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.


  1. Thank you for the advice. I agree that we are not taught in school about client relations beyond a basic public speaking class, which was not about relationships, and professional practice, which was more technical and not engaging. It seems everyone will develop their own style through experience, but where do you start? Again, thank you and I look forward to more articles like this one.

  2. Katie, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. To look up other posts I've written on the subject, use the search "guide me to" feature or click on the Labels keywords in the left column. I'm interested to hear you thoughts on "Our Clients, Our Family."


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