Telling a Story: the Art of Presentation

The idea is complex, but the explanation must be clear, simple and concise.  It's all your clients will listen to.  The art of storytelling is something that most architects never learn.  Instead, during our education, we model pompous intellectualism, poetically making nonsensical archispeak statements while wearing black turtlenecks.  Of course in studio, there often is no client and no real story, only our personal filter for solving the assigned problem.  In practice, our client becomes our audience and whether we are auditioning for the part, or holding a design meeting, we can never forget to perform for them. 

We all love a good story and clients are eager to pull up a chair and hear your take on them and their project; they want an introduction and a plot line that builds suspense and, of course, a good ending.  They are looking to be drawn in, yet are prepared to tune out, doodling, checking their mobile device or just staring off in the distance.  You have to be compelling and your points have to be memorable in order for you to lead clients deeper into the understanding of the solution or even the design process that you are proposing.  There is no project or idea that can't be distilled down to a very simple explanation of just a few sentences that convey its core premise and purpose.  The few minutes you spend presenting an idea can form the basis of working relationships and the direction of a project for months or years to come.  Tips to get it right the next time you tell a story:

Set the table
Getting right down to business in a presentation is jarring.  Your audience of busy people not only have their own agendas for this project, but they also have heads swimming with all kinds of other information related to that last email they got, how to prepare for this afternoon's meeting, who will pick their kid up for soccer practice tonight.  If you launch right into things, the emotional uneveness of your audience will affect their ability to absorb and respond to you.  On the other hand, if you warm them up with an introduction and build to the purpose of today's meeting first, you will have a calmer more centered group of people reacting to consistent data regarding the project (not their individual agendas).

Don't overqualify

I have seen people so concerned about being misinterpreted that they break the continuity of every third sentence to explain their exact choice of words.  This is beyond irritating to the person who just wants to hear your thoughts already and reserve judgement for later.  If you find yourself doing this, you probably haven't set up what you need to say properly in the first place.  Either that or you are using words that are so inflammatory or ambiguous that they require a parenthetical explanation.

Play the emotional card
The most jaded skeptic still can be touched by building an emotional connection to an idea.  The passion you bring to a presentation extends to the rationale used for every idea you are trying to convey.  Lists of ideas are boring, connecting ideas to deeper more basic and universal human needs is interesting.  Nobody cares that you juxtaposed orthagonal elements or aligned with the city grid.  They do care that the entry to the space creates a ritual that helps tie the cardinal directions to the process of beginning and ending an experience cycle in their building.  It might be really cool that your lobby functions as a sundial, but have the sunlight illuminate things related to the use of the space and you have a design element that is a keeper even during value engineering.

The best piece of presentation advice is to be yourself and speak as if you were telling a story.  Stories create a personal connection, allow you to relax, be more informal and most importantly, allow even the grumpiest critic in your audience to relate to you.

Jump: A Vertical Path to Design Genius

I remember as an architecture student treading through the crushing hours of work thinking that once I graduated and started work, that things would be easier.  "Once you leave at the end of the workday," I reasoned, "you're done."  Oh how misguided I was.  But not for the reasons you might think.  Sure, clients can be unpredictable and deadlines can loom large.  But really, it's about the quest to improve yourself that keeps the line between work and life so fuzzy, even occasionally unbalanced.  I recently listened to an excellent presentation by Joshua Foer for the 99% entitled Step Outside Your Comfort Zone and Study Yourself Failing about the pitfalls we all encounter in our quest to do great things.  Certainly none of us sets out to be mediocre.  However, the day to day effort of meeting deadlines and being productive can leave no room for visionary thinking.  Unless you make room, that is. 

Foer talks about what separates experts from the rest of the pack and how reach beyond something he terms the “OK Plateau,” that place where we are good enough that we can put ourselves on autopilot regarding a set of tasks.  It was this OK Plateau that I was misguidedly longing to reach because I felt overburdened and overwhelmed by the challenges of architecture school.  But life on the Plateau is, well, boring.  The prospect of an entire career of that is bleak beyond words.  If you are feeling discontent with your career, it’s most likely that you’ve been stranded on that Plateau a little too long, for whatever reasons.  It’s time to jump:

An architects work is never done
No matter how many awards you win or celebrated you become, you are only as good as your last project.  True experts never allow themselves to get in a rut, they constantly challenge themselves to push beyond their comfort zone and explore new aspects of design, whether is experimenting with new materials, technologies or paradigms. They earn new credentials and don’t need AIA or State licensure requirements to seek out continuing education.

