Tactics for a Successful Design Presentation

Small changes to help make presentations more effective.

Early in my career, I would get uncomfortable and nervous whenever I had to present my work. Especially in person. With sweaty palms, I would unveil the master work that I had crafted in secret and step back quickly with a "Well, what do you think?"

I dreaded long pauses and the inevitable non-specific feedback. "Hmmm, do you think you could make the logo bigger?" "I don't know....It looks a little....too empty. Do you think you could add more ‘oomph’ to it?"

Some of you are nodding your heads right now. You know exactly what I'm talking about.

It can be easy to write off the client with "They just don't understand design." But in reality I was failing at a fundamental role of my profession:

The work does not sell itself.

The client, no matter how savvy, is not telepathic. They are concerned with how your design helps them achieve their goals. If you do not communicate this point clearly, you have devalued yourself and your work.

Clear presentations will help close long feedback loops, which means fewer hours wasted and more projects delivered on time. Happy clients, happy bank accounts.

Here are some pointers that I've found helpful over the years:

Get in front of the client.

An in-person meeting is ideal; it's much easier to react and respond in-person. You will pick up on unspoken cues that will help you understand your client,and it also works in reverse—the client will be more able to understand you! It can also provide instant feedback because you are in the room, watching their smiling (or perhaps unsmiling) faces.

There are occasions where this is impossible, either for location or scheduling reasons. A web presentation is the next best, followed by a conference call while everyone looks at the designs on their own.

Email by itself can be a terrible medium for expressing complex ideas. Many subtle cues can be lost (especially if you're a frequent user of sarcasm), and it can be easier for people to not respond to an email than if you're standing a few feet away. This is your last resort. It's workable, but takes much more effort and understanding from all parties involved.

Thank them for their time.

People are busy, attention is short. Remember this and be respectful of their time.

Remind them why they're here.

As important as you and your project obviously are, your audience may not exactly remember what they're going to be looking at that day. Remind them.

"Today we're going to be looking at some possible directions for the checkout page flow and design."

Update them on the current state of the project.

Is this phase 2, phase 3? Has your audience seen the work before? Have you already collaborated on a strategy?

"As you know, we've just completed our strategy phase and now we're entering the design phase where we will have two rounds of revisions."

Tell them exactly what type of feedback you're looking for early on.

This is the best way to avoid overly generic feedback. If you frame the format you're looking for early (as in one of the first items of the meeting, before they see anything), this will help your audience form feedback in their minds as you present.

"I'm looking for feedback on the efficiency of the checkout process."

You can phrase this as narrowly as you'd like. In the above example, you can deflect statements about photo treatments or font choices because you're only concerned with the flow right now. Log the other comments for the next phase, but keep redirecting your clients to what you want out of them.

This gets easier if everyone has already agreed on a strategy for the project beforehand (remind your client of the goal here):

"I'm looking for feedback on how this design fulfills our goal of decreasing time to purchase and boosting overall conversions by increasing the efficiency of the checkout process."

Avoid saying: "What do you think?"

It's a terrible lead-in (and yes, I've been guilty of this). When you ask this you put the burden back on the client to decipher your work and come up with a meaningful response to this question. You can get wildly different answers from this question.

Imagine if the technician who installed your air conditioning and heating system asked you this question. What do you say? "I don't know," you might think, "both hot AND cool air comes out of the vents, right?" But he's waiting for an answer, so you look around to try and find something more meaningful to say.

You're not going to notice the technician's excellent sheet metal fabrication, or the super-efficient way they've organized the wires and controls. You don't know (or perhaps care) about these things; it's why you hired someone in the first place to take care of it.

Which brings me to my next point...

Show how the client/user/audience goals are achieved.

Frame things against the context of what your audience cares about: their goals for this project.

Will the placement of the button in that particular spot drive higher conversions? Will removing other options increase the user's chance to complete a purchase? Will the treatment of the photos evoke the desired feel? Does the copy's tone drive the type of personality we want to convey?

This is where you translate your designs into their native language.

Avoid jargon.

While you're explaining your designs, cut out jargon entirely. You will lose people quickly if you let your tongue waltz off into the design ether. Speak plainly.

Which is better?

"The page was conceived with a large amount of negative space and we used a geometric sans-serif font with a large x-height juxtaposed with a dynamic serif font to capture the blend of modern and traditional."

or

"We designed the page to feel light and airy to minimize distractions and picked readable but elegant fonts."

The best case scenario with option 1 is a confused client. No one likes to feel like the student in the room. It can quickly thin their patience and erode their trust in you if you talk down to them.

