Business advice: how to impress when presenting work to clients

Communications coach John Scarrott runs through the traps that creative directors and account managers should avoid when leading presentations, and how they can make a positive impression on their audience.

Presentations are a crucial part of the designer-client relationship; how you present yourself could be a clincher in landing your next project. In my work with design professionals, creative and account side, there are some assumptions that come up frequently when it comes to presentations.

Assumption 1. “I’ll focus on my slides. What I’m going to say will come to me when I stand up to speak.”

This generally leads to two styles of presentation. You may end up writing what you’re going to say on the slides and then reading from the slides. And because your audience can read, this bores them, and probably you. Or your spontaneous speaking becomes a ramble, the beginning and end of which you’ve not considered. Treat what you’re going to say and the slides as separate but complementary tools. And spend as much, if not more, time on what you’re going to say and let that guide your slides.

Assumption 2. “Focus on the work. We can prepare and rehearse on the way to the meeting.”

Designers love their work. Nothing wrong with that. But when they fall in love with it, that creates problems. By the time they get to the client’s office to present it, they know it better than anyone else. But the client doesn’t; they haven’t been there all the way. This is their first sight of your work. Bringing them up to speed on what you’ve developed will take more than “voila”, followed by a flourish. And that’s why you need to spend more time thinking and preparing how you will get your client to love your work as much as you do, and how to manage the situation and yourself if they don’t.

Assumption 3. “What happens before and after the presentation will take care of itself. It’s ‘our presentation’ that’s most important.”

The time before you start and the space after you finish your presentation are real opportunities to engage your audience. Use the ‘before’ to settle them and yourself in. And the ‘after’ to ask them what they think and decide on next steps. This creates a strong start and an organised and forward-looking finish.

Assumption 4. “No questions, phew!”

This is not necessarily a good thing. You want to make your audience think, otherwise, why are you there? You want them to be engaged with you and what you’re saying; to be stimulated, to think new thoughts and then to question them. You want them to be interested enough in you, your idea and their use for it to query and clarify. Questions say that you agitated your audience and gave them something new to think about. Isn’t that what you want?

Assumption 5. “Great presenters are naturally talented.”

Take someone you admire, get their autobiography and read it. If in the opening pages your admired hero says “I woke up one morning with this natural gift and it just took me to the top with no effort, like a magic carpet,” feel free to print this article and burn it. If not, note the effort, grit, passion and determination (among other things) that your idol put themselves through to become great. They may have some natural talent but that’s not enough. You can go much further than you ever imagined with effort and hard work.

Assumption 6. “Fear is a bad thing.”

Actually, fear is a useful thing. Back in prehistoric times fear told us to run or fight. The problem is that we haven’t lost that impulse, and it can get us into trouble when it comes to presentations. We don’t run or fight so the anxiety shows itself in other ways, such as stage fright. Here’s how to deal with it; use it. See it as a warning that something important is coming up, and welcome it as a warning from you to you. “You’d better prepare. And practice.” That’s what fear is saying. And when you hear that voice, it’s time to listen, and then take action.


John Scarrott is a Trainer and Coach working with design professionals on their approach to influential communication. Find him on Twitter @JohnDScarrott or check out his website where you can find other useful articles on this subject.

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  • Sapna Pieroux August 10, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    Wow. Is this really how most designers do it? Do they really need telling this stuff?

    Design shouldn’t be something that needs loads of explaining – the end viewer (the target audience, not your client!) won’t have the benefit of your extensive explanation and persuasion, so it needs to communicate clearly at first glance.

    “Designers love their work.” Yes, but the client needs to too. That doesn’t mean selling your soul and not doing beautiful work – it means listening. If your work doesn’t meet the brief and align to the business objectives, you’ve failed already.

    “But the client…(hasn’t) been there all the way. This is their first sight of your work. Bringing them up to speed on what you’ve developed will take more than “voila”,…” Why is this their first sight of your work? What a waste of everyone’s time! We involve the client in the creative journey from the get-go, meaning we get buy-in at every stage and never have to ‘bring them up to speed’.

    “…you need to spend more time thinking and preparing how you will get your client to love your work as much as you do”: again, if you listened to the client and their business goals first: they would love it because it met the brief. You shouldn’t have to try to “get your client to love your work” if you’ve done it right.

    • John Scarrott August 15, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks Sapna for reading and taking the time to comment on my piece. You make some useful points. On your first point, I find myself asking ‘what would cause someone to explain their idea?’ Might an explanation still be valid, because you’re talking to your client, who is usually not the target audience? But perhaps the question is what is this an explanation in relation to?

