We all have to present our ideas, give direction to a team or coach groups from time to time. I’ve captured some thoughts and best practices from my career that I have found helpful.
The Art of the Presentation
Dreaming up and building incredible, themed experiences that will be enjoyed by millions of people all over the world is truly an amazing experience. It’s one that requires the dedicated work of passionate individuals who collaborate as a team to deliver the business goals of a client. Of all the tools required in this process, excellent communication is the one that factors the highest when measuring the success of the project team. It’s important to understand how ‘the presentation’ fits into the project process and how to assemble and deliver one successfully. Many university degree programs or even corporate internships feature opportunities to present. As good as that experience is, little can prepare you for standing in front of a client when hundreds of millions of their dollars are entrusted to your team- that’s high pressure!
Assembling the presentation
Assembling and delivering a great presentation is truly an art form, and it takes time to refine your skill. It’s important to acknowledge that each project has different requirements, different leaders and will call for adjustments to the approach. There is, however, a core set of specific elements that should be contained in every presentation. The first thing to ask when assembling the presentation is “who is the audience?”. Typically, these presentations are to the senior leadership from the client’s team. They can also be to the leadership from your own project team or the design firm you’re working for. Knowing your audience will help the team tailor these materials so they are received well. This may take a couple of times to meet with the client to really dial in on the specifics but pay attention and make adjustments for the maximum impact. This is critical to start with!
The next step is to understand what phase the project is in; delivering a story intensive, concept presentation during a Design Delivery review would definitely fall short and make the audience feel as thought they’ve wasted their time. Let’s begin with the very first presentations that occur in a Themed Experience project, called “the pitch”. These occur early in the process and are definitely conceptual; the objective in these sessions is to deliver a compelling representation of the client’s brand expansion (the project) and how this investment will emotionally connect with their guests. The use of mood-driven concept renderings, atmospheric photo references and usually high-level layouts are the primary contents of the pitch. This is the point where the creative team has taken the client’s business goals, research about the client’s brand and their audience and have created a conceptual story that will deliver the right solution for them. The pitch is intended to gain initial feedback and approval from the client on the early combination of elements in a story form. This feedback assists the team in their development efforts and keeps them aligned with the client’s goals. Lots of adjustments occur in these early pitches so the team has to ideate and get back in front of the client frequently.
Presentations change as the project evolves (and the audience grows/changes with the addition of many contractors), so these early concept pitches are very different from the design updates that occur later on. The elements the team uses to assemble these are taken from the on-going, detailed design process. The next element to include in the presentation is to deliver the information in order of priority. If the project is large with multiple facilities, then the presentations need to incorporate each of these aspects in the update presentations. During the actual design phases when specific details are being documented, the team has to find the right “summary level” balance when presenting at the executive level. This may take a little time with each client to find the right level- too much detail, people tend to loose interest; too little detail, they may react with skepticism regarding the team’s capabilities. Carefully assemble each presentation and take the audience through it, even if you are reviewing multiple areas and facilities. This element is a very important part of assembling the presentation: take your audience on a journey through your presentation.
The team must balance the creative design and story elements with the functional operation, and budgetary elements. The client has to see the balance the project team is creating on all of their priorities, so they can participate in that balancing act with the team. Remember, the client themselves will definitely want to be involved in most every aspect of the project and therefore presentations are a way for them to see how you (the project team) are balancing all of those goals. This is the priority method of communicating with the client during the project. Therefore, getting the client’s feedback and direction for each presentation is a critical element that must be built in. Finally, the last element to building a successful presentation is to capture detailed notes of the exchange so the team will track their progress, distribute direction to the all of the project disciplines and be able to follow up with the client.
Delivering the presentation
The presentation is not just the delivery of information. Your team’s presentation should always show your passionate commitment to the project and your pursuit of a creative design solution for the client. This will help reinforce the client’s faith in your ability to deliver their project and their faith in your company for future work opportunities. There will definitely be moments where achieving this level will require a lot of effort, but it is critical that your presentations inspire and excite as well as encourage discussion and feedback. The ultimate goal is to gain alignment at whatever stage you’re reviewing and that your client feels that their investment in you as an individual and as a team have paid off.
As mentioned, when delivering a presentation at any phase of the project, it is important that the information be delivered in a prioritized way. Start with the highest priority elements then continue to build until you deliver everything you’ve planned for that session. This is helpful if executives have to leave early, as you’ve presented the priority items first and gotten discussion/feedback around them. Walking out of a presentation without the direction the team required can have a negative impact on the project’s progress. Creating the presentation with this in mind may prove challenging, especially during the design phases as there are so many details to review and the team really will need the client’s feedback and direction to keep them going. Each of the core team leads from the Creative, Design and Delivery disciplines will need to collaborate to determine the best prioritization and amount of information appropriate for each review.
It is really important for the team to weave the story throughout each presentation as a reinforcement. Since the story is not just creative writing but the primary design framework for the whole project, bringing everyone back to this center element keeps the whole team aligned.
