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The Art of Shutting Up in a Client Presentation

3 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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When I was a kid, I had this tendency to jump right into the middle of a story. Nobody had any idea what the hell I was talking about. After a while, my dad was tired of it and said something that stuck with me.

"Assume nobody knows anything. So, explain everything."

I remembered that, once I did speech and debate in college. You have 10 minutes to explain everything you want your audience to hear, and if you don't say it, you lose. It worked pretty well.

Then, I got into my creative career, and that same tip rang in my ears. Luckily, I got to present to clients pretty early on. And every time I did, they'd simply look at me and nod at the end. No questions, no comments, everything was explained.

I thought that was a good thing. But I was wrong.

My ECD was the one who showed me my mistake. He made me realize that no comments didn't mean that they didn't have anything to say, but that they couldn't say anything. He told me:

"Leave some something to question."

Now, for anyone that knows me, it's clear that I love to talk. But, especially when it comes to presenting ideas, here's why it's important for everyone, even me, to shut up sometimes...

Do They Understand It Enough to Explain It?

You want to know which students understand lessons the best? The ones who ask questions. Because they're the ones that can explain it afterwards. Anybody can be a sponge, absorbing the words thrown at them. But it doesn't mean that you get it. It just means you heard it.

Asking questions is a good thing. It means they're interested in what you're saying.

When it comes to clients, you want them to get it. You need them to, because they're going to have to sell your idea to people above them, below them, and alongside them. Most creatives make it easy by giving a single, snappy sentence that clients can regurgitate. But, what you really want is your client to ask questions, so they can explain the idea themselves.

I used to think of every possible question they'd have, and preemptively address them all, so they'd have none to ask. But when I realized that questions weren't bad, that it meant they wanted to understand more about what I was saying, I changed my tactic.

So, explain enough to pique their interest and calm major fears. But leave something for them to be curious about. If they like the idea, they'll ask more about it.

When They Talk, They Feel Invested

Questions don't only help the client understand the idea, but it gets them invested in it, as well.

We work in an industry where we're bringing solutions to our client. Inherently, it builds this "us versus them" situation. But, when you let people talk, they become part of the discussion, and it becomes "our" rather than "their" idea.

Presentations are like jazz: it's the words you don't say.

That's the real secret to selling ideas. Don't make it feel like your genius is being forced upon them. Don't make it feel like you have all the answers. Make sure they feel needed. Make sure they understand that you're partners in this.

And the simplest way to do that is to let them fill in the blanks. You paint the broad strokes, but they pencil in some details. And those details come out in the conversation after the presentation.

From clients, to creative directors, to juniors, to CCOs, everyone wants to feel like it's at least partly their idea. If you deliver a 100% complete, fully baked, no questions asked presentation, then there's no personal investment by anyone else. And it makes your idea that much harder to sell.

Don't Use Your Words

Like they say with jazz: it's the notes you don't play. Well, it's the same with a good presentation: it's the words you don't say.

Understanding that it's okay, and even good, to not explain everything in a presentation is difficult. Especially for a kid who was taught to assume nobody knew what the hell he was talking about.

But when I learned to shut my mouth and give the client a chance to open theirs, I started selling ideas that I thought would never leave the office. And instead, they're out in the world.

Thanks for reading!

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