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13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations

…and one weird trick you won't believe works every time.

The hardest part of design is presenting work. You can't even argue about this. I've seen people who did amazing work get up in front of a client and lay eggs. I've also seen people do alright work and work clients around their little finger. Optimally, you want to do good work and present it well. But I'd rather have a good designer who can present well than a great designer who can't. In fact, I'd argue whether it's possible to be a good designer if you can't present your work to a client. Work that can't be sold is as useless as the designer who can't sell it.

And, no, this is not an additional skill. Presenting is a core design skill.

The first time I presented design to a client I absolutely choked. I put the work in front of them and stood there like an idiot. It was humiliating. The next time was a little easier. And the time after that, well, you get the idea. I have done every one of the things on this list. I'm sharing them with you in the hopes that they'll spare you a humiliating experience or two. It'll take time.

1. Seeing the client as someone they have to please

Your client hired you because you are the expert at what you do. They are the expert at the thing they do. And you have been brought in to add your expertise to the client's expertise to help them accomplish their goal. (If you're presenting work and unclear on what that goal is we have a bigger problem than this article is going to address.) What they didn't hire you to do is make them happy, or be their friend. Your decisions should revolve around achieving that goal, not pleasing the client. And while you should do everything in a professional and pleasing manner, never conflate helping the client achieve their goal with making them happy.

They will ask you to do things that run counter, in your expertise, to achieving the goal. Your job is to convince them otherwise. In the end, they will be better served if you see yourself as the expert they believe they hired. And while this may result in some unpleasant conversations during the project, having unpleasant conversations is sometimes part of the job. Doing the wrong thing to avoid an unpleasant conversation doesn't do either of you any favors in the long run.

2. Not getting off your ass

This is your room. Your first job is to inspire confidence. Not just confidence in your work, but also confidence in your client that they hired the right person. Every interaction is an opportunity to reaffirm their decision in hiring you. Get off your ass and lead this meeting. You'll seem more confident if you're standing up. Your voice will carry better. Be the authority on design your client hired. Work the room. Walk to where you're needed. Being on your feet will allow you to walk from person to person as they ask questions, simultaneously making you look more confident and allowing for more intimacy.

It should go without saying that you dressed nicely and your hands are out of your pockets. Now run your presentation, sport.

3. Starting with an apology

Do not start the presentation with an apology or disclaimer.

No matter how much more you had hoped to present, by the time you get in that room, whatever you have is exactly the right amount of work. Any resetting of expectations should have been handled before the meeting.

Obviously, don't do anything that you'll need to apologize for. Like showing up late. Or forgetting an adapter. Or spilling coffee on your new white shirt.

And if you're really not prepared for the meeting, then better to cancel it than to waste your clients' time. (You can get away with that exactly once during a project.)

But by the time you are in that room, be ready to present strong and to exude confidence.

4. Not setting the stage properly

You have gathered all of these busy people together. They probably have other things to do. So let them know why they are in this presentation. Let them know they are a necessary and important part of the conversation. People like feeling needed. And they hate having their time wasted.

Start the meeting by thanking them for their time. Let them know what their role will be. Why they're here. What you'll be showing them. And what kind of participation you need from them. This is your opportunity to make them feel like the experts they are.

Let them know what stage of the project you're in. Give a very brief reminder of what the last stage was, how it helped you get to this stage, and how the presentation you're in now will help move the project forward.

5. Giving the real estate tour

Never explain what they can obviously see right in front of them. They can all see the logo on the top left. They can all see the search box. There is absolutely nothing more boring than a designer walking a client down the page, listing all the things they can already see.

Pull up. You don't sell a house by talking about sheetrock. You sell it by getting the buyer to picture themselves in the neighborhood.

Sell the benefits of the work. Sell how the work matches to the project's goals. Sell how their new site is going to crush their competitors and make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams.

And while every decision on that page should have been made with the benefit of data and good research, people are irrational creatures who don't make decisions based on data and research. They make them based on stories. So find your story and tell it.

6. Taking notes

You're too busy giving a presentation to take notes. You're on stage. Ask someone else to take notes for you. And then post them for the client to review after the meeting so you can agree you heard the same thing.

7. Reading a script

I'm already asleep.

You need to convince your client that you're excited about what you're showing them. Let's be honest here. This is a show. There's a little smoke and mirrors. There's a little Barnum. Not so much that it's a clown show, but enough that you're building up some excitement. Work towards a crescendo. There's little difference between a designer presenting work and a DJ working a crowd. You are selling design.