This hierarchical approach that’s delivered in a story framework, should be implemented for every presentation. Just “blasting” the client with a bunch of technical drawings or pages with lines of copy and detailed information will not achieve the right results. Likewise, only using beautiful images and a flowery story with character details and colors will fall short. The team should tailor this content into a journey that methodically takes your audience through the information so they can perceive it, digest it and react to it. Selecting which members of the team will present is also an important decision; not everyone on the team is suited for presenting in front of a group. In fact, some team members really don’t like this form of communication at all!
The team members who attend and present to the client will likely change as the project evolves through all of its stages. For example, the core discipline leads from Creative, Delivery and Design (the project executive leaders), will likely join most every presentation. They will have already started the project with the client from before the whole team was assembled. However, subject matter experts from various disciplines may be required to present certain specialty aspects of the project. This may be the ride system details or possibly the show elements from an attraction project. It could be the retail and dining facilities of an RD&E project or the cabin designs from a cruise ship project. These specialty team members will always fluctuate from project to project because, in themed entertainment design, project types vary substantially.
Allowing time in every presentation for “reaction” or feedback is critical- this is the whole reason for the presentation! There are plenty of times when there is so much discussion during the presentation, that not all of the information was delivered or discussed. The project team members delivering the presentation must be aware of this- and it is a careful balance. The client needs the time to digest what’s being presented, discuss it and give feedback; at times this takes longer than could have been planned for. Again, a careful balance has to be struck by “reading” the audience to see if they are ready to move on rather than pushing them to move on. This can be difficult! Being smashed by a deadline with the desperate need to review an element with the client and they spend the whole presentation talking about elements that were not related to the one item you needed direction on… It can and most likely will happen at least once during your career so being prepared is vital.
Collaboration within the team is critical to the project’s success and presenting is no different. As we’ve seen, the presentations evolve and change over the course of the project, so this leaves ample room for many different members of the team to participate. This choice should align with the project phase. For example, at the pitch level, the creative team members are front and center reviewing conceptual renderings, talking about the story and setting the vision for the project. During the design phase, the architects and other design professionals would be available to review building, facility or site layout details with the client. The delivery team members will be present at every presentation as they will be discussing how the effort is tracking against the schedule and budget and how the team is achieving the client’s business goals. Having these experts in the presentations at the appropriate phase can also assist in answering the client’s questions.
It’s obvious to see how important this level of collaboration is within the team. However, purposefully planning to demonstrate that collaboration to the client is another strategy used to reinforce the “oneness” or solidarity of the team. Creating a consistency to the presentations wherever possible, such as a single presentation template for the whole team, is one such method. Early in the project, the creative team could create these templates so the styling, color palette, fonts and logos reflect the uniqueness of the specific project. This way, no matter which part of the project team presents, the client will see the information framed in the same way each time. This tells a subliminal message of organization, teamwork and collaboration; it can be a very powerful tool.
One of the most important activities to occur during the presentation is capturing the feedback and direction that’s given. This truly is as important as the presentation itself.
Dedicate a team member or members to capture this information during the presentation so the group can review the detailed notes from the engagement with the client later. This insures the direction is captured and gives the team a reference for future meetings. I recommend that these team members be individually focused on just capturing the feedback and not presenting to insure the best notes possible without distractions. It’s a best practice to format these notes and distribute them to the project team leaders and the client. This form of collaboration keeps everyone clearly communicating and uses “the presentation” as the primary means for reviewing ideas, concepts, story progression and design details- all done in a collaborative environment. Often team meetings are used as the forum to review these notes as direction for the rest of the project team.
Finally, one other way to maintain team collaboration during the project presentations is to eliminate the “side deal” wherever possible. Often, the leadership group that joins from the client will spend some time conversing with the project team members before or after the actual presentation. There may be times when a specific client leader pulls a specific team leader aside and gives direction just to them without the benefit of the whole team hearing. This can be very dangerous and definitely puts team members in a difficult spot. The creative lead, for example, hearing that they should really add a lot of extra details in the attraction from the client’s Marketing executive where, the delivery team member is being told by the CFO to reduce the budget and schedule. This stuff happens all the time! A collaborative team will insure that all of this information is shared within the team and that a strategic plan will be put int place to communicate to the client regarding this challenge. One member of the team making decisions that affect other disciplines on the team without collaborating with them to inform that decision is incredibly dangerous for the project as a whole.
Presenting can be a very rewarding process. You get to experience the awe and inspiration from the client who is blown away by what the team has created. You also have the opportunity to represent yourself and your company with excellence and integrity while at the same time growing your own experience. This is what truly drives individual and corporate brand equity! As a quick review, here are the steps to assembling and delivering excellent presentations:
- Who’s the audience
- What stage of the project
- Deliver the priority information
- Take the audience on a journey
- Review, feedback, direction
- Capture notes
Note from themedattraction: For those of you already established in themed entertainment, Theron offers a mentorship program to help you on your journey. This will give you direct access to a entertainment executive with VP level experience at Walt Disney Imagineering. For those of you who have questions or need help with a concept, or want to book one-on-one time, Theron is available at https://www.designerscreativestudio.com/