      The client is the target audience in one important sense. But how do they see themselves? In some ways, the client is the mediator between the agency and the audience. I wonder to what degree they see things through the eyes of their customers as opposed to their own eyes. This must vary between clients and becomes a factor in how an designer approaches the communication.

      I also wonder if agencies ever find they seem to have more empathy and knowledge of the end target of their work, than their immediate client does. And how they manage that. And what if they saw having that knowledge and empathy as part of their value?

      To your second point on listening I completely agree. I would add to that the word ‘active’. There is something passive about listening on its own. But if you listen at deeper levels and then ask the questions that ‘you’ prompt yourself to ask, then you can deepen your clarity and knowledge and produce a better brief and with that a better guide on how to fulfil it.

      Your point on staying in touch with the client is a really good one. Agreeing at the start, the terms of meeting to discuss progress can loosen that assumption right there.

      Your final point is again spot on. If you’ve checked in regularly, listened and adjusted, the final result should be what everyone expects; the most effective and creative idea. No trying, just doing.

      Thanks again.

      • Sapna Pieroux August 15, 2017 at 8:01 pm

        Great to get into this conversation with you John – and thanks for connecting off here.

        Re point 1: I guess with the particular niche I work with – highly ambitious entrepreneurs with 6 or 7 figure businesses – they pretty much have a PHD in their target audience. If dealing with a CEO or a marketing director, they too should really understand their own target audience – if not, we have a problem and the brief won’t be as good as it should be.

        Do I “ever find I have more empathy and knowledge of the end target”? I’d say yes, quite often. Having worked in media on creative campaigns for over 20 years and across many different demographics (from Q readers to Kiss listeners to Telegraph readers…and many more) I can tap into different target audiences and the kind of communication that works – so absolutely, knowledge and empathy is very much a part of the value I bring. But I still do a lot of – as you call it – ‘active’ listening.

        You have “two ears and one mouth so use them in that ratio” – one of the best bits of sales advice ever! Use that talking time to ask searching, pertinent, questions and find out more, to perhaps even challenge your client’s brief or assumptions if you have knowledge of that market.

        Although I trained in design, I then fell into media (marketing) and had to brief design agencies myself so I’ve been that client. I found it frustrating that the guys were so full of their own talents, the sheer arrogance of foisting their work onto us when it wasn’t the right solution and they hadn’t *listened* to the brief would really frustrate me. (In the end I got my then boss to sign off the budget and we brought the design in-house!)

        I have now come full-circle to my first love of design. I decided to build my agency differently – using my insights from working in marketing and sales to bring an intelligent and commercial edge to everything we do. Client-focused work doesn’t mean we aren’t creative or push boundaries, but we keep our eye on the true prize – happy clients, successful businesses and more referrals.

  • John Scarrott August 17, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Sapna, I take a lot from your comments. They contain some really useful insights for people who might be facing challenges in these areas:

    You have a niche and within that niche there exists a high level of knowledge around ‘audience’. You’re aware of this. I hear a ‘should’ which could get you into difficulties. But I sense you have a heightened sense of when you have a problem and you approach it directly. For many designers that ‘should’ may well be something they are aware of but do not tackle directly. And for some a lack of awareness is what can get them into real difficulties.

    Part of your value to your clients comes from the variety of your experience compared to theirs. They see their business, their customers, their brand. You see this and bring much more for their benefit.

    You mention listening and challenging. These skills are part of what make a partnership relationship as opposed to a supplier-customer relationship. More of this kind of style would elevate design as a discipline from ‘drawing’ to ‘thinking’. If you’ve not come across her before I can recommend Nancy Kline as someone to read on listening and attention. Her work will inspire you to even greater success.

    You have the benefit of having spent time on client and agency side. This gives you deep empathy and a real aptitude for taking different perspectives. This is a very relevant theme to conversations I’m having currently around the nature of client-agency relationships.

    Here’s to building a different type of agency and producing client-focused work that pushes boundaries!

  • Dean Prestwell September 15, 2017 at 2:14 am

    Thanks for the article.
    Very useful.
    We are a new start-up looking to gain new clients in the luxury goods sector and your points are relevant when proposing new collections to potential clients with a view to licensing our new designs.
    We rely on a common sense approach to understanding sector objectives and trends and start from that point and move forward.
    Our goal is to coalesce with the client as much as possible – communication being key.
    In our position as a new design company your points are succinct.
    Thankyou

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