✱ Words Architects Use / by Evan Troxel

Our words matter. I keep seeing this one thing that is killing our chances of truly connecting with our clients over and over again. It's spreading like a virus through our profession, and it's probably going unnoticed by the people propagating it. It's your vocabulary, and it isn't impressing the right people.

I love a well developed lexicon, so please don't misunderstand me. This is written from the perspective of the people who are trying to decide if they want to work with us (most likely for many years on a project) or not. Many times we just never get that chance because of the words we use when we give our first impressions. The following is based upon my experience. 

We sell

Presentations. Interviews. Meetings. We are either selling ourselves (and/or our expertise, process and services) to get the job in the first place, or we are selling the work we are in the midst of doing in the form of charrettes and presentations in-house.

Ask yourself:

  • Have you ever wondered if there is a better way?
  • Are you doing it "right?"
  • Did they teach you the so-called "right" way to do it in school?
  • Perhaps you tailor your pitch to your audience each time?
  • Do you get better each iteration, or are you doing the same thing over and over?
  • How well are you and your team received by the panel/audience?
  • Do you get debriefs on your performance?

These are some of the questions I ask myself and others each time I go through the process. There are some solutions out there but many of these questions go unanswered.

There isn't just one way of doing this stuff. In fact, I'm sure we all have a different approach. I've been presenting, defending and interviewing for architectural projects since 1992 and I have to say that I do it a little differently almost every time. While there are commonalities between my presentations, I do tailor it and even thrive on the in-the-moment random nature of having to perform like a so-called rock star in certain situations while a panel of judges does just that - judge. By "rock star," I mean make it look easy; like I knew what they were going to ask. Most of the time there are questions and curveballs that you are simply expected to be able to handle that you didn't see coming or have the intuition to rehearse. This is normal, and the more experience you have the easier it is to overcome. It can be stressful as hell though.

Get the help of an expert (if you can)

I had the pleasure of working with Marjorie Burren for an architectural pursuit. She is well known within the A/E industry and has worked with Santiago Calatrava among other big-shot architects and engineering firms to help them win work. I only bring that up because I think it lends credibility to her services and what she does. It worked for me.

This was a great experience that helped take my skills to another level. Having an outside point-of-view in the room with our team while practicing really made us question and rethink everything when presenting to people who are not architects. She got our team thinking about how we communicate with laymen and challenged us to find better ways to do just that. Based on her many years of research and experience, the reason we (architects in general) don't win new work is because of the simple fact that we don't verbally connect on the same level as those on the other side of the table. If we can't do that, we will not have a chance to work with them.

As architects and professionals working in the profession, we rarely have time for formal presentation training, and are usually forced to do it on an as-needed basis. This means we do it in the limited time we have when preparing for a presentation or interview between our normal everyday tasks of doing the work. We surely weren't taught this stuff in university. It is just something we are expected to jump in and do, and we're probably just alright at it. It's trial-by-fire I suppose, and that works up to a point but most of the time it's not enough to just show up and react to whatever is thrown at you.

PRESENTING TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO SPEAK THE ARCHITECTURAL LANGUAGE IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN PRESENTING TO PEOPLE WHO DON'T

Over the five years we were in architecture school studio doing presentations for juries, we were always presenting to other architects, faculty and students of architecture. The lexicon made sense in those situations and through repetition became habit. We present, charette and critique within our offices all the time to people that speak our language. Less often we present to architects outside our studio walls.

In the "real world" it's a different ball game altogether. We typically present to laymen, and those are the presentations that really matter because a potential job is on the line. The tables are flipped and we need to speak another language. Their language.

The problem is that I watch most architects present to laymen as if they were still talking to other architects. They talk the architectural/academic jargon and clients are lost. I can see it in their eyes and in their body language. Some people are nodding along and have decent eye contact while others are falling asleep or playing with their phones (not even under the table!). We finish our meetings and presentations and everyone smiles (because it's over) and we walk out thinking all is well. But after we leave, there's typically a silent period of a few days and then an email shows up that illustrates very clearly how they didn't understand anything that was talked about in the meeting. 

