The Presentation Design Brief: An Approach to the Intake Process

A 12-minute read

As a presentation designer, I've learned that having a robust intake with my clients at the outset of any project is a key to a successful outcome. In this blog post, I describe my intake process for a typical project, i.e., when a client has come to me for help designing a slide deck for a presentation that will be given at a specific meeting or event. It might be a persuasive presentation, like a high-dollar-value sales pitch, or an informative one, like the presentation of a technical analysis. As the presentation designer, I also have to think outside the deck — for instance, I have to consider the overall audience experience and what kind of preparation presenters might need to deliver successfully. My goal at the intake stage is to come away with a "design brief" that defines the deliverables, scope of services, and timeline for the project.

Since every client has different communication goals, and every designer has a different approach, rather than suggest a one-size-fits-all checklist by posting here a copy of my intake form and document request, I thought it might be more helpful to other designers to generally discuss the areas I like to address during this process. No intake form can consider every contingency. My own intake form is updated from time to time as I encounter new client scenarios. The intake form is just a tool; it can never replace a designer's experience and good judgment.

To a reader, the approach described here might seem lengthy. I wouldn't want a potential client to be put-off by thinking, "Hey, I did not think there would be so much to this." Part of my responsibility as the designer is to make the process as easy for the client as possible. In fact, the process can be fun. Sometimes we can address areas an organization did not foresee at the outset. 

A note on terminology: I call this process the "intake," probably as a holdover from my legal and consulting background. In the design field, often this process is called the "discovery" phase. The intake might occur over multiple discussions, starting with the initial client contact, continue while the project is being scoped out, and should be concluded at the project kickoff meeting (or call). At the start of any project, I ask clients to organize a meeting of key players for about thirty minutes for the kickoff meeting. This kickoff marks the start of my project involvement.

Describing the scope of services

I don't assume that clients are fully aware of the services I provide as a presentation designer, so I will explain what I do up front. Explaining the full scope of my services can be a welcome eye-opener for clients. While, yes, I can design a slide deck using PowerPoint or other presentation software, I let clients know that I can help them with all aspects of the design of the presentation experience, including concept development, brand strategy, creating templates and masters, designing infographics, speaker coaching, and producing supplemental materials (all of which I touch on in this post). Some presentation designers have other focuses and specialties as well, such as their own illustration styles and large event support. I monitor the early discussion closely, looking for opportunities where the client might need support and try to co-develop with the client a game plan to address gaps.

Listening to the client

There is a little bit of an art to the intake process. The key is to always listen closely to the client. A client usually starts to sketch out relevant facts as soon as they begin explaining the project:

"We have a big sales pitch to a luxury car brand coming up, and we really want to dazzle them..."

"Our head of R&D has been given a 15-minute window to present her team's findings to the Board of Directors..."

"This is for our big annual fundraiser, the gala event and auction. We will host 250 people in a ballroom setting..."

"The local Chamber of Commerce invited us to talk about our idea for a new transportation initiative at their weekly Thursday night coffee get-together..."

I use an open-ended "tell me more..." strategy to get clients to elaborate as much as possible about all aspects that they think are important. Depending on how the conversation goes, I will scale up or down the level of detail of the discussion in various areas using my best judgment. Sometimes the client might not be ready with an answer to some of my questions right away, and we can at least start them thinking about open items. We can return to these later, after the client has given them some thought.

Managing people

As an outside contractor I have to manage the client relationship, so want to get a clear picture of the client's project team and roles. On any given project, I expect one or more presenters, and possibly other key players, such as a project manager, business development folks, in-house graphic designers, and IT people. For larger projects it helps to make a team roster with designated roles and contact information.

Is there a main presenter? Who is it? Will there be more than one person speaking at the event? At the intake I try to identify everyone who will be speaking. (The client might not be 100%-decided yet who the speakers will be at this point, and speaker roles may need to be further developed during the project.)

There can be a lot of stress on presenters, so I always check in on how they're doing. Are they excited to present? Are they skilled and experienced presenters who are comfortable speaking in front of an audience? How well do they know the material? Many speakers have a fear of speaking in front of an audience. I also like to check how the presenter likes to work. Does he or she like to use PowerPoint's Notes feature? How about note cards? To what extent might the presenters need or want speaker coaching? We might later put time on the project timeline for rehearsals or other speaker prep. Sometimes a client might want more advanced media training. Note that we might need to collect headshots, bios, and contact information of the presenters later during the design phase.

I also find it best practice to specifically ask whose name goes on the byline on the title slide, and the name and title of that person as they would like it to appear. While you may or may not ultimately include a byline, this tells you who is taking ownership for the project at the client. 

