What We Learned: Presentation Skills Are Essential to Design

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This is the third article in a series called “What We Learned”, documenting the evolution and growth of the Designation program over four years of operation. You can find the first two parts here and here

Let’s be very clear right from the start: design work does not sell itself.

It might seem obvious on its face, but believe it or not that actually comes as a bit of a shock to many of the young aspiring designers we talk to. The belief usually goes something like this: after weeks of careful and meticulous utilization of formal design processes, the designer arrives at the client meeting with the work covered by a satin drape, dramatically unveil their work with a flourish, and bask in the adulation and applause of their adoring clients who instantly recognize it for its genius.

This has literally never happened. Not once. Not even close. 

The reason it has never happened is because design work does not sell itself. It is “sold” by the designers who worked on it.

Now, we don’t mean sold in the traditional sense of an economic transaction. Rather, we mean that the work was accepted as satisfactory by whoever you were presenting to, be it an external client or an internal stakeholder.

And to do that, to sell design work, requires presentation skills. Here’s a quick rundown of some helpful tips and tricks we’ve accumulated over the years:

Speak Slowly

This is not only the most prevalent mistake we see young designers make, but it’s also the easiest to address. When you’re up there walking someone through your work, take the cadence that feels correct to speak at, and literally talk about half that rate.

Remember: your audience isn’t remotely as familiar with the material as you are.

Whatever feels normal to you is almost certainly too fast. Take a breath. Slow down. And walk your audience confidently, deliberately, and slowly through each page of your slide deck.

Practice, Practice, Practice

That confidence referenced above? That will only come with time. It’s essential to practice the way you talk about your work well advance of your actual presentation. And the more that’s riding on the line, the more you should practice.

It can also be very helpful to record these practice sessions and listen to them afterward. You might be surprised how you actually sound and speak, relative to how you thought you sounded.

Another benefit of practicing is that you can time your presentation out in advance. In almost any presentation you’re likely to have you’ll have some sort of time limit, so make sure you leave enough time for feedback and critique by timing out your presentation appropriately.

Less Is More

Anyone can go on and on and on. There’s no skill or craft in just piling on additional words. The art of presentation is about using few words to say more.

As such, after you record your presentation, as you listen back to it, try to find sections that are unnecessary or overly wordy. Can you cut anything out entirely? What’s the best way to tell your story?

Be considerate and economical with your words, and your audience will almost certainly appreciate it. Remember: they can always ask for clarification if they need it.

Keep It Conversational

There’s something about the importance of a presentation that makes people feel the need to dress up their language, to make it overly formal or complex.

This is a huge mistake. Formal language actually makes it harder to understand what you’re getting at, because you’re using words you may not be accustomed to using, and your audience is almost certainly not accustomed to hearing.

The language that communicates best is that which we all use every day: the language of plain conversation. Keep your words simple.

Know Your Audience

There are not many presentations you’ll make where you have no idea who will be in attendance or what their sensibility is. Instead, it’s usually the opposite: you’ll know the exact attendance list of your meeting well in advance, as well as everyone’s role in the meeting.

Given that, you’d be foolish not to tailor your presentation to your audience in any way possible. This can be a combination of using language or analogies that will resonate with them personally or otherwise telling the story in such a way as to connect with them and their background.

And Finally…

Public speaking is like skydiving. You can read all the books you want in advance, but there’s no substitute for actually doing it and experiencing it yourself. That is to say, like most things in life, public speaking is something that you’ll only get better at by doing it.

But you’ll get better much faster by following a few easy rules and reflecting on the degree to which your presentation was effective at the end of each session.

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