They drop off boxes of material and e-mail huge amounts of data, hoping Nancy Duarte's Silicon Valley firm can turn their mishmash of ideas and facts into a presentation that can rally people behind a cause or product.
For corporate executives and nonprofit leaders who want their presentations to sing, Duarte Design has become the go-to place.
Most notably, her Mountain View, Calif., firm helped Al Gore organize his material and his thoughts on global warming into the presentation that inspired the Academy Award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
The 63-employee company, which brought in $10 million in sales in 2007, has a client list that includes Hewlett-Packard Co., Google Inc., Apple Inc., Electronic Arts Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It even works on the sermons of a Presbyterian pastor.
Duarte, 46, runs the firm, which she owns with her husband. She has never had a sales force, relying on word of mouth to bring in new business even in dry spells.
Duarte is trying to fight bad design, one presentation at a time. PowerPoint, the computer program developed in the late 1980s, made them easy -- perhaps too easy -- to create, and more and more employees are expected to give them.
The results are often flat, bullet-point-ridden affairs, with a presenter dutifully reading the words on the slides as if the audience were suddenly illiterate.
"When presentations are done poorly, we're hiding behind our slides," she said.
She wrote a book called "Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations," which was published last month. With it, she wants to spark "a revolution of sorts" in visual communication.
Duarte Design does more than make slides. It researches the subject of the presentation, writes the script, adds effects such as sound, animation and video, and coaches the speaker on pacing.
One thing that hasn't changed is her belief that a presentation should tell a story. Like many entrepreneurs, the story of her life and her business are intertwined.
At age 17, Duarte (then named Nancy Childs) found herself the head of her household in Mississippi after her mother left the home and her father's work involved a lot of travel. A year later, she married Mark Duarte, an illustrator and aspiring preacher, and had her first child at 23. She sold parts for high-tech manufacturing to help put her husband through college.
They moved to Silicon Valley so Mark could go to seminary school. He became interested in the Macintosh computer and a presentation program designed for it: PowerPoint, which enabled people at their desktop computers to make slides, transparencies and flip charts. (Microsoft Corp. bought PowerPoint maker Forethought Inc. in 1987 and eventually incorporated the software into its Office suite.)
In 1988, Mark founded the firm, then called Duarte Desktop Publishing & Graphic Design. But business was slow to pick up. Two years later, with income at a trickle, Nancy became frustrated. She was about to give birth to the couple's second child while her husband spent time reading work-related manuals.
"This is a joke," she told him.
She hit the phones, pitching NASA, Apple and Tandem Computers Inc. Still pregnant, she won all three accounts and plunged into the business.
The firm hired its first employee in 1992 when Mark developed carpal tunnel syndrome.
As the company grew, so did the challenges. By 1998, the company had 26 employees, all reporting directly to Nancy, who was overwhelmed. At night, she would lie on her living room carpet and cry.
She hired a general manager to impose hierarchy and structure. Now she has seven account managers, akin to studio heads, with specialties such as the environment and networking, each with their own profit and loss responsibilities. They report to the vice president of account services, who reports to Nancy.
The couple hired a coach to help recognize their differences in working styles and improve their management skills. From the experience, Nancy said she learned that she is "a hard-driven worker" and her husband's "life goal is to relax," she said. "But he is my tether pole."
In 2001, the economic downturn hit Silicon Valley and Duarte Design hard. But she had built a buffer by requiring that the firm contract out 25% of its work. When the downturn hit, Nancy was able to save jobs by pulling that work back in-house. Still, over two years, revenue fell as much as 40%, and the company burned through its $2 million in cash reserves.
Nancy resisted pressure from employees to make sales calls to drum up business. Instead, she and her employees sent out 3,000 hand-written notecards asking clients to remember Duarte Design once the economy turned around.
It did, and the firm started to recover.
In 2004, Gore contacted Duarte (Apple referred him after he joined its board of directors) to revive his 1970s presentation about environmental challenges facing the Earth. He wanted a timely presentation to use in speeches.