Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

Can you rescue your ideas?

Can you rescue your ideas?
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I used to think that a great idea was enough. We’d carefully run the process and develop a strategy and solution to help solve our client’s challenge. After all of this analysis, exploration and plain hard work, I figured that everything would take care of itself. In actuality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. If you can’t effectively sell your idea, it will die.

After all of your effort, the last thing you want to do is go back to the drawing board, simply due to a poor presentation. Today I’d like to present some things that we’ve learned from pitching creative. Some points will be familiar and others may prove less than useful, depending upon your process. Hopefully though, you’ll find some of them to be helpful when you next present your creative solution to a client.

Fear is the enemy

All of the excitement that the project began with is long gone by the time that the creative solution is presented. There’s a real commitment to ponder now, and the client can feel it. Actual change is in the air, and how many of us really like change when it first appears? Let’s face it; the risk is starting to set-in for the design buyer. I’ve seen it many times, and I have to say that even the most sensible people can lose their nerve at this stage.

With this fear in the air, you’ll have to do everything you can to assuage it and ensure that it doesn’t compromise an otherwise reasonable creative solution. Needless to say, to do all of this, you have to be prepared. This means being at the top of your game. Sure, you can get away with the odd stumbles, but believe me—a lack of preparedness here is tantamount to creative suicide. That being said, it’s easy to “win” in this setting; simply don’t leave anything to chance.

When I talk about “being prepared”, I’m really talking about the basics. Before we pitch creative, we’ll call ahead to check what technical limitations we may be working with on display equipment. We also make a checklist of support documents we’ll need in the presentation. This means the little stuff too. I like to have water on hand for longer talks, and I even bring mints to curb any unfortunate interruptions by my “espresso-breath.”

We often print-out our presentations in anticipation of unforeseen circumstances, and we rehearse our talk the night before. It can even be useful to reflect upon potential responses to tough questions that might arise. If you can, arrive 30 minutes early to set-up the presentation and talk to people individually as they arrive. This can “loosen you up” and help you build rapport with attendees. If it’s a particularly challenging group, you might also benefit from looking for client-side advocates (in advance of the meeting) and solicit their support.

Does this seem over-the-top? Perhaps—but in my experience this is the “make-or-break” stage. After a few hundred hours of developing a solution, I certainly wouldn’t gamble by leaving anything to chance. The client has enough to worry about; as such, you can’t allow any doubt to creep into this discussion.

It’s not about the creative

Here’s a secret about presenting creative that many designers find difficult to accept: it’s not about the visuals. Rather, it’s all about the problem you’re solving. Amateurs love to toss out visuals with a quick, “so, what do you think?” In our experience, this is a very dangerous course. Creative work is highly subjective, and people love to critique—often in knee-jerk fashion. As such, you really have to spend some time centering your audience before showing off the end product.

Everything here comes down to presenting a sound, logical solution. This is best reached by walking the group through the process you took, just to remind them where you have all been. Take some time to discuss the issues they began with, reflect upon the findings of the research and thoroughly review the strategy and direction. By first ensuring that they are reminded of the context, you’re able to move on to the solution readily.

What about your presentation style? Well, in my mind, you have to present in a way that suits your personality. There are of course things that help. For example, speak well, and in your own voice; you want your client to feel comfortable and this is best achieved when you feel so. Additionally, try to make eye contact and keep the presentation friendly. You’re not just persuading, you’re working to help them achieve their goals. Remind yourself of this fact.

Needless to say, with so much to review, you’ll serve all interests best by editing yourself and staying on track. Remain responsive to changes in the format, but don’t hesitate to control the dialogue. Misplaced questions may arise—just explain that you’ll “get to” certain points in due time.

It’s also nice to begin with a review of the points to be discussed in the meeting. This allows people a clear idea of what they can expect from the talk. And by all means, DO NOT hand out any documentation until the end of your presentation. If you do, they’ll skim it quickly and leap to conclusions. I’ve seen entire projects get the axe from a person who’s having a bad day. Take your time and get them “on side” first.

Finally, you can show some visuals

Once everyone is on the same page, you’re ready to discuss implementation options. At this stage it’s helpful to be descriptive and explain each piece carefully. For example, if there are novel treatments to be employed, talk about these in detail. Remember that what’s clear in your mind might not be as evident to others.

Keep reminding your client throughout the process, that the visuals are only implementation. They have to bear in mind that all of this has to remain centered on what is actually being accomplished. I often tell clients that I’d throw away our studio’s logo if it helped us reach our business goals. Ensure that this remains a “business” discussion; avoid allowing it to become subjective and about personal preference. So, instead of, “Do you like this?” ask, “Does this meet the project objectives?” You’ll maintain your course by doing so.

All of this is about giving the idea a fair chance. The reality is that people often respond to new ideas with discomfort. Needless to say, if your idea doesn’t work, you have to go back to the drawing board; however, you don’t want to throw it away just because people are a little unsure of something unfamiliar.

It’s in your interest to remain open to good feedback and accept that you might not have it all quite perfect yet. This means avoiding the desire to defend and instead just listen. Take in all of what your client is telling you and make clear notes of their feedback. Then, regardless of how the presentation ends, ask them to take a couple of days to reflect. This takes some of the pressure off. If they like it, it might reinforce their feelings or even uncover some areas in need of improvement. If they don’t, it might allow them a little more time to grow accustomed to the approach. Either way, you want them to feel good about this. Don’t let an unnecessary “rush” get in the way of your end goal.

Other hazards and points

It’s inevitable that your client will ask for other’s opinions in hopes of being reassured of the proposed direction. This is fair enough, but the risk lies in the solution being disheveled by one overzealous neighbor’s off-the-cuff remarks. You might find it helpful to remind your client that others may not have an understanding of the project goals as a whole. Additionally, everyone’s a critic. Ask a hundred people for feedback on a film and you’ll get a hundred responses. But, is all of this feedback relevant? (I have lots of opinions about health, but you don’t want me performing heart surgery.) The point isn’t to please everyone; instead, you’re looking to build something that works. Do what you can to keep the focus on the project goals and the informed responses of committed stakeholders.

Sometimes clients will try to “help” by building their own visuals; we call this “design by committee”. In our experience, this is always a bad sign and must be addressed immediately. You’ve been hired for your professional abilities. In turn, the client’s role is to comment upon whether your proposed solution works or does not. Allowing it to erode into a group “quilting circle” rarely produces effective results. This isn’t a creative journey; it’s about addressing defined business challenges.

Through all of this, it’s easy for a “client vs. designer” battle to result. This really shouldn’t (and mustn’t) happen. Talk to your client and explain that your goal is to help them do what’s best for them. Part of their trust will come when you acknowledge their concerns and consider them carefully. Sometimes this means carefully looking for a way to create some kind of resolve. Perhaps a minor colour shift will make them happy without compromising the overall idea. Do your best to remain flexible to simple solutions that can keep the project alive.

Moving on…

When the client is happy and ready to move forward, I urge you to remain methodical. Clearly outline what can change and what can’t (without overages) from this stage forth. Always get documented approval to proceed, whether it’s in the form of a sign-off, or even an email asking you to continue. Either way, have this documented and stored safely; not doing so is perilous and will cost you at some point.

Frankly, ideas die all the time. I’ve seen it happen on numerous occasions, and often for the wrong reasons. If you want more tips, I encourage you to read Luke Sullivan’s wonderful book: “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This” or even this post from a few months ago.

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  1. Pingback: » Design Processes & Why Every Designer Needs One :: Positive Space :: The Graphic Design Blog

  2. Pingback: » Tips Designers Must Use When Working with a Committee :: Positive Space Blog

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