Treat every presentation like your first

I am nearing the end of Phase I of a sizable project with a client that, for the sake of simplicity, we will call Goldstar. Last week I presented my design concepts on Tuesday and had a pre-final presentation meeting Friday. In my mind, Friday was to review changes to the designs, new implications, and to obtain buy in from the core team before presenting to the larger audience. Assuming the audience was familiar with my work to date, I jumped right into the new designs and omitted the back story. The meeting immediately flipped and I was caught back pedaling, explaining design rationale and process – something I had wrongfully assumed the audience was familiar with. How could I have avoided this? Treat every presentation like your first.

The Power of the First Presentation

When first presenting a deliverable, we describe what the deliverable is, its value in the design process, and how to interpret the visual language represented. We frame the artifact in the larger timeline of events and set expectations for what the audience will see and, more importantly, what they won’t see. The first presentation sets the tone for the conversation and presents the audience with a lens to focus their feedback.
With Goldstar, I covered this background at my Tuesday meeting. I walked through the artifacts, their purpose and visual language, and obtained feedback on language and interactions. Friday, I moved directly into the designs and, with a few new team members present, was immediately stopped in my tracks. Why is this label X and What is the relationship to these other systems were two questions as well as those regarding details that are uncovered as the story progresses. This was the same set of designs I presented a few days earlier, and was being questioned in a whole new way. Is this a fault of my designs and their lack of clarity? Perhaps. But more importantly I realized, I did not frame the story. I failed to set expectations and define why we were meeting in this room at Goldstar. I, as the designer, dropped the ball and had damage control to perform.

What Goes Wrong

I’ve mentioned some of what can go wrong when you don’t frame your presentation fully. What I havent touched on yet, and can fill pages on – is the loss of attention in the room. While some stakeholders understood the story behind it, others knew it was there and probed. Still a subset remained focussed on the details intended for later conversations. At this point in the project we are exploring high level design themes and less focus on precise taxonomy and content – both valid items but for a different meeting. Much of Friday was spent circling back on the proces and thoughts that went into the designs. Jumping across different decks, explaining why sketching and CIs are valuable and how we took feedback from the different sessions and incorporated them into these designs.

I left the meeting with a long list of edits both to the content itself, and the documentation around it – all extremely valuable but also a overwhelming. I scratched my head why I didn’t get the same light feedback I had earlier in the week and realized I had presented my process and artifacts incorrectly.

Fixing It

There is no cookie cutter way to present design materials. At different phases of projects, with different deliverables and teams within Goldstar, the audience and needs change. As a designer you can’t follow a script or prescription of how to communicate to an audience. This is organic. But a consistent element should be to assume nothing, to treat every presentation like somebody’s first. There will always be new audience members and, even for those who are familiar with the content, framing the presentation and why we are meeting helps remind everyone what we are striving for. It takes five minutes to frame a presentation and set expectations.  It can turn a one hour meeting into a two hour (or more) session as you realign the team with your goals, expectations, and need for feedback at that point in the process.

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