Three ways to more effectively present your designs

Designers can avoid wasting time and deliver their work more effectively by:

  • Focusing on the audience's needs
  • Speaking to specific details of the work
  • Spending more time listening than presenting

Easier said than done. There's considerable knowledge in designing something, and a designer develops awareness of the customer, business, constraints, potential solutions, and tradeoffs through diligent exploration and experimentation. The work is often time-consuming and exhausting as a result.

It can be tempting to share all the knowledge related to a design when presenting to an audience. The problem is you can only say so much in a meeting or Slack thread. Nobody will look through every document, conversation thread, and past explorations to make an informed decision about a design. It's up to the designer to present the work to convey the most important information for the audience, the customer, and themselves.

Learning to better present designs will make your life easier by getting critical feedback or support quickly and succinctly. The lives of your team and your customers will be made more convenient, too, as a result.

1. Focus on the audience's needs

Before presenting work, ask yourself: what does the audience need to know? What will they do with the information I give them?

Without focusing on the audience's needs, design presentations can be a disastrous scenario. The designer wants to educate the audience on every bit of context relevant to their work, so they present as much as they can cram into the allotted time. The lengthy and complicated presentation or messaging causes the audience to lose interest and attention. The designer is left with a mess of notes to make sense of as feedback is unfocused and scattered around both the designer's process and outcomes.

Not only does focusing your presentation on all the work itself lose audience concentration, but it also takes up much of the audience's valuable time. There's a better way to present, and it's as simple as focusing on the bare minimum information the audience needs to know.

Start by asking yourself what will the audience need to do with the designs you're sharing. Will they need to decide on what to adjust for the project to meet its deadline? Is their job to provide approval or feedback? What type of feedback will they need to provide specifically? Are you providing a status update or convincing the team of a direction?

Rather than presenting every possible detail of the work, emphasizing what the audience needs to know and what they will need to do as a result of that information will tell you what to focus on when you present.

If there were only one takeaway you'd want your audience to get from your presentation, what would it be? If there was only one thing the audience could give you to help improve your work, what would it be? Focus on that.

2. Speak to specifics, not generalizations

Start any presentation or conversation related to your work by being explicitly clear about what's being shown and what specific parts of the work the audience should pay attention to.

When designers only rely on the visuals of what they're sharing to communicate a point, it can confuse the audience.

As a visual medium, it's intuitive to show work and let it speak for itself, but when it comes to presenting work to an internal team, you have to help the audience focus on the right things using the right lens or perspective.

Showing a great-looking design or animated prototype and hoping they convey meaning effectively only leads to different people noticing different details. This broad approach of looking at the work can be constructive for uncovering concerns early in a project, but it's unlikely to get you as a designer focused, constructive feedback for the next steps.

Instead of showing work and speaking broadly about it, tell people exactly what they're looking at on the screen and where to focus their attention for analysis. It may sound counter-intuitive when the audience can look at the work for themselves, but immediately speaking about what's on-screen adds clarity and help everyone focus on the same elements.

To focus on the critical parts of the work, add clarity by explicitly calling attention to the design parts that matter most for the conversation. Sideline anything else by reminding people of what you're showing and why it matters for the meeting or chat thread.

An example of how speaking to the visuals of your presentation might sound: “Here is a concept of our new reporting page. You're seeing six charts in a grid pattern on the screen, each diagram representing data in a concise way. I need feedback on how I can help customers discover the option to modify each chart type without exposing an additional control overlaid on each grid element.”

3. Listen more than you speak

Ensure that when you present design work you are making more time to actively listen and engage the audience than you are on talking yourself.

Presenting work is more about the audience than the presenter — or even the work itself.

Often the point of sharing design work is to get feedback, set expectations, or get approval in some form. If you present work in a way where the audience doesn't have a chance to ask questions, clarify their interpretation or connect the design to other priorities, you ruin the point of sharing in the first place.

Additionally, when designers present work, they often do so with a foundation of assumptions about what the audience already knows and what they care about related to the design. If you aren't giving the audience a chance to clarify their knowledge and needs, you're missing out on an opportunity to ensure the conversation is productive for everyone involved.

Ensuring at least 75% of the time you're presenting designs is set aside for conversation, led by questions or ideas from the audience, means you're much more likely to have a constructive discussion.

A 30-minute presentation might have an agenda with 10 minutes to show the work and provide context to guide the conversation, and 20 minutes is for the audience to ask questions and get clarification or share feedback. What happens if the audience doesn't have questions or feedback in those 20 minutes? Congratulations: you just saved your team 20 minutes each and have done a good enough job to continue with your designs.

Presenting work can be stressful and intimidating, particularly for work in the latter stages of design. If you present work with a clear focus on what the audience will need to do with the shared information, with a shared focus on specific aspects of the work, and by allocating more time for listening and conversation than talking, the work and the team benefits.

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