Find mentors for your whole person

No one is an expert in the exact same set of skills as another person.  Who you are, the unique perspective you bring to being an architect, needs to be nurtured as much as your more stereotypical skills.  This is why you need to cultivate expertise in all the facets of life that spark your passion.  Get in touch with your inner polymath.  What dimensions can an architect who is also a potter, sculptor and master chef bring to a project vs. one who is a hiker, photographer and karate blackbelt?  What about one who is also a certified nutritionist and has a degree in psychology?Scientific evidence has shown that you actually feed you creativity by indulging in a diverse set of interests.  A trip to the art museum, or the football stadium,  will do more for your next project crunch than spending four more hours hunched over your computer drawing.  It makes you far more interesting at cocktail parties, too.

Take yourself seriously

Architects are often accused of being pompous, looking down their over-designed glasses with disdain at the mere mortals they suffer to have around them who “just don’ get it.”  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about really believing that what you have to offer the world is so important that you never stop finding ways to make things better.  Don’t just design because it feels right, prove that it is right, never stop researching and testing your ideas about how people use space.  Study the people, the micro-culture, the tasks they perform, the preconceptions you all are bringing to the problem solution that you should question and perhaps throw out.  Finally, just like any good science experiment, never stop analyzing your outcomes. What worked (and how could it have worked better)? What did not perform as expected and why?  What new problems emerged through your design solution?  If you need to bring in someone else to help you evaluate your performance do so.  This can be as simple as inviting another member of your firm to do a postmortem for you, or as complicated as hiring and outside expert.  Then, listen to their criticism and use it to make yourself an even better architect.

True experts do not fear failure, they fear stagnation.

Getting Out There: Keys to Being Published

So you’re flipping through the latest copy of a design mag and you pause to look at a project and think- “I could do that. Actually, I DO do that.  How come I’m not in this magazine?”  Good question.  Talent is but one facet of fame.  Doing good work and hoping to be recognized via a “stumble-upon” strategy is therefore a very poor marketing strategy.  In case you don’t happen to live in New York, Chicago, Miami or LA, network with influential industry movers and shakers, and have exceptionally famous clients commissioning you for seminal projects, you will need some help getting discovered.  Save the spiel on how you don’t care about such shallow things as recognition- that’s archispeak for “I want to win awards and get published but I don’t know how.”  Do read on for some tips from my friends in the business of sourcing and writing about architecture:

Be a compelling source
Publication writers are always looking for a story that will resonate with their readers. Whether it’s a design issue, technology innovation or insight into the practice of architecture, how has something you are doing changed the equation?  Even something you have attempted and failed may be a more thought-provoking story  than the firm that plugged along successfully with the status quo.  Remember, being “good” is not the same as being “interesting.”

Be source-able
You don’t need a PR agent to tell your story.  Too many architects believe that they can be passive, letting some guru outsider observe their genius and turn that into a press release that gets actual press.  What they need to be doing (as I have advocated in many, many previous posts) is clarifying their vision and purpose as a firm and developing a mission statement for each project.  Not only will this help clients to be on board and the design team to stay aligned with the project goals, but it differentiates your firm- its product as well as processes.  Now you can write a press release, or social media blurb that really says something and that allows architecture and design media writers searching for a particular topic stream to notice you. You may even get attention from more unlikely sources that deal with very broad (say New York Times) or very niche (say green urban planning) markets.

Be a source that’s sorted
Take some time to compile a list of all the publications that cater to what you do.  These can be local and regional publications, or national broad-based and niche magazines.  Get a copy of their editorial calendar.  If, for example, you know that Architect is planning to feature healthcare in its October issue, time your press release about your paradigm-shifting ED to coincide with their schedule so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle or tragically just miss the cutoff for that year.  Tailor any press releases to align with the individual flavor of a publication.  Consider different angles like highlighting building materials, design process, client management, or technology in order to be relevant to them.  It also helps to be aware of what has been featured previously.  If your project or topic is too similar to one that was published in the last two years, it’s not likely to garner much interest; but if you can build on the theme and present a new twist, or can tap into the overall goals of the publication itself, you might just get some traction.  A lot more traction than a generic broadcast of a press release.
Please share your publishing experiences: what worked, what didn’t and what you’re about to try next.  Here’s to seeing all of you in print soon!