If you went to design school, you learned all about color, theory, and type. And as a designer you need to be great at all of these core skills of the craft. But when was the last time you learned about or practiced your communication skills?

Communication makes or breaks successful design work. I’ve seen one too many creatives make brilliant work only to communicate it dully.

There are many simple communication frameworks out there to help you frame your work and communicate the value it delivers to customers and the business. These tools generally come from the world of sales, which often (rightfully?) gets a bad rap. But look past the origins for a moment, because sales teams’ framing techniques can help you present your design work with more confidence.

The art of the pitch

Communication professionals use a workflow known affectionately as the art of the pitch when delivering their message. It’s broken down into 6 stages:

1. Set the stage
2. Create awareness
3. Create need
4. Create urgency
5. Evaluate choices
6. Resolve final risk

All sales and marketing follows a flavor of this funnel (AIDA is another common one). But it can also be very useful to designers.

Let’s say you are presenting work at a design critique for a new onboarding flow to your company’s product. Here’s how to do it using the art of the pitch:

1. Set the stage

Describe what you are there to deliver and what your audience can expect.

I will present a happy state customer flow for a brand new customer onboarding to our product (not someone who has been invited to join an existing product).

This simple sentence primes your audience about exactly what your focus will be: the happy state – not any alternate flows. It’s important you match their expectations with what you show. If they expected something different, they can call it out early and you all don’t waste time at an inappropriate review. You are setting the stage for what is to come and ensuring that any feedback is relevant to this specific flow.

2. Create awareness

Imagine it’s Thursday afternoon. Your team has had meetings all week. They all have different priorities. And now you want to present your latest work to them at design critique. If your team is tired and focussed on other things, they probably are not super keen to see your onboarding flow.

You have to engage them by creating awareness of what you are about to show and why they need to care.

How do you do that? Consider creating a relatable frame by giving an example of a simple, real world situation that makes what you are sharing relevant for the entire audience.

Remember how overwhelming your first day at your new company felt? Lots and lots of information to take in! That’s what our customers feel like when they experience our products for the first time, overwhelmed and confused.

Everyone can relate to the above situation, so it brings home the emotional impact your customers will feel when onboarding to your product.

3. Create need

You’ve created a relatable frame that your team can understand. Now you need to solidify a real need for the design you are presenting. The need or pain point is what makes people want to use something. The great industrial designer Charles Eames had these wise words:

In our example, qualitative or quantitative data can bring home the need and the pain point.

Thirty percent of all customer feedback relates directly to complexity in setting up our products. Here is a customer quote that is very representative: “I just couldn’t figure out how to get your product setup for my teams workflow.”

4. Create urgency

Okay, so your audience is aware of the thing and they understand the need for it. Now you need to create urgency and rally them to take action. Why is focussing on what you’re presenting more important than everything else that is going on around the company?

Psychology can help at this stage – for example social proof, the psychological phenomenon that describes that people will follow what others do. In the context of presenting design work, you could reference competitors who are following a similar design pattern you want to adopt (so long as you have tested that in your context that pattern is relevant).

The best tactic here though can be loss aversion. Your team should be naturally upset if you’re losing customers due to a problem with the design.

We lose 90% of evaluators within the first 30 minutes…that’s 3,000 real people per week, or ~XMAU and $XM per year.

You will notice that in the example above I’ve extrapolated out the numbers to really show what it means to the business.

The first percentage number on its own could be meaningless. But putting it against real dollars to the business is impactful. It again pulls on the loss aversion thread: We are losing $XM per year. Speaking in terms of the business is essential as a designer.

5. Evaluate choices

This key part in communications is often missed by people delivering design work. Whatever you are presenting, your audience always has a choice. They don’t have to agree with what you are sharing (and healthy disagreement can be essential to the design process). Everyone comes in with their own opinions about products they already use. So rather than let the audience make up their own mind about evaluating their current product against the one being presented, take it head on.

Comparing the work you are presenting against alternative work is clever. Because in the absence of any context, the decision to go ahead with your design choices are binary. Either the team will believe you or they won’t about the size of the problem. But when framed as a choice between a few options, your team will naturally want to pick one.

You are driving the audience to a decision point by having them make a choice.

How can we achieve this in our example? Depending on your situation you may want to take different paths.

We spend on average three months building features customers never find as they leave within 30 minutes, yet we won’t invest a single two week sprint in this simple onboarding?

This direction may help if you want to convince your engineering and product partners about the value of what you are sharing, compared to other feature work.

Or you might want to get alignment over a particular design direction.

Which one of these directions do you think solves the customer problem most effectively and why?

This option helps you narrow down on a design choice and also encourages feedback on each of the directions you have explored.

6. Resolve final risk

Final stage now. As a presenter you want to ease any lingering doubts the team may have. This is the hardest part. You’re trying to get agreement on your direction. You really want to persuade your team that you’ve done your homework and moving forward is as risk free as possible.

At this stage many of us make the mistake of asking the question: “Shall we move forward?”

A better way to drive to a decision is what is known as an assumptive close: “Here is how we will move forward.”

The designs have already been tested with 100 customers against the current baseline and our competitors. It performed positively. How can we now move this forward?

And that’s it folks. This framework is super helpful when thinking about presenting just about anything. Communication can make or break any design project, so take the time to practice it deliberately. Remember though, it won’t help you sell poor design work. Putting up excellent work that solves real customer and business problems is the key.

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