Sometimes the person who is managing my involvement on the project is different than the main presenter. To the extent there is any doubt, I need to know to whom I answer. Who has authority to give me directions? I also like to understand from the outset the client's preferred project management process — how do they like to work? Hand mark-ups, online collaboration, Slack? What is the process for approving draft versions? Who is authorized to give approvals at each stage?

Understanding the client's brand

Usually the client wants the presentation to be closely aligned with their company brand. Clients invest a lot of time and money in their brand and they might value it greatly. I ask about the client's brand strategy at the intake. How does the client want the market to think and feel about it? Understanding the client's brand strategy can help inform the visual language and the voice and tone of a presentation.

Sometimes a client's in-house graphic design team directly supports the presentation design project, which is great. The in-house designers are key contacts and I treat them as close allies. They directly support the brand and are typically gatekeepers for design assets that we will need during project. 

I ask the client for its "style guide" that describes its design standards, color palettes, typefaces, logo usage, image treatments, etc. I'll specifically ask for the client's logo file because I don't want to be responsible for a poor-quality or out-of-date logo file that I was left on my own to find on the internet. I also like to look at any licensed or proprietary libraries of photography, video, icons, and other assets that the client keeps.

Sometimes the client has additional brand assets specifically developed for presentations. I ask if the organization has presentation guidelines (describing layouts, treatments for tables, graphs, and images, animations, footers, etc.); PowerPoint templates or theme files; and proprietary icon sets. Depending on what the client is able to pull together I might also ask for other materials that we can leverage or reference in our design (a recent pitch deck, website, annual report, print catalog, newsletter). 

Once in a while a client asks me to break from specific brand guidelines and try something totally new and different. This actually makes me a little nervous, as I am not sure if the person making this request is authorized to break from their own brand guidelines. In these cases I will point out during the review phase how the design departs from standard.

Understanding the client's technology

I want to know what kind of computers and tablets everyone on the project team is using, PC or Mac. I also want to know which presentation software the client uses (e.g., PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, Prezi, or something else), and which version(s). The best situation is where everyone on the team is using the same subscription-based software that automatically updates to the same version. Sometimes I might have to advise on which software package might be best for the project depending on what the client is trying to achieve. How about the level of proficiency of the users? Does the client expect to be able to edit the file after I return it to them? Will they know how to?

Managing typefaces is very important. I check whether the fonts that will be used in the presentation document are installed on all users' computers (as well as the computer which will be showing the on-screen presentation). I might have to plan on getting the right ones installed, sometimes in collaboration with the IT department, or plan some other workaround.

I anticipate at a minimum that I will receive some requested files from the client at the outset of the project, and send to the client a final deliverable, so I always confirm the client's preferred file transfer method (thumb drive, email, WeTransfer, AirDrop, shared database). 

Imagine the presentation experience

I try to imagine all aspects of the presentation experience, from the perspectives of both the presenters and the audience.

What is the event at which the presentation will be delivered? Is it a meeting that has been specifically set up to address the presentation topic? Will it be part of a larger event, like a convention? Is it part of a series of regularly scheduled events? Does the event have a formal name? Who is taking care of signage, name tags, and other event collateral, if any? Is there a particular presentation format the event is using? 

Has the date and time of the presentation been set? How much time has been allotted for this presentation? How many slides does the client expect to have? Is there a required limit or range that the client is required to have? What are the chances that the time gets bumped or the time is cut (to, say, 15 minutes, 5 minutes, or 30 seconds)? Will there be a designated question and answer period afterwards?

Where will the event be held? Will it be at the client location or off-site? What is the venue like? Will it take place in a conference room? in a ballroom? from a lectern? over a coffee table? in a courtroom? Will it be live broadcast? Is it open to the public?

What about the audience? How many people will attend? Is there a specific target person or group in the audience the client is trying to reach? Understanding the target audience will be key to tailoring the message and story telling. Is there more than one target? How familiar is the target already with the material? What is their current state? What challenge do they face? On what journey will does the presenter want to take them? How does the presenter want the audience to transform as a result of the presentation? Sometimes I imagine an audience "persona" — a fictional person who is representative of the target audience for whom I am specifically designing the presentation experience.

It also pays to be mindful of third-party stakeholders. Is there a group that the presentation impacts for better or worse? For example, do management, the workers, franchisees, or some other group have a lot riding on the outcome? Is there anyone who might have something to lose as a result of the presentation? There might be some sensitivities between different groups at the client and with outside parties.

Print or on-screen

A major decision the client will have to make is whether the presentation slides will be printed or shown on-screen. Each creates a different experience and has its own pros and cons. 

Print

Where the client has a preference for a print presentation, I like to agree during the intake to page size and the type of binding. I want to know if the client has printer capabilities and how it will manage that part of the process. Time for printing has to be built into the project timeline. Sometimes a client has its own 24-hour reprographics department on-site. I also ask if they can estimate the page length, and whether the thickness of the deck matters. 

