How to Speak Every Internal Client’s Language

As an in-house designer, you have access to things outside agencies can only dream about. You overhear company news at the water cooler, live the corporate culture every day, and run into key decision makers in the hallways. But when it comes time to connect with internal clients, you might feel like some of your fellow employees don't even speak the same language: Terms like CMYK and HTML might be lost on your non-creative coworkers, while the public relations manager you work with chatters endlessly about AVE (ad value equivalency) and your CFO focuses on SarBox (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act).

Because it's nearly impossible to create successful design work without effectively communicating with the client, it's useful to tailor your language and communication style to each audience, much as you would with a website or brochure design.

“A lot of people don't know typography or kerning or color schemes,” says Joerg Metzner, design director at Rand McNally in Skokie, Illinois. “You don't want to talk like you would to another designer.”

Instead, mirror the client's communication style and vocabulary—whether that's marketing, finance or strategy—so the other person doesn't have to guess what you're saying and so the two of you are on the same page about the goals of the project. Consider the following client types you're likely to interact with and tips for connecting with them.

C-level executives

At this level, you need to address financial considerations and make a business case for the project. How does this website or campaign increase revenues or reduce costs? How does the project help the company reach its business goals?

Be prepared to deliver your message quickly—think bullet points, not full sentences. “A lot of times, it's really hard to get focused attention the higher up you go,” Metzner says. “They have so much on their plate.”

Making a succinct business case can help you engage a C-level audience because you're highlighting what they care about most: the bottom line. Before meeting with a senior leader, practice what you're going to say and eliminate unnecessary information. Also, be ready to swiftly move to the most essential information.

Finally, read business publications like Fortune, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal to become familiar with common concerns facing executives and the language they use to describe them. Business books are another useful source of information about how senior leaders think and the terminology they use. Incorporating relevant expressions into your communications will help you connect with this audience.

Marketing and communications directors

Most marketing and communications professionals have worked with creative staff members before, but that doesn't mean communication is always smooth. Meet with your marketing peers to make sure everyone is on the same page with a project before you start the first comp. Outline specific goals and objectives that everyone can work toward. What do you want people to do or think when they receive the brochure? What's most important to get across? How will you measure success?

Let the common goals be the guide when discussing design decisions and suggestions. If someone wants to make the type bigger, for example, try to figure out the underlying motivation. Does the person want to add more emphasis or simply make sure a key point isn't lost? Acknowledge the person's objective, then discuss how various design approaches might achieve the goal.

Other staff

Unlike marketing professionals who may commonly work with creative teams, staff-level professionals in other departments may have little or no experience collaborating with designers. Because of that, it's useful to spend a little time educating them on the design process, without using jargon or becoming overly technical. A member of your sales team, for example, may have no idea that making changes to a brochure at blueline could result in cost overruns, for example.

It's also useful to step into their world and get to know common acronyms and phrases. For example, letting your human resources client know that you are familiar with the PEP (performance evaluation process) can go a long way toward building trust. Finally, when you're working with someone who isn't the ultimate decision maker, ask about the chain of command and who will be included in approval processes. If the concept must be approved high up the food chain, you can provide your colleague with information that can help him or her “sell” your ideas.

Universal strategies to improve communication

Here are some good communication techniques for any client:

  1. Always take a team approach. Adopting an “us vs. them” mentality with a client will only make the project harder.
  2. If you're discussing visual styles, use samples to get on the same page rather than descriptors. “Simple” and “elegant” don't mean the same thing to everyone.
  3. Get to know the client and work on building the relationship. Ask about the biggest tasks and challenges they face, and remember to really listen to the answers.
  4. Read the trades. If you frequently work with a particular department—for example, direct marketing—read trade magazines to get a sense of the latest developments and challenges in that industry.