Design Like a Jedi - Mind Tricks for Stakeholder Buy-In

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could wave your hand in front of your clients and have them believe what you said, just like Obi-Wan Kenobi?

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There’s no bigger struggle creators have than getting your clients and stakeholders to buy in to your ideas. But we don’t act like that - just look at the abundance of “storytellers,” “creatives,” and “artisans” out there - we want to do beautiful and amazing work, and then sit our clients down while we put on a show for them.

This doesn’t do our profession any favors. Acting like we’re Don Draper pitching the Carousel every time we have a client presentation only makes your job harder in the long run. It positions you as the insular genius and leaves clients hanging, feeling like they have to try out dozens of agencies until someone gets it right. They don’t feel heard when we talk down to them.

Being a creator like Don and pulling the cover off a “grand idea” is a high stakes game: occasionally you’ll mesmerize your clients, but most of the time you’ll get a mediocre response with a lot of critique.

The truth is, our job as consultants is just as much about guiding our clients as it is practicing our craft. We’re guides, not storytellers, and we should bring our stakeholders along as we do our work.

So how do we do that? There’s far too little written about the soft skills of client management, and often you need to branch outside the design/development fields to get that. One of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic is the aptly named Getting Naked.

But when it comes to design, there are a few lessons I’ve learned over several years of working with some amazing consultants.

Start with Workshops

Workshops make for a great ice breaker, and help build trust. Spending the first day on a project in a room together talking about their business, the problems they face, and their ideas for solving it is a great way to gain trust.

It’s tough to give one or two specific workshops, since every project is different. Good Kickoff Meetings is a fantastic resource for starting a new project and getting the team on the same page.

What designers miss about workshops is that it isn’t about the output or deliverable, it’s about stimulating discussion in the room, and for you, building credibility with your client as someone who will listen to them.

Collaborative Deliverables

I’m a big fan of deliverables throughout the design process that stimulate discussion. If I’m presenting to my client early on in the project, rather than sitting side by side learning from them, I know I’m setting myself up for a challenging project in the long run.

One of my favorite deliverables that I’ve used very successfully with clients is a basic content inventory. In a spreadsheet, I’ll capture four things:

  1. A list of screens
  2. A description of the screen
  3. The goal for each screen
  4. A prioritized list of content blocks on each screen

Working through these screens with clients can be challenging, but it invests the clients in what their building, and gives you a shared language for discussing the site. Sacha Greif has an even simpler version using his “prioritized lists”.

This is just one deliverable, but thinking about collaborating on your deliverables with your stakeholders, rather than presenting them gets us out of the present, critique, and re-work loop that kills designers.

The Jedi Mind Trick

Here’s the secret to waving your hand and getting your way: involving your clients in the design process gives you the language to defend your design decisions. If you use the client’s words to guide your design decisions, and then repeat that back to them, it’s difficult to argue with.

When they as you to “make the logo bigger” you should be able to justify why you made it that size based on their goals and desires for the site that they told you up front. That doesn’t mean they won’t change their mind, but it at least gives you a basis for discussing the design in terms of previously stated goals.

Sure, it’s not as awe-inspiring as Don Draper pitching the Carousel. But it’s reality as a designer working with clients/stakeholders. We can stand to grow alongside our clients in the process. We each have something to learn from each other.

If you’re interested in improving how you plan, organize, and deliver your design work, you should sign up for my free 5-part email course below.