12 principles for nailing it to the wall.

As designers (or really any practitioner within the realm of problem solving), researching, working diligently, iterating, and developing new ideas always lead to one thing : obtaining buy-off from the stakeholder(s); the golden “go-ahead”.

It’s the make or break point of progress within any given design project, and whether it be your corporate VP or an agency client, there are a few key things to make sure you knock out of the park to be successful.

Over the course of any good designer’s career, effective pitching of the work they’ve worked on will prove they not only know how to craft something great, but are capable of selling it too.

“I have to present my latest screens for the on-boarding flow for the app. What if I choke?! What if I stutter and she thinks I’m full of crap? I’m freaking out, yo!”

It happens to all of us. We might coast within a job for awhile until that blessed moment in time where your product manager tells you it’s time to pitch your latest work to the chief; the big boss.

As designers, this must be one of our strongest tools in the shed. To design solutions without knowing how to sell that solution is not design. That’s probably closer to art; a statement from your perspective.

So, if this might be you currently, fear not…we’ll break it down, so you can start practicing the art of pitching design to executives, stakeholders, clients, your grandma, and other decision makers whom all have an opinion.


Presenting proves out process

First off, understand that pitching to a stakeholder looks very different within various atmospheres, companies, and processes.

  • Some work with the client on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Some designers may walk a stakeholder through a clickable prototype.
  • Some may be pitching a new idea in the format of a Keynote presentation (please stop using Powerpoint people! The dry erase board replaced the chalk board for a reason).

In the end, a senior designer will be used to all three of these formats. The point is to remedy a problem with a creative solution, and showing your work in the light of a presentation helps everyone understand how you got to those solutions. It’s like when your teacher made you show your work when doing Algebra in math class.

You’re catering to the audience; you’re helping them understand your solutions to their problems.

Prior to the meeting

01 — Craft a damn good presentation

As designers, we own the capability to present words, thoughts, and conversations into a tangible, digital product. It’s usually looked at as black magic to those less savvy, or at least, mis-interpreted as “art”.

If you’re going to present your work to the big peeps, you have no excuse for a lame presentation template. No, the point of the meeting is not how pretty the deck is, it’s the material…but it’s still an opportunity to stand out. Put time into what you present…holistically. Believe me, people will notice.

02 — Know your material

If you’re going to instill confidence into whomever you’re trying to obtain buy-off from, you’d better be ready for some business-case questions and how your solutions tie back to the agenda / road map. You don’t have to know the answer to everything (you won’t), but never bullshit, or make up an answer. People can read right through it.

If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll take it offline, find out the answer, and get back to them.

03 — Who’s chief note-taker?

Before your big meeting, make sure you’ve asked a fellow teammate to take notes for big callouts/takeaways so you don’t have to scribble while you’re trying to listen. If you’re in a decent corporate environment, there’s usually a product manager or executive admin logging meeting notes.

Make sure someone is! It’s terribly embarrassing when walking out of a meeting and realizing you’re not sure what you’re supposed to go do next.

During the meeting

04 — Nerves, body language, and tone

Understand, that as real as nerves may be, you don’t want to show them (it will probably happen regardless, it’s ok). You need to do your best to carry yourself with authority and humble confidence. Sit up straight, sound interested, take on an open and inviting body posture, and match the speed/pace at which the opposite party (main stakeholder you’re delivering to) is talking, operating at. A fast talker doesn’t like listening to a slow one. Match their pace, mood, and disposition.

05— Set the stage (meeting agenda)

Before you start into your content, start your presentation with a “last time we talked”, or “to bring you up to speed” slide. You want to make sure everyone is on the same page and have set the premise for what you’re about to show. Respect that they probably only have a set amount of time until their next meeting, so address past discussions quickly.

Create an index of what you’ll be presenting :

  1. Introductions
  2. Last time we talked
  3. Show design content, blah blah
  4. Questions?
  5. Proposed next steps
  6. End

This helps everyone know how long you’ll need, and what kind of topics they can expect.

