Strategic Storytelling for Designers

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If designers are going to advocate for all that design can offer, they must embrace presentation and corporate strategy as their areas of influence and responsibility. In this post I’d like to share some ideas about how to prepare and present design ideas.

“Design, is the rendering of intent,” Jared Spool says. When we present, we work to demonstrate the results of our intent on our users, and clarify the lessons we’ve learned so that we can make better decisions with our teams. Sharing ideas is part of the design process. Steering the ship and making changes based on customer needs is essential to great design.

“Work that can’t be sold is as useless as the designer who can’t sell it.” -

Mike Monteiro

13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations

It is irrational to assume good work speaks for itself. In a world where people question the validity of basic science like “the earth is round,” on a semi-regular basis it is important designers remember that our world is fundamentally irrational. Ideas are cheap, but defending them well is priceless.

Mike Monteiro

has a lot more to say on this, and he’s right.

The Storytelling Toolkit for Designers

1. Know Your Audience

The hardest part of design is presenting work. This is not an additional skill, it is not a “soft skill,” presentation of ideas is essential to the role of a designer. If you cannot advocate for your ideas or your users, then you are missing fundamental aspects of what it means to design.

Know who you’re presenting to. Get a list of their names, and if you can, their style of listening, what they’re hoping to contribute. Verify with team members and do your homework to the best of your ability. If you know your audience you can anticipate questions and entertain as well as inform along the way.

Children in an audience laughing at a film

Engage them.

Presenting requires a little magic, a little intrigue, and a lot of engagement. One of the ways I like to demonstrate I know my audience is to welcome them and get right to the point. Most of the people I present to are busy, have multiple meetings running concurrently, and need to understand what I need from them right away. I try to meet those needs proactively. If I’m given a project with a stakeholder that’s hard to get a hold of, I might inform myself about them through chats with their direct reports, and play back what I’ve heard.

Recently I worked with a client who only met with me once during the project, three weeks after we had kicked off. Instead of walking in cold, I played back what I knew of their goals from the directors that reported to them. “I heard from [Director X] that we’re trying to accomplish [this goal] in the next 6 months. Does that sound right?” The executive was not only impressed, but was able to clarify points of alignment and misalignment much more quickly than if I had walked into the room with a blank canvas.

2. Set Expectations - For Yourself and Others

People are busy. Meetings are boring. Do your audience a favor and stand up. Get off your ass and engage. It’s your room, and you have to own it. Stand up tall and present with conviction, an even tone, and an open mind. Expect excellence from yourself, and be excited to present your work. Never drag your feet or walk in afraid of having a difficult conversation.

Sign that says: "You are here" – Be Kind. GIve Your Audience a Sign.

Set expectations of others too. Remind people to put phones and laptops away. There’s no reason to be distracted, you’re not here to bore them.

Let your audience know why they are here and what contributions you expect of them. Use statements like “today we are here to decide on the scope of [project XYZ],” or “I’d like to use the following presentation to demonstrate what we learned and then we will decide how to proceed,” to engage your audience and let them understand how to listen to you.

3. Paint a Big Picture

Design projects can be tough. They will always be tougher if you can’t find a way to synthesize the chaos and complexity of discovery into a single and straightforward narrative for your stakeholders.

Start with why you’re all here in the first place. Many times, a story is not about the end, but rather the changes a team or character must go through to get there. Do not be afraid to demonstrate the journey, but use a tool to do so, and focus on the big picture. The problem statement tool is a great resource for this. I use this early in my presentations to help my audience understand where the values of my team are, and what we are marching towards.

[Our	  service/product]	  was	  designed	  to	  achieve	  [these	  goals].	   We	  have	  observed	  that	  the	  product/service	  isn't	  meeting	   [these	  goals]	  which	  is	  causing	  [this	  adverse	  effect]	  to	  our	   business.	  How	  might	  we	  improve	  [service/product]	  so	  that	  our	   customers	  are	  more	  successful	  based	  on	  [these	  measurable	   criteria]	  ?
The Lean Problem Statement

Give your audience the tools they need to think about your work the right way and you’ll save yourself hassle in the end. It’s your job to weave the mess of discovery into a narrative for making decisions.