Trust is your most important asset in a relationship. Don't trade it away to make yourself feel better or hide your nerves.

Make it entertaining.

No one wants to watch a boring presentation.

Monotone delivery, lack of visuals, or lots of nerves can suck the life out of your presentation. You'll have to gauge the humor level and type of your clients (mortgage bankers may require a different approach than a young tech startup founder), but allow your personality to show through.

Ever heard of power posing before speaking in front of others?

In a nutshell, it's purposely posing in a 'powerful' stance before at least 2 minutes before some sort of activity. It sounds like pseudoscience and feels a little weird but it WORKS for loosening up your body language. (Protip: don't do this in front of the client. Go do it in a private place beforehand.) When your posture is engaging you've got all sorts of sociological power juice working for you.

Another thing that helps me is to be crazy excited to speak to your audience. Not fake-excited; people can see right through that. Find what makes you excited about the project and latch onto it. Let it carry your energy through the presentation. Genuine excitement is contagious and will help cover nerves or small mistakes.

Don't run from conflict.

Inevitably people will disagree with you. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes strongly, sometimes only just a little This can be a A Good Thing™.

How you deal with conflict is one of the most lasting impressions you can make in a social interaction. Did you deflect it entirely, failing to acknowledge the client's statements? Did you cave like almost immediately, labeling yourself a pushover? Did you get pissy and defensive or become belligerent?

Think back to the last argument you had (with family, a significant other, whoever). What did you do? Now think back to what they did; how did it make you feel? We're not going to go too deep into soul searching here (yet), but identifying your tendencies for dealing with conflict is important to know before you enter a conflict because it will help you course correct on the fly.

Good conflict resolution skills are like a super power, and very few people I've met are naturally good at it. If you can even get just a little better at this, it will help you tremendously, in all aspects. (I am no expert, but I have seen people who can do this well, it's amazing.)

Here's a short framework I use for dealing with conflict (large or small) in client relations:

  1. Never assume they're “out to get you”. Move past your initial knee jerk reaction. (See Hanlon's Razor)
  2. Acknowledge that you heard them.
    • This can help diffuse an initially strong reaction and start to move from statements to dialogue.
  3. Search for the meat of their statements, what are they really getting at.
  4. Reiterate what you really want and what you really don't want. Stay focused on those.
    • "What I really want is for this checkout page to be really efficient, easy to use, and effective for your business. I'd hate for the user to get bogged down with too many options."
  5. Is there a way to satisfy both options?
    • Invite the other party to participate in finding a solution.
    • If someone is in attack/defense mode, critical thinking can pivot their behavior. Suddenly you're collaborators instead of opponents.

Each conflict is different and this script may not always work. The main point is to stay calm, remind them that you're here to help and you want the project to succeed (help ME help YOU), and that you're willing to put in the work to see it happen. A well-handled conflict (where both parties walk away satisfied) will earn you nothing but mad props.

(I strongly recommend the book Crucial Conversations for some of the more advanced conflict-management techniques. Buy it, borrow it, find it in the library — you won't regret it.)

A short checklist:

To summarize, here's my checklist before a major presentation:

DO:

  1. Grab attention quickly (make something weird or funny happen early).
  2. SHOW don't TELL (when possible).
  3. Tell stories if possible (the more embarrassing the better).
  4. Show how you achieve the client's goals.
  5. Keep the client in their expertise comfort zone (their business).
  6. Be crazy excited to speak to the room.
  7. Do your homework; be prepared.

DO NOT:

  1. Present things that are unreadable (“Can you see this in the back?”)
  2. Pre-apologize (“We whipped this together. Didn't sleep well last night.”)
  3. Fill the silences, especially when waiting for a response.
  4. Explain what they can see in front of them (Captain Obvious, "This is a form, this is a button”).
  5. Read a script (Boooooring!).
  6. Ask if they like it.
  7. Try to make them happy (That's a bad measure — do not avoid conflict).
  8. Take notes (someone not presenting should do it if possible).
  9. Get defensive.
  10. Get too deep into design minutiae (specific colors, typefaces).

BASIC STRUCTURE:

  1. Thank them for their time.
  2. Tell them why they're here.
  3. Tell them what stage you're in, with a brief reminder of the last stage.
  4. Tell them what type of feedback you need.
  5. Walk through the design.
    • How does each step further the goals of the project?
  6. Invite questions and discussion.

Do you have your own tactics for presentations? Have questions about any of my points? Hit me up on Twitter, I'd love to chat about it.


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