Inform them at what fidelity your work is at (sketches, wires, hi-fi mocks), and what they can expect to see. Inform them of the challenges you’re working within, and the solutions you’ve come up with. It’s super easy to dive into work without establishing the problem you’re solving for.

Always prime your work, and thoroughly (yet briefly) talk through things before they come up as questions that take time away from your presentation. This is skill that comes with time, learning various personalities, and adapting to ever-changing processes.

06 — Own the room

It’s easy to have things go sideways when you get big players in a room. Everyone has an opinion about design, but having 3 different conversations going on at once, and 2 other people texting their spouse is terribly distracting and can easily throw you off. Let this happen, and they’ll smell blood in the water…you’ll get eaten alive.

Inform the room that you’re seeking “x” feedback, helping them to understand exactly how you want to involve them and why. You’d be surprised how many meetings some people go to, and if you don’t get their attention from the get-go, they’ll quickly tune out. If people start cross-talking or getting off topic, kindly inform them “sorry guys, but we have to keep moving. I want to respect your time as well as get through what I have to show, and address any questions”.

Spice up the meeting a bit. Tell a short story within your presentation to engage people. Show something funny, but something that gets your point across with simple, genuine candor.

07 — Monitor your time

If you started out right, you crafted a presentation that fits well within your allotted time to speak. Don’t stuff a 50 page deck into a 15 minute meeting. Respect the amount of time they’re giving you and make sure you get everything you need addressed within that time frame. You can control this with how/what you present.

Don’t babble, rabbit-hole, or elaborate to the nth degree on every concept or iteration. Prime the problem, show the solution, and speak to why it works. This is the focus of an executive (along with a million other things). They’re comparing their own internal initiative list and SWOT analyzing (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) your work against it.

Be brief, address their concerns if any, speak to your designs, but don’t go nerdy-designer-speak on them. They don’t speak your language — you must speak theirs. They pay you to work through the details, but most of the time, they want the ‘back of the book’ version to help them decide yay or nay.

08—Take questions, appropriately

After presenting a larger piece of your presentation, take a second to address any questions on the content you just presented. Ask again at the end of the meeting before closing statements / next steps.

09 — Propose next steps, and commit to action

When you’ve shown everything you’ve worked on, and everyone seems to understand the content, the designer must propose next steps! This is often missed, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next, when we’re expecting to see something by, with addressed changes/feedback.

It’s not the executive’s job to figure out what you should do next. You need to understand what they’re looking for, and for their own success, push them towards your suggested vision for their product. You know the design’s capabilities, best qualities, feasibilities, and opportunities. It’s their job to make a choice on what you present, but if you did your job well, they agreed with what you were proposing all along and hopefully request minimal or no changes. By suggesting what you think is appropriate to tackle next, you help them focus, and engage at a level that helps them not only trust you more, but can lead to giving you more responsibility.

After the meeting

10— Summarize the meeting notes and email everyone

Gather notes from your chief note-taker (unless someone else is doing this) and write a concise email to all who were in the meeting as well as those who should have been. This again, helps everyone understand your (team’s) next steps.

11 — Seek constructive feedback from teammates

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a presentation went well or not. Grab a team-mate or your manager if they were in the meeting, and ask them how they think you did / it went. Listen intently, and write down anything you might want to remember for the next time you present.

12— Get ready for the next one

As you work through stuff in design, it’s easy to find yourself quickly cramming all your work into a deck (this is how they become super lame-sauce). Instead, try compiling work into a deck as you work through your designs (note to self). This makes life not only a lot easier, but allows you to always be prepared if someone wants to see something on the spot. You’ll have your ‘ish together! That’s a win for everyone.


In Closing

Work through design and address issues from the perspective of your audience. Most people are looking for things to rip apart; it makes them feel like they know what they’re doing. Especially when it comes to design. Take any and all feedback with a grain of salt. However, if you’re thorough in your presentation, you cover your tracks.

Pretend like the whole thing is yours to control, and prove you know what you’re doing as a designer/strategic player. That’s not only what stakeholders want, but trickles into your relationships with your manager and team as well. Be so good they can’t ignore you, so that when you present you’re solutions, they have no choice but to applaud you for a job well done, excited and ready to see what’s next.


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