On-screen

If the client wants an on-screen presentation, I try to find out on what type of screen will the presentation be given — projector? HDTV? tablet? self-playing kiosk? web-based learning? mobile device? Each of these has its own design considerations, such as aspect ratio and pixel dimensions. 

How far will audience members sit from the screen? What are the ages of the audience members? Some presentation designers use age as a proxy for visual acuity to determine font size.

If this is an on-screen presentation, on whose laptop will it run? Who will advance the slides? Will it be someone other than the speaker? By what mechanism will the slides be advanced? By laptop? A remote? Will the presenter need the functionality to jump around the deck, or move around on the screen using a mouse? Will the presenter want to view his or her notes on a separate screen in Presenter view?

Technology support at the event

Presentation designers provide different levels of live event support. I always ask about what technology and equipment will be used at the event at least to make sure that someone is covering those aspects. Sometimes the client is all set coordinating its own equipment and IT team. What about sound? Will the presenter have  a microphone and a PA system, and if so, who is handling? It's also a good idea to start thinking about contingencies in case something goes wrong. For instance, what happens if the presentation computer fails during the presentation or gets left in a taxi on the way to the event? Does the client have a plan B for when things go wrong? How much does the client expect me to cover these contingencies? 

Other alternatives

Print and on-screen decks are not the only two alternatives to accompany a presentation. I try to be open to opportunities to break from the typical presentation experience. For the right kind of presenter, a flip board can be an effective tool for delivering visual information. How about a prop — a physical object that can make a surprise appearance or be passed around in the audience? Maybe this particular presentation is better suited for a frank heart-to-heart discussion without accompanying visuals that could potentially get in the way of the overall message?

Supplemental materials: Pre-reads, leave-behinds, and other promotional

I might have a discussion with the client about any supplemental materials that they plan on providing to the audience. Sometimes clients plan on printing the on-screen presentation as a leave-behind for clients to reference later. Other times, the client is creating a long-form report in a typical PowerPoint format that they are planning on stepping through with their client page-by-page. Neither of these scenarios is usually the right approach. In these cases, the client expects a single document to do double-duty, first as a visual channel for a live experience that client is narrating, and second, as a stand-alone presentation that can be referred to by the audience outside of the presentation setting. These are different functions that are better handled using separate documents with separate approaches. 

Other alternatives for supplemental materials are available and might be more effective. Pre-read material, targeted leave-behinds, and other collateral can be tied to a presentation event or larger campaign to make it more effective. How about a dedicated micro-site with thought leadership, reference materials, and presenter bios to promote the client's promotional campaign, and business cards that feature the micro-site's url? With the right materials, a presenter can generate impact before and after the actual event that is not limited to one or two hours of face-to-face presentation time.

Timeline, content, preliminary concept development

At the intake the designer and the client should co-develop a project timeline with milestones and deadlines for deliverables. I start this process by marking the calendar with the date and time of the presentation event. The client and I can start to build a calendar backwards from that point. 

Before I can really get started designing the presentation slides, I need to receive content from the client. At the intake stage, a client may be at any stage with its content, and might even continually update its content through the design process, right up until the time of the presentation event. In any case, I ask to receive the content as soon as possible. 

I will also start some light concept development with the client at this stage. I might ask for the client to state a working title for the presentation. As a little preview I will typically ask the presenter to give a 30-second "elevator speech" version of the presentation. Do I hear a big idea? A clear call to action? Can the speaker articulate the presentation's main message? All aspects of the presentation will support this main message, so it helps to have clear agreement on what this is from the outset.

Whether the client already has well-developed content or is starting from scratch, it's helpful to schedule an early session (or sessions) for concept development, that might include brainstorming, card sorting, whiteboarding, and other creative techniques. We might also discuss a client's request for a particular illustration style or plan specific slide designs in concept development.

On the project timeline it is best practice to include at least two rounds of review for the presentation file. There should also be time for speaker prep leading up to the event — rehearsals and any special coaching sessions. If a question and answer session is on the agenda, time to prepare for this should be built into the timeline. Time for printing needs to built in as well. 

Taking a strategic view of client's needs

If conditions allow at this stage I also like to make a strategic assessment of a client's presentation design needs. For example, I might ask a client to think beyond their next presentation and look at their calendars for the next year. Has the client planned ahead for important meetings, conferences, trade shows, product launches, and other events? Are there work streams we can tie into the current project? Could the project be leveraged for later presentations? Do they already have a well-designed PowerPoint template and presentation guidelines that meets their needs? Do personnel know how to use them? Do they offer internal training in public speaking and working in PowerPoint/Keynote to their employees? A live project becomes a potential opportunity to make an overall strategic assessment of how things are working in the organization and to plan accordingly.

Follow the author on Twitter @tj_katopis.