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From Presentation to Partnership
Earn CEU Credits:
i+s’ Continuing Education Series articles allow design practitioners to earn continuing education unit credits through an article.
Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this article. To receive one hour of continuing education credit (0.1 CEU) as approved by IDCEC or 1 Learning Unit as approved by AIA, read the article, then log on to take the associated exam.
After reading this article, you should be able to:
- Identify key elements that should be contained in every presentation to clients.
- Create a compelling narrative that communicates the value of your brand while addressing clients' needs.
- Describe how to sell clients simultaneously on both creativity and expertise.
- Explain how to set client expectations and make a lasting impression of your team on them.
*This CEU opportunity is sponsored by SitOnIt Seating.
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Captivate future clients with powerful presentations that emphasize long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.
“Business, after all, is nothing more than a bunch of human relationships.”
It would be challenging to list the number of prominent business leaders who have referred to the importance of relationships in their paths to success. In every industry, in every endeavor, there are relationships at the core of what has brought something into existence. Inventors, creators, designers, investors all working together to get someplace they could not have gotten alone.
We understand the concept because we recognize in it parallels to our personal lives and daily encounters, in the power of positive relationships to propel us through our days, and in one of our most common idioms: Two heads are better than one. In fact, the very origin of that phrase dates to pre-15th century times, when it is said people began working in groups to mass produce and transport daily goods, and when travel along the trade routes emphasized the benefits of working in teams.
Individuals like matchmakers, relationship therapists, and the founders of any dating app refer to themselves as being in the “the relationship business.” They’ll make comparisons to the job interview and the first date, later interviews with additional staff and meeting the family, and the job offer and the engagement ring. Dating is just like running a business, they will say. So, if it is understood that business relationships share so much in common with personal relationships, then it makes perfect sense to view the business presentation as one of those first crucial steps, with all the care and preparation that you would put into a personal encounter.
Think about it. You don’t often just show up at an open call for presentations. Occasionally, perhaps, but that’s not the norm. More typically, you’ve already had a cursory introduction of some sort—a friend or business colleague suggested you meet, maybe you connected at a networking event, or as the result of intensive searching online—regardless of whether the intention is business or personal, introductions have been made.
And introductions that leave us curious can lead to further investigation and conversation, admiration for what the other has done, and an invitation to explore what you might be able to do together. From basic questions like: “Do I like what I see? What I’m hearing? How they present themselves?”… comes the desired result: “I want to know more.”
In business, this is the moment when a compelling presentation, much like one of those first crucial dates, has the power to turn an introduction into something much bigger—something mutually beneficial, where the sum is greater than the parts. It’s the moment to put your best self and your best company forward. It’s a time to be honest, sincere, and engaging. And it’s your opportunity to leave the audience wanting more. You’re selling them something, yes, but more importantly you are making a connection and igniting a spark, with the goal of embarking on a fulfilling and prosperous new relationship.
Presentations that Build Business & Inspire
“Great artists need great clients.”
–I. M. Pei
It could be argued that we all make sales pitches every day, whether we earn our livings as salespeople or not. When we go on dates, buy or sell cars or homes, or even simply when we try to get our kids or partners to see things our way, we are making pitches. The difference is, we don’t always have a PowerPoint presentation to support our case.
The visuals we can create for a relationship building presentation are essential tools but it’s important to also remember they are support tools and that, unless you are a graphic design firm auditioning to create PowerPoint slides for the potential client, your audience is interested in a lot more than what is on the screen before them. The key, no matter what you are pitching, is to combine engaging, supportive visuals with immersive storytelling that together captivate and inspire an audience.
In the planning stage, it’s important to remember that by the time you receive the invitation to communicate a formal presentation, a certain level of interest already exists among your audience. Perhaps this potential client saw your design work or your product line in a magazine, in a hotel lobby or in a workplace environment, or simply by scanning your own website—the more important piece is not how they found you but instead the fact that, once they did find you, they wanted to know more. You are there to give your presentation because they’ve surveyed the landscape, they’ve seen what’s available, narrowed down their choices, and invited a few select groups to tell them more. You are not starting from zero. They already like what they see, that’s why you’re there. They’ve seen what you do; now they want to see what you would do with them.
