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Increasing creative confidence

Stuart is a now a frequent conference speaker, but this wasn’t always the case – here he takes us through his journey from some disastrous early experiences, to confident communicator with DBA Head of Events & Programmes Sarah Osborn.

(SO) Tell us about some of your early presenting experiences.

(SY) The one that sticks in the mind most vividly stems from 2001. Aged 27, I was lined up to give a creative presentation to 186K, the first fibre optic broadband company in the UK. In the room were Iain Crockart, Mike Dempsey, Michael Wolff, Gary Blackburn and the board of the National Grid. Five minutes before the presentation, I bottled it, and Iain had to step in. I’m still paying the professional price; to this day Michael Wolff looks at me as if he doesn’t trust me not to bottle it.

Why do you think that happened?

I’d watched Iain and Mike present, they made it look so easy, but it turns out it isn’t easy at all. I learnt that communication has to be learnt. Effective communication is the most important skill a design company needs.

I realised that every time I messed up, one or more of the following things hadn’t been given enough attention: the structure of what I’ve been creating, the relevance of what I’m saying to the person I’m presenting to, or my preparation.

What lessons did you take from that?

Taking each area in turn:

Structure Utilising the power of three works wonders – start, middle and end; what, how and why. Three’s brilliant for engagement, for feedback and for making a point.

Relevance CEO’s don’t care about grid structure, marketing directors don’t need their brief reiterated to them, and nobody other than designers wants to listen to kerning chat; empathy and understanding gives you relevance. Get to know what keeps your audience awake at night. Give them ideas that ease their worries. And don’t waffle, get your ideas across succinctly.

Preparation It’s boring and it’s really obvious but almost every time I get it wrong it’s because I’ve not prepared thoroughly enough. The best prep you can do is define what you want to achieve through the presentation. Think of it as a problem that needs solving – it needs exploration, logic, rationale, and some flair. Finally, rehearse! Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to preparation, but preparation does engender confidence.

What can agencies do to improve communication?

We should start by making it easier on ourselves. Think about ‘design’, ‘creativity’, ‘brand’ – they’re all words that are overused, misused, misinterpreted and abused. Why is there such confusion around these words? Could we as agencies be our own worst enemy? Is the language we use part of the problem? What’s the impact of all our patter?

As agencies we’re out evangelising at round tables, conferences and symposiums to get the message across that ‘brand means business’. The superbrands get it and the start-ups get it yet 99% of the business community don’t understand what brand is. Let’s park the waffle and communicate effectively!

Wise words. How can we as an industry cut through this to get our point across?

Communicate the difference to clients. How can we all be different when there are such similarities in what we do? At Studio Texture we believe that the magic comes through insight. Design that just looks nice isn’t design. Design is an investment that provides a return. Design with substance. Design is aspirational and drives our processes.

And give the client transparency and visibility into the process. We make the work in progress visible and use our power of three mantra: what, how and why. What are we trying to achieve here? How are we going to do that? Why on earth is this going to matter to our clients? The whole team is included and contributes to the process. We then present our work-in-progress wall to the client to increase their engagement with the project. By enabling people to see where we’re up to at any given stage we know whether to panic or not!

How can communication help get your work across the line?

Without strong and effective communication, design agencies won’t survive and our work won’t see the light of day.

So my advice is:
Play to your team’s strengths – left brainers, right brainers, logic and intuition. We know about the tension between those two sides, but we’re all here to solve problems so in the pursuit of achieving equilibrium, everyone can be creative and everyone needs to be creative. As a creative director my life should be one long eureka moment – but creativity isn’t actually that creative, it’s a process of turning intelligence into ideas. It feeds off understanding.

Once we have understanding we need to question ‘why?’ followed shortly after by ‘what if?’ The more challenging the question, the more likely the answer is to be innovative. It becomes logical if you walk down the path of process. Creativity is judged by those who haven’t trod that path.

Clients employ us for our creativity. They expect creativity so don’t just slap everything into a PowerPoint with fifty bullet points per slide. You need to give the experience drama. Transform your presentation environment into a stage set if necessary. It’s a team game playing to individual strengths so designers should talk design and so on. People like to trust the ideas that are being presented to them so respect those around you and communicate accordingly.

And never present over the phone. Ever. Not even a hint of what you are going to talk to them about, you’ll end up giving the presentation to the client beforehand. Always be there in person.

Finally, find your voice. There’s room for all styles, just make it your own and go with whatever you feel most comfortable with. You’ll have to hone and refine it but give it a try. I’m glad I did.

About: Stuart Youngs

Stuart has acquired a wealth of experience in creating, delivering and managing brands. Before joining Purpose as a partner, Stuart spent much of his career as a designer with industry grandee Mike Dempsey RDI, working with clients including Royal Mail, Clarks Shoes, Design Council, and Goldman Sachs, after which he joined Purpose as Executive Creative Director. He founded Texture in 2017.

W: purpose.co.uk