How to present the right impression

Making presentations to prospective clients is a crucial area for design consultancies. Tom Bawden points out the best ways to make an impression.

The truism that “first impressions count” has a particular resonance in the design industry – if you fail to impress the client the first time, there won’t be a second chance.

The first meeting with a client can come in a variety of forms. Most commonly it will occur when a design group is called in to make a credentials or a proposals pitch as the first part of the selection process for a specific project. Increasingly, however, it may comprise an interview to join a client’s design roster, or a “speculative” meeting from a recommendation or letter of introduction.

Either way, the meeting is an invaluable opportunity to win new business that is often squandered by design groups. M&K chairman Paul King, who is putting together a design roster for B&Q, has seen some appalling presentations – “one was so disorganised they hadn’t even arranged an overhead projector and an extension lead to plug it in”. Meanwhile, WH Smith external design head and Newell and Sorrell consultant Michael Wolff says many are done “on a wing and a prayer”.

The form and content of any first meeting between a consultancy and a client will vary according to the design sector, the pitch type and the client’s own working practices. But the client is looking for the same qualities in a presentation in each case, says The Body Shop head of global design Jon Turner, who interviews designers on a regular basis and employs the ones that impress him.

“It is all about putting yourself in the client’s shoes, whether it be interpreting a brief or making past work relevant to the client’s business,” he adds.

The key to a successful presentation then is to build an extensive knowledge of the client’s business and culture.

“You have to give the client a clear sense of what you can do for it and what you are like to work with,” says Spencer Landor design director John Spencer.

To establish the creativity it can bring the client, the consultancy must have a clear idea of that client’s image, target audience and competition. The consultancy can then show the client relevant examples of past work and suggest ways in which these techniques might be applied to its own business, says Spencer.

“You have to convince the client you are the best for the job – both creatively and in terms of its cultural fit,” says Spencer.

The presentation should be made by the person or people who work day-to-day on design accounts, says King, who has previously headed design at Tesco and Woolworths.

“They are often made by design heads who are not really involved hands-on with the accounts and often have to refer questions in a presentation back to a designer at the office,” says King.

Once the subject matter and presenter(s) have been selected, the presentation needs to be written. There are no set rules on the optimum number of presenters it should involve – however many it takes to cover everything as clearly as possible.

“Nine times out of ten keep it simple – present it as it really is. It’s not about glitzy presentation, it’s about thoroughness of research and creative brilliance,” says Wolff.

If the presentation is simple, well-researched and creatively brilliant, most of the rest comes down to the confidence and charisma of the presenter(s).

“Nobody hires a portfolio. A good communicator who involves all members of the group and has conviction is what really counts at this stage,” says Wolff.

Confidence is manifested in a willingness to commit to one idea rather than several which suggests that the presenter(s) doesn’t have a very clear idea of what he or she is doing, says Wolff.

While confidence and charisma cannot be taught, practice does improve your performance. Wolff recommends rehearsing the presentation with colleagues before the event and carrying out a post mortem afterwards.

While there is no place for gimmicks in a presentation, the use of visual “props” and handouts can nonetheless enhance the communication process.

“Any additional material must aid the presentation, giving enough written or visual information to be useful but not too much to detract attention from the presenter,” says Turner.

One should also not overlook the common sense factor. Cliches, defensive body language and the repetition of words like “obviously” are to be avoided because they suggest nerves and undermine client confidence.

And, if you are using slides, be sure to bring a projector and an extension lead.

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