There are a few key principles experts agree should be top of mind as you organize your thoughts into a compelling presentation and chief among them is the fact that while your slides and visuals are important—particularly when presenting to a creative audience—it is ultimately about you. Think about it, if this audience full of potential clients could move ahead with any given project with just a stack of notecards or a few clicks through your website—without the knowledge- and experience-based interpretation offered by you, your team, and your company—then you wouldn’t be there. The slides should support your point, not make it for you. The audience needs to get to know you—as individuals and as a group—and to understand that you have the knowledge and expertise they require. They need to have confidence in you and that doesn’t come from you reading directly from a slide but, rather, from you finding the humanity in the information, no matter how clinical or statistical, and relaying it to them in a manner that makes sense for what will be your combined purpose and renders them confident in your ability to understand their needs and deliver your part.
When you do move to develop your visuals, the primary thing you want to avoid is clutter. Devotees of Marie Kondo will agree, clutter gets in the way of you seeing the real value of what is available. Your slides are not your script but rather your bullet points.
Let’s say you are presenting a new line of resi-mercial furniture to an interior design firm that is outfitting all areas of a massive office complex for a Fortune 500 company. You may—and should—be able to speak for 10 minutes or more about the durability, cleanability, and sustainability of your furniture line and the textiles and other materials it incorporates, but your slide needs only one image of a beautiful piece from the collection and a few scant lines of text:
Even better? Declutter your presentation even more and turn those three bulleted fact points into three slides, using graphics instead of text to hold your audience’s eye while they listen to the details only you can provide. Images evoke emotion, which brings us back to the idea of relationships. You want your audience to feel a connection to all aspects of your presentation, and that includes what they see on the screen. Imagine the difference between a slide that is packed with text to explain the importance of sustainability and climate concerns versus one that simply shows a person happily seated in one of your armchairs in a common space abundant with greenery. Imagine as well the added opportunity to show even more of your product line by letting the images hold the audience’s gaze under brief, bold statements—Durability, Cleanability, Sustainability—while you explain for them how your company and your product tackles each point.
The rest is up to you. Paint your picture. The slide is there for them to view, yes, but they aren’t in the room to read, they’re in the room to listen. Tell your story. Provide facts and figures to support your claims but don’t let the energy of and excitement for your product line be dragged down by them. Show them visually you have the solution they require and expand on that visual with the story of how you can work together to reach new heights.
Begin with the Basics, But Don’t Waste Time
“Focus and simplicity. Once you get there, you can move mountains.”
As we’ve discussed, you’re in the room because they know you but it’s still proper to begin with a brief introduction to your company, to your product or service, and to your team (who will also be their team). You want to introduce your company honestly, positively, quickly, and with an emphasis on the type of business relationship you are there to begin.
That brings you to a point you want to reach very early on and that is: What does your presentation aim to sell? Are you selling an individual product or product line? Are you selling a service of some sort—design, technology, project management, etc? Are you pitching your sustainability measures? Your in-house research and development? Whatever it is they’ve come to you for, get across to them quickly that the need in question is a specialty for you and one for which your company and your team has the solution this particular audience needs. And be certain from the beginning to be clear that they their needs have been heard.
For example: We’ve listened to your desire to design spaces that are comfortable, functional, and safe for your new healthcare client and know that you want to create different zones for those who will use the spaces—the workers, the patients, and the visitors—while maintaining a cohesive, connective look throughout. We have the solution for you in our expansive line of seating with options that can take patients, staff, and guests from the waiting room to private consultation spaces and beyond.
With this approach, in just a few sentences, you’re letting them know you are not simply selling them a product or service, you are solving a very specific problem for them. This paves the way for you to dig into the variety and details of your assortment, consistently referencing how each piece answers a need for their project and will enhance the experience of those who utilize it.
Set the Big Picture, Tell a Good Story
“I never invest in anything that I don’t understand.”
Now, they’re listening. It’s only been a few minutes and, already, you’ve assured them you’ve investigated their current scenario, and you have what they need to get to where they want to be. Now comes the truly personal part: You get to break down for them just how you intend to do so. Details are important, but don’t get lost in them.
