Everyone who ever told you good work sells itself was a lying jerk.

…or, how Mule can teach you skills your school should have taught you but didn’t.


About a year ago I found myself in Seattle on the Microsoft campus, teaching a workshop. A workshop on how to present your work. One of the attendees had flown in from Japan, which kinda freaked me out. I mean it’s one thing to speak to a bunch of people who just walked down from the floor above, or from the building over. But here’s someone who’s taken a flight across the ocean because she thought I could teach her how to present her work. That’s a lot of pressure.


The first time I had to present design to a client, I vomited in their bathroom. And I’m not talking a little vomit. I’m talking full blast jet propulsion pea soup right into their toilet. (Hello. I’m a design professional!) The second time I did it wasn’t much better, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a full fledged freak out. In fact, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

And I want to teach other people how to be good at it.

Part of this class I was doing is that you have to actually do a presentation. A short one. Five minutes. (I’ll break the whole class down in a minute.) So this woman who’d flown in from Japan goes up and starts her presentation. She’s a product manager. So she’s talking about project health. And she’s nervous. Everyone’s always nervous when they get up there. It was clear she was nervous. It was also clear she knew what she was talking about. She was clearly good at her job, just nervous about talking about it. Again, this is everyone in the class.

Yes, our workshops cost money. But the stuff you learn will end up making you so much more money than the workshop cost you.

Here’s the thing, as good as this woman was at her job, chances are she was going to get judged on situations like this. Situations she’d never been taught how to handle. Her next raise might depend on it. Her upward mobility might depend on it. Her next job (not that she was looking) might depend on it. And I really wanted to help her because no one had ever taught her how. And she flew all the way in from Japan. That’s a long trip.

I initially sucked at presenting work because nobody taught me how to do it. In fact, I was actively encouraged not to do it. I was told that good work, really good work, sold itself. And that if you had to stoop to selling it you were demeaning the profession. This is shit advice from shit people.

I’ve written about how designers screw up presentations in the past. (Go read it!) This is part two of that story. This is the part about how we’ve been helping to fix the problem. And one of the first things we learned was this problem was much bigger than designers.

A few years ago we started doing workshops on how to present your work more effectively. Everyone shows up scared. Everyone shows up looking tentative. Everyone shows up looking like they might wanna bail. But they show up. They show up to get better at something they’re scared of doing and that’s amazing.


So this woman is doing her initial presentation and she knows what she’s talking about. But she’s nervous, so she’s looking at her slides for comfort. And she’s tripping herself up. She knows the material. But the slides are tripping her up. The slides are in charge of the presentation, not her. I see this a lot. Her confidence is dropping. I look at the other participants. They’re fidgeting. Some of them are sneaking looks at their phones. She notices this too. Her five minutes are up. It’s time for feedback from the group.


We originally intended this workshop to be about presenting design. And it works great for that. But almost immediately developers started showing up. And product managers. And engineers. And writers. And it worked great for all of them too.

Our goal is to turn you into the best version of yourself possible.

I start every workshop with the vomit story. Which sounds unpleasant, and it is. But at the same time it shows people where I’m coming from. I used to suck at presenting work. It shows people this is skill you learn, not a skill you’re born with. (Are there skills you’re born with?) We go over common mistakes people make when presenting. Then the fun begins. Everyone has to go up to the front of the room and do a five minute presentation. This is hard. But they do it. Afterwards you get feedback from me and the other attendees. Then you do it again, changing it as need be.

I’ve seen people get noticeably better at presenting work during the course of the day. Noticeably better. And it happens from a combination of just getting used to being up there, feedback from the other attendees, and a couple of tips and tricks I throw in. The biggest one of which is: humility is expensive. You can do the best work in the world, but if you’re afraid to sell it, you’re screwed. You’re doing again. Your team is doing it again. Your project is stalled. And whatever it is you’re trying to do isn’t getting done.That’s expensive.


The woman who flew to Seattle from Japan is ready to do her presentation a second time. She’s the last presenter of the day. I ask her if she’s willing to try something. She says yes.

“Don’t use slides.”

“No slides?”

“Forget the slides.”

“Forget the slides?”

“You know your shit. Just tell us the story.”

She went back up. She gave her presentation. She nailed it. She knew her shit. She was the person in charge. She got a standing ovation when she finished.

“Was it worth flying all the way in from Japan?”

“Absolutely!”

Whew.


In the past year I’ve given this workshop all over the world. Warsaw. Stockholm. London. I spent a week in India where I gave it 5 days straight. Almost killed me, so much fun. I’ve given it to students, seasoned experts, designers, engineers, developers, etc, etc, etc. I’ve given it to people who were meeting for the first time that day, and inside companies to teams that work together all day. Here I am, with a really shitty haircut, doing the workshop at Center Centre, a UX design school (These folks are going to be amazing UX designers, btw.):

No matter where in the world I give the workshop, the attendees attempt to tell me that being shy is a cultural thing. They all admit to being wrong by the end of the day.

Recently, I’ve had the extreme joy of watching John Hanawalt, another designer at Mule start doing the workshop himself. And he’s adapted it to himself. Does it totally different than I do and just as effective. That’s one of the things we work on in this workshop: how to adapt it to your personal style. Our goal is to turn you into the best version of yourself possible. That’s the best part of my job. Watching colleagues get comfortable with their expertise. That sounds corny, but I’m leaving it in, cause it’s true.

After many years presenting work to clients, we found out that there was a demand from our clients to learn how to present. We teach other people to be better at the thing they love doing. We do workshops on presenting, on research, on writing for the web, on feedback. I do a workshop based on my book, Design Is a Job. We even do a workshop that I’m not allowed to see. On gender bias.

We come into your company and do them. It costs money. But the stuff you learn will end up making you more money than the workshop cost you. They take a full day. It’s the best day you’ll ever spend at work. I’m not even making that up. And you’ll walk out feeling like you’re better at your job, because you’ll be better at your job.

So tell your boss. Tell your manager. Tell whoever writes the checks. Or email us and tell us who we have to convince. We’ll do the work. We’ll fly to where you are. We’ll hang out. We’ll do work.

You’ll become an expert at the thing you’re most afraid of.