Presentations that Don’t Put People to Sleep

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The worst thing a building architect can do when presenting blueprints is something like this:


“Okay, everybody, here you see the front door. That’s where occupants would enter. Then, they would walk forward into the entryway. To the left there you see the dining room with high ceilings with recessed lighting. Through the dining room is the kitchen.”

Are you bored yet?

Architect Michael Frederick explains that this is a recipe for putting your audience to sleep, not engaging them. Yet, it’s often how we go about presenting our deliverables to clients or team members. Phones, tablets, and laptops in meetings have given you even more competition for your listeners’ attention. So, let’s talk about why creating engagement is so hard and how we can overcome it.

All you have are artifacts

You’ve done research, you have a clear sense of direction, and you want everyone to be able to discuss your ideas and solutions constructively. The only problem is that you aren’t creating the final product, you’re creating documents that help stakeholders envision the final product. Some of these might be:

  • Strategy documents
  • Roadmaps
  • Personas
  • Wireframes
  • Design mockups
  • Prototypes

In each of these cases, you’re presenting the team with an artifact of a proposed solution, not the solution itself (i.e. the finished product). As soon as you present those ideas, people start attaching their own meanings to them. Their meanings may or may not be what you’ve visualized the final solution to be. This is where communication breakdown starts to happen.

The power of the story

Ever since we were kids, we’ve experienced the story as the best way to get our imaginations going. If all we have are our artifacts and we need to create a vision in our clients’ minds, then what better tool to use than a story? A story:

  • creates a setting
  • talks about people
  • fosters empathy
  • opens up opportunity for discussion
  • helps you set a point of view
  • moves the discussion away from personal opinion to business-minded solutions

It’s the same in architecture, which is why Frederick has outlined six steps to engage your audience with the solutions you’re presenting. Let’s look at each step and see how it can apply to the web:

  1. State the design problem.
    All solutions are boring if nobody knows what they’re solving. Every problem is going to be multifaceted. For example, certain product conversions are inexplicably low, people aren’t engaging with content that’s important, a new initiative or department needs to be incorporated, etc. If you did upfront interviews with stakeholders, summarize what you heard from them.
  2. Discuss the values, attitude, and approach you brought to the design problem.
    How did you set out to solve the problem? What kinds of research did you choose and why? Outline the different methods you used in general terms and explain how you strove to maintain objectivity.
  3. Describe your process and the major discoveries and ideas you encountered along the way.
    Here is where you can get more specific about your research and how the solution started to take shape. This is where the storytelling really gets fun because you want your audience to empathize with the people who use the product you’re trying to improve. Make the pain, frustration, ambivalence, happiness, and joy of users come alive in the meeting room. I once had a client joke that he wanted to take an ibuprofen during this part of a meeting.
  4. State the parti, or unifying concept, that emerged from your process. Illustrate this with a simple diagram.
    I don’t always have a simple diagram, as Frederick suggests, but I do always have a unifying concept. This is what steers the whole ship and glues all of the pieces together. If the research has been done well and you’ve had enough time to analyze the results, the parti should feel obvious.
  5. Present your drawings and models, always describing them in relationship to the parti.
    Now, instead of walking them through your documents by way of the front door you can talk about them in context. You’ve created meaning around an artifact that would have been very two dimensional otherwise. Steps 1-4 have built a foundation, now you just need to fashion the house.
  6. Perform a modest and confident self-critique.
    After the applause has died down you can take a minute to acknowledge the weak points of the process and the areas your project didn’t address.

When it’s not all roses

There are some things to be aware of before going into any presentation, no matter how well planned. Keep an eye out for loud voices that drown out others. These people will skew everyone’s perception and can make balanced conversations difficult. This is especially true if it is a stakeholder who has an agenda.

I think it was Lou Rosenfeld who said “web sites are moving targets built on moving targets.” To expect an airtight solution that is perfect disregards the dynamic nature of the web. Everyone must embrace the constant evolution of this medium and create strategies that accommodate for it.

With these things in mind, you should be set for your next presentation. Good luck!

Emily SmithEmily Smith
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Emily Smith is an information architect and usability consultant for the web and Apple devices. She co-works with other web professionals in Greenville, SC and can be found online at

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