Talk to your audience about macro trends, bring in a few statistics, break down that there is the world, the design world, your company and their company, and then there’s this particular collaborative project you will work on together. How does each trickle down and effect the next? Walk your audience through current influences, like the pandemic, the work-from-home trend, the state of the economy, climate concerns, shipping schedules, and any other factors that could come into play. For example, if you are a furniture manufacturer and all your product is Made in the USA, emphasize how your collections and your business model succeed in the current and ever-changing market and what it can mean to this project.
Here is how this key segment can look and sound: The global interior design services market is predicted to record incremental growth of $24.13 billion USD by 2025. Of that, the top four ranked countries—the United States, China, Japan, and Germany—are expected to contribute approximately 25 percent of the business, with 10.5 to 11.25 percent of the business projected to happen in the top-ranked United States alone. In addition, analysts anticipate an accelerating compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.02 percent during the forecast period of 2021 to 2025. Additional reports show the global market for interior design services reaching $255.4 billion USD by 2027.
We can break those numbers out further to look at some key statistics for the United States. Research shows that the market size for interior design, as measured by revenue, was a $17 billion industry in the United States in 2021 and notes that the market size grew by 5.6 percent that same year. That total is reportedly divided among more than 120,000 individual businesses. On the commercial side of the interior design sector, professional, hospitality, and health care businesses rank among the top 10 industries hiring interior designers.
Each industry segment—corporate, healthcare, education, and so on—has its particular needs but each can also learn from the other. Case in point: International architecture and design firm Gensler has found that in open office environments, innovators’ individual workspaces rate 50 percent higher on design and notes that bench seating is 25 percent more effective when rated highly on noise, adjustability, layout, and access. The statistics may stem from a study of open office environments, but the lessons can be applied to other commercial markets where a division of open and more private spaces comes into play. Our design team benefits from the in-house research and development of products for these seemingly varied business segments and is able to apply knowledge from one sector to the other.
Furthermore, while the world continues to adjust to market factors that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, products that are manufactured in the United States offer the added benefit of avoiding the shipping delays and simultaneous cost hikes that have become unavoidable in bringing international goods to the states.
Again, give them the big picture, then narrow it down, and keep narrowing it down until you segue naturally into the specifics of the project your presentation aims to secure. You want the audience to be immediately aware of the fact that you don’t simply understand your own business, you are tracking the world beyond your doors, always conscious of how what you do leaves a lasting impression or footprint, as the case may be. You must demonstrate how your business and their businesses and the collaborative project in question relate to and can benefit the greater design world and the world at large. No project is small, particularly not theirs.
Be detailed but be concise. Narrow your content and discussion of project phases down into digestible chunks, and work to find the balance so that your presentation can be interesting and informative, without being overwhelming. Remember, you are telling a story. Consider pace and tone. Don’t rush. Relay the care and thought that you will bring to the project through your words and your presence.
Zero in on their “Why,” But Don’t Forget Yours
“I like the idea of collaboration. It pushes you. It’s a richer experience.”
Perhaps one of the most important points to remember as you prepare your presentation and debate what to include and, just as importantly, what to leave out, is not the question of what you are there to sell but, rather, why do they need it? There are any number of reasons you could be brought in to present your product, your projects, and your ideas to this particular audience—and it’s important you consider each new audience as the individual group they are. Ask yourself why you’re there—what is it this group really needs. And how can the solution to what they seek be found in your product, service, and expertise?
Are you there to help them branch into something new? To replace a business relationship that has been unsatisfactory? To help them design a better workplace? A better education facility? A better space for healing? Yes, you are there to pitch something to them, but their “why” is your reason for being in that moment. Once you’ve established their why, you have the perfect stage on which to show them that it’s your why as well, and you will get to the solution together. And the best way to achieve this is not by listing facts and figures but by weaving those facts and figures into an engaging and inspiring story.
