Sell Without Selling: Ace Your Next Client Pitch

There’s a lot to manage when presenting your ideas to a client and too much at stake to show up unprepared. These 7 points will help you navigate difficult waters, anticipate problems and steer the conversation away from the cliff.

There is an old African proverb that says, “Don’t teach a child not to play with fire, let the fire teach him.” Clearly, the wise old person who said this was really giving us a metaphor for pitching creative ideas. As I look back at my career, I can definitively say that the fire has been my best teacher. Some of my earliest memories of being burned were in graduate school at Pratt Institute. Every semester, we were required to present and defend the decisions in our work. The process was called “survey.” Every detail of each project would be scrutinized in a matter of five minutes, from type selection and design choice to craftsmanship and presentation. A panel of world-class design professors would judge each detail in front of the whole student body. It all came down to this pitch, and it had to be perfect.

Some spilled blood as they sliced through fingers to make comps. Others dripped with sweat while watching their work print in large format. Many shed tears as it became clear that the orange they selected on screen wasn’t coming out of the printer. And then it was my turn. Survey had gone well for me in previous semesters, and I was confident of the decisions I had made in my work despite some pretty public disagreements about them with my advisor. I had written, designed and photographed a promotional magazine as my thesis. The masthead design was a custom Spenserianscript with guidance from my distinguished typography professor Tony Dispigna (it took me two months to tighten the four-letter masthead sketch that took him two minutes to rough out). Despite the countless nosebleeds, time and effort invested in the finished design product, my five-minute presentation couldn’t have been worse.

In a profession where each idea, comp or thought has to go through countless approvals, rounds and revisions, you would think there would be a more deliberate means of teaching the art of presentation. Most times, the verbal aspect of presentation is learned on the job using the trial-by-fire method I mentioned. Other times, the creative work is given to a client-facing account person who couldn’t possibly present your work with the same conviction as you.

Our passion for the work is part of the gift of being creative. We are an emotional people. We’re trained to channel our emotion into tangible concepts using words and pictures that achieve client objectives. Yet most of us aren’t actively trained on how to manage those emotions in the context of a presentation. We walk into a room full of people we’ve never met before and present something we’ve poured countless hours of love, creativity and effort into. From the informal internal presentation to the formal new business pitch, every designer knows this comes with the territory. Knowing that the presentation is coming doesn’t make giving it any easier. Most of us are juggling the stress and adrenaline of having multiple projects and dead-lines. In an instant, the same emotions that enable us to create can become the worst stumbling block to finding the words to articulate what we’ve created. So when someone says, “I don’t like it,” it can sound like, “I don’t like your nose.” It takes active training and experience not to take it personally because it is personal. On top of all the emotions, it’s in the forefront of our minds that if the presentation is bad, our ideas get killed.

I’ve made the range of presentations and mistakes over the course of my career. The main lesson I’ve learned in these sour pitches is that the context the ideas are presented in can actively hinder the work being presented, but it doesn’t have to. Now that you’ve chosen the typefaces, images and colors, presenting them in a way that will increase the probability of selling them is key. Mastering this skill will help you advance in your career, gain or retain more clients and increase the probability that your work gets a fair shot at seeing the light of day. After all, this is why designers stay up working all night. Now, let’s go sell it.



My professors at Pratt were world-famous design-gods who either worked for Pentagram or Landor, or were once partners with Herb Lubalin. We all knew who they were and why their opinions mattered. As you leave academia or gain more responsibility within a firm, it won’t be as clear who’s in front of you and vice-versa. In business meetings, you’ll need to get to the point quickly and explain or justify your conclusion. Most business people or marketers don’t know, understand or care about the details of the creative process that’s our world. What they want from your presentation is a top-line understanding of why your approach is relevant and strategic—things that matter in their world.

Begin by answering their first two questions before they even ask them: “Who are you, and why should I listen to you?” The fact that they dropped out of Harvard to start a business, completed their MBA at NYU or inherited the family business got them to where they are and to some extent defines them. Likewise, get their attention by having a brief explanation or a few prepared sentences on why you or your firm are uniquely positioned to offer the right solutions to their business problem.

Here’s an example I use: “Six years ago, I stumbled into a strategy meeting and realized that becoming the ‘creative who understood business’ would differentiate me. This has helped me to inject creativity into solving business problems vs. restricting creativity to the execution. ‘Design plus business’ experience gives me a complete strategic and tactical range of solutions, and I’m excited to share some insights with you today.” Finding the right way to position your skills will take some work. Once you can articulate your value, it’s a great way to introduce yourself and explain why they should consider your point of view.


Now that you’ve grabbed their attention, you’d better have a relevant point of view to share. Yet “relevant” is relative, so knowing who’s in the room is essential. This will require some homework in advance never enter a room blind. A few clicks in LinkedIn or Google should give you all you need to understand if the person is an influencer or a decision-maker within the context of your project.

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