Presenting Design with Confidence

When it comes to conducting a well-orchestrated design presentation, having prior presentation experience is a false measuring stick for success. Preparedness, not experience, actually breeds the confidence needed.

“Are you ready?” Klaus asked finally.
“No,” Sunny answered.
“Me neither,” Violet said, “but if we wait until we’re ready we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives, Let’s go.”

Lemony Snicket, The Ersatz Elevator

Like Violet states, you can’t wait for the perfect moment or the deserving job title to feel comfortable presenting work to clients. To help nudge you out of the nest, I’ve culled these personal tips for anyone who has to stand up in front of an audience and talk about design fluently and with confidence.

1. Re-establish the past

History matters. Each step in our design process is informed by something that preceded it. Provide a quick recap or overview of the key findings that informed your current artifact. We live and breathe our projects day in, day out. Most of our stakeholders don’t. Help put them in the frame of mind that enables them to feel informed. Serialized TV show producers understand this. Even though the show ended years ago, I still can’t get the “Last week on LOST…” episode bumper voiceover out of my head.

2. Establish the goals

Make sure everyone in attendance understands the purpose of the meeting as well as the expected outcomes. We shouldn’t assume all participants know the boundaries they are supposed to stay within. Even though this likely will occur prior to the meeting, it always helps to quickly reinforce why everyone has gathered and the agenda for the time you’ll be spending together.

3. Create parameters

Illustrate what should and shouldn’t be focused on. If you want participants to home in on a specific aspect of a design, be sure to delineate what’s “in play” and what’s “out of bounds.” Also, creating parameters is a great way to highlight specific aspects of your work that need further feedback. If you are in the middle of a design process, remind participants of what might have already been decided upon at an earlier phase.

4. Provide guidelines

No one is born a helpful critiquer. Don’t assume that all stakeholders know how to be productive in a critique situation. Coach them. Provide specific questions that the attendees can use as a lens for their feedback. (E.g. “Does the design execute the brand guidelines appropriately?) This is especially helpful for large-group scenarios. Make sure your first questions isn’t, “Well, what do you think?”

5. Illuminate reasons

Discuss qualities of the work that go deeper than the veneer. Everything that is baked into a design needs to have a backstory and purpose. Put yourself in the shoes of the participants. What do they care about? What information will make them respond critically to your presentation? What are the questions that you know they will ask? Tailor your presentation to get ahead of these inquiries. Provide the context of how decisions were made, and you’ll avoid talking about the surface-level qualities.

6. Reiterate language

Mine the kickoff meeting, benchmarking, documentation, and interviews for specific points that are worth unearthing to validate design decisions. If it makes sense, draw attention to specific participants in the design process who have contributed exemplary feedback — especially if they are attendees. Doing so demonstrates to stakeholders that design is as much about listening as it is about creating.

7. Express excitement

Talking about your project might be the highlight of an attendee’s day. Make sure to exhibit that excitement back to them. Yes, not all projects are the same. Demonstrate you care to attendees by the tone of your voice, your body language, and the general fluency you have about the project. Clients deserve the same level of excitement from designers regardless if it’s a project for Disney World or dandruff shampoo.

Being properly prepared for a design presentation (or any presentation) can remind your clients why you were hired. Don’t let titles or a lack of experience hold you back from being able to talk about design with confidence. Take the leap, but meticulously and thoroughly pack your parachute.

Originally published on Happy Cog’s blog Cognition on June 19th, 2014