The Science of Presenting with Confidence

Presenting creative is one of the most difficult tasks for any creative professional. The process is filled with stress, anxiety, and an ever-present sense of nausea that someone from the audience just might see through the beautifully orchestrated deck and ask the one question, or flag the missing lynchpin, that collapses everything. Whether you are presenting words, images, audio, or video, the presentation itself can make or break the reaction and buy-in from decision-makers, no matter if you are presenting initial concepts or seeking final approval. 

To give your presentation the same strength, integrity, and conviction as your concepts, you need to use the same inputs of your creative process within the presentation itself. Over the years of presenting countless decks, spanning new business pitches of big ideas to seeking final approval on multichannel marcomms campaigns, I have found a handful of considerations that change presentation delivery from an art to a science. By following the tips below, presenters can gain more composure and confidence, while the creative can gain more resilience and resonance.

1. Showcase relevant and reliable data where it matters

Any creative concept should be informed and backed by data. No matter if the data is high-level anecdotal findings, robust primary research, or somewhere in between, it is essential to build the creative concept and presentation around the most impactful and resonant findings.

Typically presentations will reference key data points and insights within a single section toward the beginning of a presentation. While this approach meets minimum standards of checking the “we did research” box, it can be viewed as a disconnected piece of the creative process – especially if it is never referenced again. To gain more connectivity between the research and the concept, it is important to weave the data contextually into the delivery of the creative.

In my experience, including visual cues as explicit references to data points, within a creative comp, is a great way to create meaningful context and connection during the presentation. More tactically, including small highlight markers, color-coded to specific data points with adjacent callouts is a great way to visualize the connection without distracting from the experience.

2. Repeat the goals and objectives throughout the presentation

Any design project has a goal or objective in mind. Commonly, these are stated in a specific section toward the beginning of the presentation. While one of several priorities to any project team, these are typically the single most important aspects to stakeholders and decision-makers in any engagement. Thus, finding ways to organically weave in how each decision is attributed to achieving or supporting goals, strengthens the creative itself and places stakeholder desires as an overt top priority.

Similar to the approach of visualizing research and data, try including visual cues that denote how the creative supports specific goals and priorities. This is a great way to strengthen the integrity of the composition.

To take this approach one step further, it is important to keep your audience honest and accountable during feedback by asking “How does this feedback support ‘x’, ‘y’, or ‘z’ goal?” As most of us have experienced it is easy to blurt out thoughts, but as stewards to the project, not always the audience, it is important to keep everyone accountable.

3. Reiterate how and why each design decision prioritizes users’ needs and actions

All creative compositions have an audience or end user in mind, no matter how large, small, general, or niche. During any presentation of creative, it is critical to reiterate the purpose of the design through the eyes of the individuals the experience was designed for. During this process, it is important to stay confident and focus on the research that informed the design decisions, because opinions in the room will be different.

To reinforce, opinions in the room WILL be different with regard to “how.” Everyone always has an opinion and feels that because they were given a seat in the room, they need to express that opinion. While partially true – opinions should be both received and responded to very carefully. It is up to the designers and creative professionals to explain the “why” when articulating the “how” within the design comp run-through or feedback session.

Having worked in the agency world for most of my professional career, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how users respond to an experience. I used to get distracted by superfluous outputs of creative, such as awards, recognition, compliments, even stakeholder delight, approval, or disdain. I yearned to ensure that everyone I was directly working with was happy and the work that my team and I were producing was acceptable. This resulted in a never-ending treasure hunt to make everyone happy when the design typically wasn’t in the best interest of the end users of the experience. The moment I realized that the only thing that mattered was the user and we needed to free ourselves from the “making everyone happy” mindset, was the moment real results started to emerge. Of course, there are edge cases where users do not give the best guidance or feedback but that’s why these are exceptions, not the rule.

4. Anticipate feedback and monitor body language

Throughout an engagement, the relationships between the primary points of contact and the creative team typically become close enough to anticipate reactions and translate body language. What the audience of a presentation verbally says is just as important as what they communicate non-verbally.

While preparing the presentation, thinking through the possible reactions and feedback scenarios can help the presenters show poise and confidence. Immediate reactions and feedback can be tough in the moment, but if the team has already anticipated feedback and conceived possible responses, a well articulated, organic response can be given. In an agency-client relationship, clients tend to appreciate a defense-in-depth mindset for contingency planning and forethought.

In all teams I have led over the years, before a presentation we will focus on the most probable feedback and critiques, based on previous meetings, interactions, notes, and interpretations. However, there is a bell curve to this where attempting to think of all feedback scenarios, becomes non-productive. In my experience, 80% of the feedback you anticipate covers what you receive, whereas the remaining 20% is feedback you couldn’t have prepared for. In these instances, it is good to remember to prepare for what you can, not what you can’t.

Body language is a completely different scenario. I have been involved in a small number of meetings where we get through the presentation with productive feedback, organized responses, smiles on faces, and nodding heads, but the outcome – an absolute axe job in an email a couple of days later that questions everything. Non-verbal language is so important and taking notes during certain points of the presentation when body language changes is vital, as it can be used in the moment or in post-presentation Q&A.

Everyone on the presentation team should be taking an inventory of audience behaviors and non-verbal reactions throughout the presentation. It is important to elevate these findings when feedback is being given, as it could save the client from the snowball effect that can happen when the creative team isn’t in the room to answer questions or clarify decisions during the presentation review and feedback period.

5. Practice for composure

The only thing worse than pushing the date of a creative presentation is delivering one that is ill-prepared or rushed. Presentations that have not been given adequate time for orchestration are often times noticeably disjointed, uncoordinated, or simply tough to sit through. The best presentation deck in the world can fail if the delivery isn’t up to snuff.

Practicing a presentation should never be about memorization. If it is, you don’t believe in what you are presenting and need to rethink the approach or the engagement. Practicing is more about gaining the confidence that you know the material without having to rely on each slide for delivery. By practicing you are able to intuitively know each slide and gain the composure to deliver the message in various ways. The more ways you train your brain to understand the content and message of the slide, the more passion and conviction you will have while you are presenting. The ultimate goal is to have the ability to present all content on the slide effortlessly as if you were speaking with a friend – naturally and organically.

Practicing as a group also gives you the ability to prompt each other for fielding questions. One of the most impressive skills presentation teams can showcase is chemistry. The goal is to be able to present and field questions together, where each team member is able to answer, pass the dialogue and support each other fluidly in the moment. The best presentation teams are more like a sports team that has played together for years, where each player knows everyone else’s role and knows exactly where each other is located (mentally) for support.

In conclusion, there are many aspects to giving presentations that showcase a creative expression or experience. While it may seem that the tips above are for the presenter, they are also to help give the presentation audience confidence that they have chosen the right individual or team for the job. By elevating research where it matters, repeating goals and priorities, reiterating the importance of user-centered decision-making, preparing for feedback, and practicing delivery, a presenter will be able to gain more control, land a stronger message and gain some much-needed confidence, both in the moment and in the future.