of a story around your book. What's the name of the book again?

It's called Presenting Virtually. It will be a print book. I'm sure there'll be an eBook and all those other things I'm still going to make from it. It'll help anybody prepare when they've got to connect with an audience online.

I can't wait to get that into the world. Before I let you go, I want to make sure I can tell people where to find you if they want to reach out and learn more about you.

I'm on LinkedIn and I connect with pretty much everybody unless you try to sell me something, in which case, maybe I'll ghost you just for a little bit, so try not to push too hard. I do connect with people on LinkedIn. I'm on Twitter @PattiSan. I'm on Instagram that way too, but that's my personal account. It's a little window into the boringness of my actual everyday life. is a place where you can find about that stuff that I make for us.

Thank you so much. Thanks to the readers for coming on the journey with us. I know you're leaving with so many great insights.

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About Patti Sanchez

Patti Sanchez, Duarte’s Chief Strategy Officer, writes books, creates frameworks, and helps clients connect with audiences through persuasive presentations and story-based communications.

She is the co-author of the award-winning book, Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols. Patti leads an expert team of communication consultants and creative writers who help clients move their audiences in one powerful moment or in a movement over time.


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