We get very comfortable talking the talk; speaking the architectural vocabulary we learned through the years. But clients don't get it at all, and it's not their fault. I want to be clear that these are very smart people we're presenting to, and I don't ever want us to dumb down our presentation. We simply have to ask ourselves if we are truly connecting with those that we're presenting to. 

We should use the 10 words that get straight to the point instead of the other 90 we use to dance around it. This is hard work because we love to talk. We love to share our ideas. But we really need to shut up and listen more. 

Something I remember from studying Craig Ellwood's work was when he said that simple is hard. He created beautiful, simple architecture. But his point was that to be able to remove all the fluff and extra crap, and to make it truly simple, was really hard work. It's a lot easier to cover up a messy structural connection with drywall then to design it so that you don't have to. We have to want it, and we have to put in the time to really distill the message down to something so simple that anyone can understand it. We can't afford to lose the people who can secure us our future along the way.

WORDS MATTER

When you don't understand a word you hear in a meeting, do you stop the person who said it and ask them what they meant? I'm going to venture to say that you don't. At the critical point when that word was spoken, you just lost your connection. Honestly, you probably lost the next couple of sentences because your brain is still back at the unknown word trying to figure it out. Now you're really behind, and your brain starts to shut off because you are lost and chances are you aren't going to get back on track. It's now time to start playing with your phone (discretely under the table, please).

This simple example happens all the time in meetings we attend and run. Our livelihood relies on communicating with prospective clients. But if they disconnect from us an important meeting because we lose them with our weird vocabulary, we probably just lost your chances to do work with them.

This happens to my kids all the time when they are reading. To help them, my amazing wife instituted something I wish someone had told me to do when I was in school. She has them trained so that when they find a word that they don't know the meaning of, they stop right where they are, write the word down in their notebook, and look it up in the dictionary. They then have to determine the correct meaning, write it down after the word in their notebook, and then apply it to the sentence to make sure they got it right. Only then can they move on through the rest of the paragraph. They get tested after reading as to verify they understood the meaning of the words they looked up and any other word we find in the text that we want to test them on.

It's too bad we don't do this on the job as well, and it's too bad more potential clients don't stop us in our tracks and ask us to explain the words we use that they don't understand. Maybe then we would get the point that we really are speaking another language and we'd rethink our presentation jargon.

Because of this rigor, my kids have an awesome vocabulary (once again thanks to my wife). But most people don't have the discipline or vulnerability to butt-in and ask for an explanation for things they don't understand. Instead, they just tune out. And when they tune out, we lose out. So it's our job to get better.

HOW DO WE GET BETTER? 

Just as we adapted to the studio lifestyle and architectural vocabulary in school, busily getting out of our comfort zone and trying new things to meet the expectations of our professors, professional development is much the same. If we are going to excel in our career endeavors, we must strive to personally develop ourselves as much as possible both on and off the company clock. I do this constantly on my own, and I also endeavor to help others become better too. Luckily for me this particular exercise was initiated by my office because they saw that there was room for improvement. I say we were lucky because I know it doesn't come cheap. However, I'd go so far as to say it was priceless. Working with this coach was a very rewarding experience and I got so much out of it.

The opportunity to work with a presentation coach (who is not an architect) opened my eyes and showed me that we're doing it wrong. Presenting to our colleagues is very different than presenting to current and potential clients. They don't speak our language, and we have to fight our minds in every way to reach and include the people we are communicating with. 

She reminded me of one of my studio professors from school who drilled a mantra into me: "Simplify, simplify, simplify." While she was talking about architecture, it applies to our language and communication skills too. We are often saying too much. We rely too heavily on our specific vocational vocabulary, and it is distracting and confusing to those outside our profession. We take too long to get to the point. We repeat ourselves too much. We use words that people don't understand and words that simply don't mean anything.

It's no coincidence I co-host a podcast called Archispeak. Clever, I know. Archispeak is defined as:

Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self doubt.