4. Skip the Play-by-Play

Unless your audience is acutely interested in the discovery process itself, only give them as much information as necessary. Help them by giving them the information necessary to frame their input and take the next step. Avoid sharing false starts and other details that can distract from the outcomes you want to drive towards. Having an idea of the behaviours you hope to elicit will help you shape what is relevant to your audience.

Never give your audience more information than they need.

If designers are going to advocate for all that design can offer, they must embrace presentation and corporate strategy as their areas of influence and responsibility.

5. Define your Insights

As a designer you’re expected to understand the user and bring that user’s journey to the team,and your design decisions. One of the ways we do this when presenting user research is by having a great handle on insights.

It is your job to be able to transform the conversation from “I think,” or “I have an idea,” to “I saw Nancy do…” or “I heard Fred say…” Give the audience soundbytes, snippets, and direct quotes where possible to make your story memorable. Use anecdotes and frame the context around each quote.

As you move through your presentation, work from known-knowns towards subjects that have more assumptions around them. Your goal is to establish rapport and buy-in as the talk progresses, giving your audience more certainty with every slide.

6. Agree on What Success Looks Like

Knowing what you want to get out of a meeting is the most important part of any meeting. Having desired outcomes is vital for knowing what progress looks like. When you begin working on synthesis for learning, think of whatever goals you collected from your stakeholders or product team ahead of the design research and then look at where your findings intersect with those goals. Structure your talk for progressive disclosure, frame each slide and talking point so that it builds on the one before.

We cannot think of business value as something determined outside the team by something called the business and then simply presented or “tossed over the wall” to the team in the form of user stories, prioritization, and feedback on product as it is produced. The responsibility for understanding and interpreting business value cannot be placed solely in the hands of a product owner.
–Mark Schwartz, The Art Of Business Value

Finally, draw your audience to the conclusions your team reached. You’ve shown your work, demonstrated your approach, and shown your external stakeholders why you reached the conclusions you reached, now help them think about how you move forward.

Defining how your team is deciding to measure success is a great way to shape a conversation about what is important without having to start from scratch. I put a “measuring success” section in many of my presentations these days, to help stakeholders understand my team’s approach to the problem, and what we’ll be thinking about moving forward. Getting buy-in for the way we measure success can give you a lot of freedom to explore and solve problems while flexing on the nitty-gritty details.

7. Set the Stage for Feedback

Your job is to lead the client to success, and you have to remember that what they like or want to hear may not be what makes them successful.

If organizations are going to embrace all that design has to offer, this must involve influencing product and even corporate strategy.

Peter Merholz


Kristin Skinner

Org Design for Design Orgs

Do not ask whether they like it, say, “This is the kind of feedback we need today.” Give your stakeholders your recommendations as an expert, and then in the feedback portion help them draw the line between your expertise and their goals.

Probe the client for a response. Focus feedback on the things your client knows well, guide them by setting boundaries on the feedback you would like.

  • “Does the problem statement accurate address the product vision we discussed?”
  • “Does this reflect the needs of the users as we understood them from the research?”
  • “What constraints should we be aware of as we move forward?”

Give the client the tools they need to succeed. The most important tool you can give them is thinking. One of my mentors called this “Give your design away,” which was her way of saying let them have input. The client is not in the room with you to validate your feelings, they are not in the room to tell you whether they like it. They are there because you will make them successful.

I have no doubt the client will have a whole range of opinions on things that they’re not subject matter experts in, things like colors or fonts, or styles. Take these with a grain of salt, and move on.

Image says Thank You in neon letters
Make sure to thank your audience when you’re done

Finally, take questions. Be gracious in your answers. If asked why something works the way it does, explain your reasoning, and stay matter-of-fact. Do not make this a change request list or your meeting will turn into design by committee. If you love yourself, you’ll avoid this at all costs.

In summary

If designers are going to advocate for all that design can offer, they must embrace presentation as a core skill. You should sharpen your skills by applying the tools of design to your presentation skills. Know your audience, and the goals you want to achieve, before you walk in. Bring your best self into the room and give your audience the tools they need to think about your work. The work of design begins long before the first pixel is ever decided.