Tips for wrangling committees

Doug Neff

Written by

Doug Neff

We recently completed a high-profile product launch presentation for a client. (No, it wasn’t the video above, but very similar!)  When I reviewed my notes after the product launch, I discovered some important lessons about committee-wrangling.

Near the end of our three-month engagement, the launch date looming closer, I felt anxious about the flurry of changes we were making to the presentation. We worked with a committee that seemed to sprout new members every week, and each change (coupled with fast turnarounds) made me nervous that we were getting away from the essence of the presentation. As the content lead on the project, I felt responsible for the finished story, but I also felt pulled in ten different directions by the ever-shifting moods of the committee.

Despite my worries, though, the presentation was a hit. Press coverage, bloggers, even the committee itself – everybody loved the end result. And though I was glad we had succeeded, I puzzled over how we managed to hold together a coherent story throughout the months-long process.

Later, as I was archiving my files and sorting through all fifteen versions of the script, I noticed an early version of a slidemap we created for the client near the beginning of the project. It was a high-level map of the presentation; just a skeleton, really. But, to my surprise, it mapped perfectly to the final presentation.

How could it be, that despite dozens of revisions and weeks of going back and forth on different sections, that we ended up with the same presentation we had envisioned in the beginning?

Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, my team and I were displaying one of the more subtle skills in the designer’s toolkit: committee wrangling. And now that I am conscious of it, I thought I would post a few tips on the subject:

1. Embrace the pain.

Committees are an unfortunate fact of life for designers. The only way to avoid them is to make presentations for yourself and no one else. But if you’d like to get paid for what you do, you’ll need to learn to handle multiple decision-makers, multiple opinions, and multiple revisions. So you might as well embrace it and have some fun with it.

2. Choose your battles wisely.

Yes, you might get into some battles. But battles aren’t the same thing as disagreements. Learn to tell the difference. If your client makes a suggestion you disagree with, feel free to push back a little, but if they push back, too, it’s time for you to make a choice. Is this disagreement important enough for a battle? If not, let it go. If so, help them understand why. Either way, remember that they have as much at stake as you do.

3. Keep your mind in the middle…

Garth Brooks, in one of his songs, says, “…it’s really kind of simple, keep your mind in the middle, while your butt spins round and round.” Garth is talking about riding a bull, but I think it applies here, too. No matter what happens throughout the process, keep your focus on the essence of the story. Stay faithful to the big idea, the 10-second version of the presentation, and no matter how many revision cycles you endure, the presentation will turn out okay. Committee wrangling is hardest when we get caught up in little things and forget to watch the big things. Then, later down the road, we find that we’ve somehow lost the essence of our story and we need to do another revision to find it again.

Now that the dust has settled, I can look back on our committee-wrangling experience and realize that we did pretty well on all three of these points, so despite my worry and frustration throughout the process, we still made good choices along the way and eventually brought the whole committee along with us.

May your next committee experience be a good one.