The same storytelling techniques that have captivated throughout time, whether it’s been around a campfire, tucked in bed at night, or in the Sunday paper, are employed regularly by professional speakers like those who inspire global audiences through their TEDTalks. Before written history, there was oral history. We made friends, built alliances, and connected with potential partners via storytelling. A good story is personal, it has interesting characters, it sets a scene and transports—these too should be the aspirations of your presentation. You want to take the audience someplace that is better because you and your product or your creativity is there with them.
Let’s say you are pitching a line of furnishings to a hospitality design firm. Don’t just tell them your product line is diverse and versatile. Instead, tell your audience the story of a fictional hotel guest who will experience the venue this firm has designed with your furnishings while on a business trip. Walk them through that guest’s personal journey—from the lobby to the desk in their private room—and discuss how your collection of offerings can enhance their stay and contribute to an even greater overall experience with the interiors of that venue.
Their Project + Your Brand
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
The overall goal of your presentation is, of course, to convey that your company and your product are everything this audience needs. That said, you must also emphasize the fact that you will achieve this simply by being your best selves—read: You already are what they need. In order to convey such confidence, it’s vital to maintain your own brand identity while also tailoring your presentation to their specific goals. Your presentation allows you to both establish who you are and what your brand or company stands for and ensure them you have come to this point with like-minded agendas.
That’s a key point of differentiation: You aren’t selling anyone on the idea that you’re willing to change everything about yourself or your company to suit their needs. You are there to ensure them that who you already are and what you already stand for, will not just meet their needs but exceed them and thereby allow them—your new client—the freedom to focus on being the best at what they do. You are taking a burden off of them by providing the solution they require.
This is much bigger than simply using your brand’s signature fonts and colors on your slides. This is about presenting their goals and your goals in harmony. Are you presenting to a firm that strives for LEED accreditation in all its projects? Tell them you know how important sustainability is to them and explain why it is one of the reasons you will work so well together by outlining the sustainable factors of your products and your business model overall. Let them know that with this new collaborative project, you will be partners in the pursuit of a more sustainable future through design.
How Do You Sell Creativity?
“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly challenging.”
–Sir Jonathan Paul Ive
One of the greatest challenges to working in a creative field is how to charge for one’s creativity. Ask five experts for best practices on the issue and you will receive five different answers. Some will swear by hourly pricing, others will insist on flat fees, and everyone is correct if their plan works for them. The crucial thing here is to be honest, transparent, and realistic. For every audience, especially those that are not in the business of creativity, break down your creative process, which in the design world could mean anything from the discovery phase of a new commercial interior design project to the time it will take a factory to complete a custom order.
Most importantly, don’t simply tell your audience the cost, explain to them the value. Remember that you are being brought in for your expertise because it is needed, but you still must be sure to explain all that goes into your pricing structure—time, labor, expertise, materials—so that the cost is easily understood. If you are working to sell this audience an entire office suite of furnishings, don’t just share with them the selling points of the items themselves, also introduce them to the person on your team who will be their project manager and point person, tell them about similar jobs that person has steered to success and the continuing relationships that person’s expertise has fostered. The resume of each person on your team should factor into your fee. When a potential client is introduced to a senior designer with 10+ years of comparable experience or a LEED-certified product manager who will help them achieve a project’s sustainability goals, fees can become easier to understand. Again here, you’re emphasizing it isn’t merely a purchase you’re hoping for, it’s a lasting partnership—you are here together to build a relationship.
The Importance of Expertise
“Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”
As the old song goes, you’ve got to accentuate the positive and that means making connections through shared experiences. Your expertise for each individual audience is not limited to your job title, it extends to on-the-job experiences you have encountered that share relevance to the job on offer. As mentioned above, the expertise of the team will help to sell your product or project and the best way to relay that fact is by sharing experiences that exemplify why your company understands a particular audience’s current needs on multiple levels.
