Sunday, September 11, 2016

How to Think on Your Feet as a Designer

"Who am I? Why am I here?"

Funny. But not the type of response I want to give in the immediate moment.

Frankly, I don't like giving impromptu responses publicly. I prefer to have time to prepare something to say, rather than be put on the spot. But, as an in-house designer and as a freelancer, I often find myself having to give introductions, share my opinions, or give justifications for my design choices when asked. I used to hate this. Even now, I still don't like being the center of attention — especially with people I don't know very well.

But lately, I've realized that my fear and discomfort was problematic than my actual performance. So, these situations don't bother me as much. I've also picked up a few helpful strategies. Maybe they can help you too.

Get out of my own way.

I manage anxiety by being honest about it. No sense pretending I'm not nervous. It's just natural to feel vulnerable, when I'm in front of people. So, I"ll take a few deep breaths and tell myself, "This is normal and it's okay to feel this way."

I try to stay in the present moment — not think too much about what might happen. I want to deal with the situation as it is, not as I want it to be.

Recast my thinking.

I shift my concern about being on-the-spot, and think about how I've been given the opportunity to serve others. It's not about me, how I look, or my performance that matters. It's about what I say that will make a difference in someone else's life — whether professionally or personally. Yes, it should help with business goals, but businesses are run and managed by people. And all businesses serve people in some way. If I can contribute something positive in that regard, I've done a good thing.

Listen more carefully.

This is the time to get out of my own head and make sure I understand what's being asked of me. If I need more clarification, I just need to ask good questions first. When I start to speak I can also restate the request or question in my own words. After that, I can ask for clarification on areas I'm not so clear about before I give my perspective. It's honest, and demonstrates I want to give a thoughtful and credible response.

Unfortunately, if I wasn't listening to a conversation at all, asking for clarification only reveals to everyone else that I wasn't listening. Of course, the best thing to do is actively listen from the beginning. And ask questions during the course of the conversation for greater clarity.

Structure my response.

When it's time to give a response I try to structure it. I find a three-point structure works best for me because it is easy to remember and it feels complete. Here are some structures to consider:
  • What. So what. Now what. Frame the argument in its proper context and make the argument (the what). Then say why the argument should matter to the listeners. And end by stating the possible outcomes (good and bad).
  • Problem. Solution. Benefit. Start by restating what the problem or question is from my own perspective. (i.e. "What I hear you saying is …") Then offer an answer or solution based on that understanding of the question/problem. Last, I share some possible outcomes.
  • Point. Example. Point. I got this idea from Lisa B. Marshall of the Public Speaker Quick and Dirty podcast. I can simply state my point, give an example, and restate my point again.

Prepare myself.

There's no reason I can't be prepared for common questions or requests designers typically get. Here are a few I try to prepare for:
  • Who are you and what do you do? Or Tell us about yourself.
  • What's your professional perspective on (whatever design issue)?
  • Justify your design decisions. (One of the reasons I try to keep good notes of my thinking and decisions as I work.)

Cultivate convictions

No matter what I can expect or can't, I try to be clear in my head about what I stand for, and what drives me. So, I can be prepared to share my passions whenever I speak. I believe it adds some weight to whatever I say, even on the spot.

Photo courtesy Steven Ung of

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