Leading Effective Client Presentations

Sean O'Shea Background

Sean O'Shea

client presentations

For a recent company skillshare presentation, I was asked to speak on how to effectively lead client presentations. I’m primarily a user experience and visual designer, so most of my client meetings focus on information gathering, presenting visual artifacts, and gathering feedback. Going into these meetings with the right mindset and skillset is critical for building consensus and momentum among stakeholders.

I’ve led over 400 client presentations in my career so far, and I’ve picked up some tricks to help make them effective and productive.

The team here at Savas found these philosophies and techniques helpful for giving their own client presentations, and also for leading internal meetings, so I thought I’d pass a few along in hopes that it helps you, too.

A Learning Mindset

Our clients hire us for our expertise, but expertise isn’t all that’s needed to build a successful product.

The Parable of the Elephant

There’s an old fable about a group of blind men who come across an elephant. They’ve never encountered an elephant before. Each touches a different part of the animal to try to learn about it.

Feeling the trunk one man says, “This being is like a snake!” Another man, touching the elephant’s leg, argues, “No, it’s more like a tree!” A third, feeling the side of the elephant’s body exclaims, “Surely it’s flat and broad, like a wall!”

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

They’re each right—partially. But their viewpoints have to come together to form an accurate representation of what’s before them.

As experts, we bring our depth of experience to the table. But that has to marry with a client’s needs, wider-lens goals, and understanding of their industry (plus the needs and goals of users) in order to yield an effective product.

To effectively relate to the client and communicate in a way that is in the best interest of the project and relationship we must check our expert egos at the door. This means having no sacred cows (to mix animal metaphors), being open to critical feedback and being wrong, and above all, listening.

Two Empathies

When we talk about empathy, most of the time we think about feelings. Understanding and relating to someone else’s emotional state. But informational empathy—understanding someone’s knowledge base and experience—is just as important.

Some questions to ask yourself as you go into a client presentation:

What is your audience's learning history and experience? 

We’re a team of digital designers and developers, but most of the time our clients are not. Effectively presenting designs to non-designers requires two main things: finding a common language, and guiding participants in how to look at designs.

What is your audience's mindset and current context?

Clients are often busy with things other than the project you’re collaborating with them on. For this reason, I’ve found it’s best to tee up the problem you’re solving before presenting a solution. While you may have been working on a solution all week, they’ve likely been thinking about other things.

What are your audience’s goals and concept of success?

Strive for resonance. If your client is focused on elevating their brand, present your proposed solutions in that context. If the client cares about conversions and ROI, tie your presentation to that. If there are competing goals in the room, speak to all of them, and emphasize how your solution spans and addresses all of them.

Reducing Cognitive Load

New designers often struggle with getting quality feedback from their client presentations. Sometimes stakeholders focus on small details, or get stuck on one aspect of a design and have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. This isn’t due to any deficiency in the stakeholders, but it is indicative of a presenter that has overloaded their audience.

Cognitive load refers to the capacity at which we can process information and derive meaning from it. Looking at a fully fleshed-out design can be daunting for non-designers, and it’s hard for them to analyze all of the constituent components of a design without guidance.

There are a few ways of mitigating this:

Adopting Lenses

Asking stakeholders to serially focus and comment on various aspects of the design is a very effective way to guide feedback. What do you think of the color choices? Let’s talk about typography now. How do you feel about the density of content on the page?

Providing Options

Looking at two or three options at a time can provide a very helpful reference point clients can use to calibrate their feedback. “Do you like this?” can be a hard question to ask, but “Which do you like better, A or B?” can be easier. This technique is especially helpful when combined with the lenses approach above.

Breaking Things Down

There can also be opportunities to break certain problems apart and tackle tough challenges early.

Several years ago, I worked on redesigning a publication website that had thousands of articles. Their existing article design had small cramped body text, but the client stakeholders didn’t seem to feel an urgency to depart from the current approach.

Instead of attempting to present a new direction in the context of a full-page redesign, which would have had many other elements increasing cognitive load, I isolated the body typography problem into its own discussion.

I presented client stakeholders with four pages. Each had the same text content, but flowed into a different typographic style. One option was their current site, and the others were borrowed from sites they liked.

Without knowing the origins of each option, I asked the client stakeholders to each select their favorite and least favorite approaches. They unanimously chose their existing approach as their least favorite, while choosing Medium’s large typography as their favorite. This was an easy way to build consensus and momentum on a topic in a streamlined fashion, outside the cognitive load of a full design.


Cognitive Load: How Google Missed the Mark

Presenting to clients can be stressful, especially for the inexperienced. Hopefully, you’ve found these tips to be helpful! Let us know if you have any tips of your own by sharing with us on Twitter.