Are you presenting to a design firm that is expanding into new areas? With the increase in working from home brought on by the pandemic and the staying power the trend shows, designers who previously (and perhaps still) focus on residential projects may have a whole new need to learn about ergonomics and task seating, efficiency in office design—even if that office is just for one person, and the latest materials that work best for such spaces. Conversely, perhaps your audience is a team of commercial designers who are increasingly cognizant of the desire for resi-mercial workplace environments that feel more comfortable and less clinical than offices of old. Such scenarios provide perfect opportunities for you to connect via your own stories of expansion and change. Recounting how your company or your team successfully adapted to changes in the marketplace via product line expansion or production capabilities not only shows your own prowess and leadership but also ensures the audience that you understand where they are and where they want to be, and, thanks to your own research and experience, you can help them get there.
Even if you are quite literally in the room to sell chairs, your audience is never simply buying a chair—they are buying years of experience and research into ergonomics, sustainable practices and materials, end-user comfort and satisfaction, artisanship and manufacturing prowess, product and material longevity, and so on. The same idea applies to design services. The audience is in the market for a level of expertise in an area that is not their specialty.
The Complete Package
“Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision, and change.”
An effective presentation should walk an audience through the pre-, during-, and after-stages of any project. This is yet another moment to establish interest in a long-term relationship, not simply a one-off transaction. Take your audience on a journey. Don’t just discuss what you will create but how and why you will get there, the actual work, and the follow through and lasting benefits.
What is the full scope of your work together on this particular project and how will its positive effects be felt long after the initial “work” phase is complete? And go beyond as well to the potential scope of a lasting relationship—this can be in terms of your own customer service capabilities once the initial project is complete to discounts for returning clients and more.
Meet the “Family,” a.k.a. the Team
“Leaders are those who empower others.”
Remember, again, business is all about people and relationships. That means connections are key and, as in a personal relationship, that extends to the family or team. Your future clients need to be interested in your product or service, of course, but they also need to like you and the team members with whom they will interact. After all, if they have a question about a task chair, they can’t ask the chair.
The presentation is your chance to establish and introduce the project or sales leader and who their primary contact will be, but it also is your opportunity to let team members speak for themselves and to their individual areas of expertise. This allows a project leader to illustrate confidence and pride in the team and for team members to show they both specialize in different areas and work well together. You want to explain the roles of different team members. Preemptively let the potential clients know if there will be a dedicated salesperson, interior designer, spacial planner, acoustician, lighting expert, or others. If you will bring in outside experts for any aspects, let them know where and why and if you already have trusted allies in the area in question.
While a project lead or bold-name designer or firm may be the initial attraction, daily interaction in most projects will involve layers of individuals, each handling a vital part of the project. As the project lead, it’s important not only to present confidence and pride in the work of the company or product overall but in the team members who will be routine points of contact for the potential clients.
For example, if you are a contract furnishings manufacturer presenting to an interior design firm that has embarked on a workplace project, you have multiple layers of “personal” introductions you can include that will leave your future clients with a sense of connectivity to you and your overall business, not just a particular line of goods. They will gain a sense of knowing you because they’ve literally seen and been introduced to you by way of your presentation. Naturally, you want them to meet the project lead or their dedicated salesperson but also important is the product designer or perhaps trend forecaster who led the style direction for the collections or project in question. Depending on the potential client, perhaps an in-house sustainability expert would be of particular interest. Always, the cast should be adjusted to suit each individual audience. There may be a basic storyline that is followed for multiple clients, but you always want to add in personal moments that show that today, you are here just for them.
Beyond the team the audience will regularly encounter once you begin working together, introduce them to the faces behind the project. Is your product Made in the USA? Your visuals offer the ideal way to show the audience the proud faces at work turning a blueprint that stemmed from an idea into a sofa or lounge chair that will enhance this audience’s next interiors project. You have power through your presentation to show the full creative cycle of a product or project—from initial sketch all the way through to a finished product—and, certainly when presenting to a design-minded audience, that creative lifecycle is of great importance.
We also know that designers today, in both contract and residential settings, have increasing concerns well beyond color and pattern. There is sustainability and wellbeing, there is the climate, there is waste, off-gassing, carbon footprints, third party certifications, supply chain and global shipping issues, and all the multi-pronged concerns brought on by the pandemic. And, of course, and the product also needs to look good, feel good, and endure. Think of the people on your team who contribute to these varied areas and whether your presentation can be enriched by casting them as costars. Whenever possible, let the experts speak for themselves.
“Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of what you’re doing is as valuable as gold.”
As you introduce your team, outline the project path itself and take your audience on a journey that illustrates your planning and organizational acumen, your forethought, your experience, and the dedicated staff they will encounter along the road to project completion. Of equal importance, mark time on that agenda to review the project’s status with the client.
A complete project schedule should include times to regroup and review progress and next steps. This is just as important as the work itself and ensures there will be no surprises when it comes time for project completion and billing. Scheduling time for reviews in an overall project plan confirms for the client that you know and can handle your responsibilities and that their voice will be heard throughout the process as well.
Practice Makes for (Close to) Perfect
“No mistakes can be made during rehearsals—only progress toward what works best.”
– Jim Jarmusch
Professional performers know well the empowerment of a well-rehearsed scene versus one done with little preparation. In fact, Broadway shows can run for years, and the actors never stop rehearsing. Likewise, rehearsal for a business presentation is critical whether you will be performing solo or with a group, in-person or virtually.
Never assume everyone knows their roles no matter how many times they’ve played them and never assume because something looks good on paper that it will translate to a dynamic presentation. To be sure, you should practice with just yourself or your group, in front of a camera, in front of a sample audience of coworkers or trusted family or friends. If this is to be a group presentation, practice your parts in different orders to find the best transitions. Practice leads to a smooth flow of information and confidence in the real moment—and that confidence will be felt by the real audience.
And whether that audience is seated directly in front of you or tuning in from computer screens around the globe, the engagement must translate as real and genuine. The post-pandemic population is at once accustomed to and a bit tired of video calls. That said, the idea of a virtual presentation today is much more acceptable but also requires more organized and professional delivery than a casual weekly meeting with your immediate team—you must find that same level of eye contact and connectivity in a virtual setting and, no matter how accustomed to virtual life we have become, that level of engagement takes practice. The potential client is likely to dictate whether presentations will be heard in person or virtually; it is your job to be certain you and your team are well rehearsed for either scenario.
Be Able to Answer Questions, And Be Honest When You Can’t
“Elegance and honesty are two mandatory parameters for any human production.”
No one individual has all the answers. We all understand this. And no two people think precisely alike. That said, no matter how prepared you and your team are, there will always be questions. And you should welcome and encourage them for several reasons: They show your audience was paying attention, they let you know what struck a chord and could therefore be something to emphasize in follow-up correspondence, and they help you to learn, not just about what this potential client needs but about the approach of your presentation.
When the audience is engaged and asking questions, be responsive and be honest. Know what you’re selling inside and out but, if you must do some research to provide an answer, say so. Never guess at an answer and never make unrealistic promises—both are a waste of time and can lead to greater problems down the line. And be clear, detailed, and positive when the question demands it. The answer is never simply, “We would take care of that.” But rather, “Here’s how we would handle that… ”
“Business happens over years and years. Value is measured in the total upside of a business relationship, not by how much you squeezed out in any one deal.”
As with that first date, the goal of your presentation is to catapult you to the next stage. You want to move ahead to the project or the purchase, and you want that initial transaction to be the first of many. With all these factors for powerful storytelling and engagement in place, you can close your presentation—and the business it aimed to secure—confidently, and with an eye to the future of the beneficial long-term relationship you’ve just begun.
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SitOnIt Seating is a leading manufacturer of commercial solutions in the U.S. – and #1 in task chairs. From tables and lounge to screens and more, we’ve been the go-to destination for comprehensive, build-to-order solutions for almost 25 years. We combine award-winning design with the fastest lead times around (choose from 2, 5 or 10-day shipping). We can build almost any specification you want, deliver it when you need it and offer a price no one can match. It’s all part of our indie California spirit and drive to help you do more. Learn more.
AZ Quotes, https://www.azquotes.com/
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Sit On It Seating, https://www.sitonit.net/
Visme, “7 Storytelling Techniques Used by the Most Inspiring TED Presenters,” https://visme.co/blog/7-storytelling-techniques-used-by-the-most-inspiring-ted-presenters/
Win Without Pitching, https://www.winwithoutpitching.com/
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