It's ridiculous. Here's an excerpt of archispeak in action, performed by Liz Diller of DS+R (of whom I am a fan) in a TED Talk that you can watch here:

...this proposal was a reaction to the over-saturation of emergent technologies in recent national and world expositions, which feeds, or has been feeding, our insatiable appetite for visual stimulation with an ever greater digital virtuosity. High definition, in our opinion, has become the new orthodoxy. And we ask the question, can we use technology, high technology, to make an expo pavilion that’s decidedly low definition, that also challenges the conventions of space and skin,and rethinks our dependence on vision?
— Elizabeth Diller

I used that as the example when defining "archispeak" on our first podcast. If you read what she wrote, it makes sense. Don't get me wrong. She is definitely nerding-out though, and when you watch the video and listen to her speak those words, it is practically un-followable. It is also telling that she is reading it off a piece of paper because it hardly flows naturally out of the mouth. It would be far worse if she rattled that off straight from her normal vocabulary, so I am hopeful she doesn't actually speak like that in normal conversation. 

We may not go that far in our interactions, but we definitely exhibit degrees of this. But why do we do this? We do this because it's a fall-back. We use these fall-backs because speaking in public is scary for a lot of people. We convince ourselves that if we can fill the time up with lots of words, we will sound like we know what we're talking about. And sounding like we know what we're talking about is better than sounding like an idiot, right? 

Even the most seasoned speakers get nervous before going out on stage or doing a presentation. Marjorie told us about a stand-up comedy routine where Jerry Seinfeld said,

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

It's funny because it's true. We literally go out of our minds. Not only are we scared to death that we'll forget what to say or come off sounding stupid, but we completely lose track of time as well. On top of that we'll show combative body language and look angry or bored. Our lizard brains take command and we tell ourselves to "run for your lives!"

I can't tell you how many times I've worked for months on a project, full time, only to have 20 minutes to present a metric shit-ton of information to a client. Do you have any idea how fast 20 minutes goes by in a presentation? Really freaking fast. How can we possibly remember what to do under that much stress?

Here are two tips that come straight from Marjorie, and they made so much sense and fly in the face of modern conventional wisdom that they are obvious:

GIVE YOURSELF A CUE TO HELP REMEMBER WHAT'S NEXT

We love to make things hard on ourselves, don't we? People on the internet tell us to do stupid things because we're "designers." Somehow we've decided we can't put more than three words on our slides, if any at all. We are told that “the images must speak for themselves.” We’ve convinced ourselves the people we are presenting to will read the slides and not listen to what we are saying because... our audience is stupid?

This is false for a couple of reasons. First, words on a slide, if kept brief, can save your life. They can remind you what to say. You'll even find that saying the exact words on the screen will connect you to the audience (because they're reading it too) and then remind you of what you were supposed to say, making the point even better. Second, as I said earlier, your audience is not stupid. They can read a few words on the screen and listen to you at the same time. In no way am I condoning bullet point lists of 300 words in a 6 point font so it all fits on the slide, but use common sense. There is a middle ground here. You just need a hint of what the next topic is. This is super helpful especially if you’re nervous or have a lot of material to cover.

So do yourself a favor. Add reminders to your slides so you don't freak out when you don't remember what's next. And if you do stumble on your words, slow down, tell your audience that you've gotten ahead of yourself, lost your place, or forgot what you were talking about. You can probably just make a joke about it, collect your thoughts and move on. They are probably more forgiving than you think.

YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY EVERYTHING

Usually presentations have to be completed within a set allotment of time, and it's certain death if you go over. You should be proactive. It's absolutely fine to tell the panel that you are prepared to answer questions about "X" or go more in depth about "Y", but there just isn't enough time to do it now. That's what the Q&A section is for anyway, right? It's just better to say that you're prepared for that up front when it only takes a few seconds rather than go down a rabbit hole and run out of time in the end, ultimately missing your really important points.

Let the audience ask questions and interact with you. It's uber-important that they get a taste of what you're like as a real person as opposed to a presentation robot anyway. After all, they might be working with you for a few years so there should be a chance to get some good chemistry happening.

If you’ve made it all the way through this post, thanks for reading. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning some of the tips I use in my architectural presentations, and I hope they'll help you in your quest to nail the perfect presentation.

Once you get used to speaking in front of groups, it can be one of the best experiences of your career. I love speaking with people and showing what it can be like working with architects. Not only will you be able to better connect with your audience, but our profession will benefit if you approach them with a vocabulary that they understand. They’ll like you, and all of us, more.

Now go out, present, and don't forget to choose your words wisely.