So have your facts straight. Have your homework done. Have your data at hand. Know why you've made the choices you've made. Have notes nearby if you need to refer to them, but you shouldn't be sitting near your notes anyway. (Remember, you're walking the room.) But work all of these around an exciting narrative. And practice it enough that you know it going in.

Be a scientist when you work, and a snake charmer when you present.

8. Getting defensive

You are not your work and your work is not you. It is not an extension of you and it is not your personal expression. It is work product done to meet a client's goals. The client is free to criticize that work and tell you whether he believes it has met those goals or not. You are free to disagree with him. And you are expected to be able to make a rational case for those disagreements. But you are not allowed to get all butthurt about it. This is a job.

There's a difference between defending the work, and getting defensive. The latter is personal, it happens when you're seeing the criticism as a reflection of yourself. Guess what, sport? Good people do bad work sometimes.

So when the client starts critiquing the work, listen to what they are saying. Don't feel like you have to defend all of their decisions then and there. You also don't have to promise them anything then and there. Sometimes it's best to sit on it for a while. It's perfectly fine to say something like “That's interesting feedback. Let me think about it."

9. Mentioning typefaces

Clients don't give a shit about typefaces. And if they do, they'll ask.

The thing I've heard most often from clients is “I don't know anything about design." (They're wrong, btw.) This is their way of telling you they're uncomfortable. They hate feeling uncomfortable, and you do too. It's on you to get them back into their comfort zone, which is the thing they're experts in — their business. Which is great, because that's something you are not an expert in. It's great to have one in the room. There's already a design expert in the room — you!

So when presenting the work, talk about it in terms that relate to their business. Talk about how the decisions you made as the design expert match up to the goals of the project. Then your client can judge those as the subject matter they are.

But the color, the type, the design shit — you've got that. If you ask them for their opinion on design don't come crying to me when they give it to you, and you're all like, “They don't know anything about design!" They warned you!

10. Talking about how hard you worked

The worst feedback you can get from a client is “Wow. It looks like you worked really hard on this!"

Stop using your work like a time card. If you did it right, it looks like it was effortless. It looks like it's always existed. And the client will probably be irritated that they paid you for 30 hours of work to do something that looks like it took an hour. Which it did. They're just not seeing the 29 hours of bad design that got you to that one hour of good design. And for the love of god, please don't show them those 29 hours of bad design. A presentation is a shitty place for a sausage-making demonstration and you'll just come across as a defensive, unsure person needing validation.

Sell the fuck out of that one hour of good design — most people can't do ten minutes of it.

11. Reacting to questions as change requests

“Why is this green?"

“I can change it!"

I don't really need to go any further into this one, do I? Just answer the question as asked. You should be able to answer that.

12. Not guiding the feedback loop

There's only one question worse than “What do you think?" (It's coming up.)

Ever hear a designer scream about a client giving them the wrong type of feedback? I have. At which point I ask them if they told the client what kind of feedback they were looking for and they just pull the panda hat over their head to hide their anger.

Most clients have absolutely no idea what kind of feedback you're looking for. And there's no reason why they would. They do not do this every day. They don't have the training that you do. Nor do they need it, because guiding them towards the right type of feedback is part of your job. (Anything that helps you do your job is part of your job.) Know what you want before you call the meeting, and then guide the meeting toward that goal.

So during the presentation feel free to slap your hands together and say “This is the kind of feedback I'm looking for today!" Here are some suggestions for guiding questions:

  • Does this reflect your brand?
  • Does this reflect your users' needs as we discussed in the research?
  • Does this reflect your current ad strategy?

Keep the feedback questions about things that they're the subject matter expert in. I have absolutely no doubt that they'll give you feedback on color and type and all the other stuff you didn't want anyway. Which you should take with a grain of salt. But that other stuff is the feedback you can't move forward without.

Which brings us to the absolute worst question of all:

13. Asking “Do you like it?"

Dear sweet lord in heaven above and all his angels, you just gave away the farm. They are no longer viewing you as an expert. You are no longer their equal in expertise. You are no longer the person they feel comfortable enough writing a check to. Even if they don't realize it, all of these things just happened. You are now reduced down to a small child showing your dad a picture of the cat and hoping he deems it worthy enough to put on the fridge anchored by his magnetic Las Vegas bottle opener.

The client didn't hire you to make something they liked, and something they like may not be the thing that leads to their success. So do not conflate the two. This point needs to be driven home from the very beginning of the project. And nowhere is this message more undermined than using language that leads them down a subjective path.

…and one weird trick that you won't believe works every time.

Learn the client's goddamn name.