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Storytelling for Architects

July 10, 2018

 This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of architects all post on the same topic at the same time. This is my first post in the series, but this is the 40th topic in the series, entitled "Words". 


The success of a story is two-fold: the words that make up the sum of its parts, and the meaning that makes it a synergistic whole. Recently, I had the pleasure of attending an internal seminar about storytelling at my company. In this three-part workshop, we learned what it means to tell a story that will be remembered.


As architects, we craft buildings. However, in the process of crafting buildings, we also craft our words to describe those buildings. We may fall into the realm of theory, of technique, or of tradition to describe what our buildings will do for our clients and for the communities in which they will live. Our stories about our work help to share our passion for both the process and the product of that effort. Our words tell of experience, of judgement, of compassion, and of the imagination's endless bounds. 



"I am a part of all that I have met." Alfred Lord Tennyson 

Truly our experiences become the mold our past and therefore shape our future. 


Architects are not necessarily trained in school to speak in front of a crowd, make presentations to clients, and participate in interviews about our qualifications and commensurate experience, much less, be expected to do it well when fresh into the real world. I would suggest that quite the opposite should be expected, and that teaching our recent graduates to effectively tell their own stories will enable us to share a multitude of experiences and encourage younger generations to make their own voices heard. 


I am lucky to have recognized this desire within myself early on in my career. I've just recently hit my 5 year experience mark since graduating college (not including all the summer and Christmas break internships I held during college) and I've been through interviews with clients, presentations to communities and towns, and hosting my own design and construction meetings with owners & constituency groups. A drive to communicate directly and purposefully with clients can really open you up to opportunities for building relationships and expose you to more varied experience. 


I've noticed that all too often people experienced in their careers expect young folks to be the most quiet at the table, to listen or take notes. I am NOT saying you shouldn't do that or shouldn't make young people take notes (you absolutely should). BUT, especially at smaller firms, encouraging your younger talent to sit at the table will allow your firm to tell a better story!


Emerging professionals with the opportunity to speak about their experiences, passions, and communities in which they work will help us as an industry to remain empathetic and engaged, as well as better spokespeople for the quality embedded in the process and value of the end product. I in fact recently had a peer help convince me that committing to writing is indeed important when your goal is to encourage other emerging professionals to find their voices as well. 



When experience in great design or a specific type of architecture does not always translate to success in telling your own story, consider the following leading questions. Framing the story in relationship to your audience sounds like advice for college essays, but is still an important part of the drafting process. 


Ask yourself some leading questions: 

1. Who is your audience? What are their needs; cares; priorities? 

2. Why is it important they hear this story? What really matters? 

3. What is the message you wish to impart upon them? What do you want them to walk away with? 

4. How can you tell this story in the most concise way, but with the biggest impact? How are you going to make this story purposeful to your audience? 


You'll notice that these questions are vague on purpose, but they all are audience-targeting. Understanding who you're speaking to is step one in any story reaching the people that were meant to hear it. 


What's Your Big Idea?

What is the topic of your story? What are the parameters and context of your story? How can you define your big idea such that you can communicate it to others? What is the "elevator pitch" of your story? Is it easy to distill your idea into a few paragraphs or even sentences? 


I'd go so far to say that the first version of an elevator pitch usually isn't terribly successful. In fact, tailoring your best, brightest, complex, awesome-est big idea down to 80 seconds or less is probably quite a difficult task.


Consider yourself a stand-up comic. Your first joke at an open mic sets the stage for the rest of your 15 minutes of fame. You gonna just roll with the first thing that comes out of your mouth? Truly for your sake I hope not. 


Understand Your Desired Impact 

Being a great storyteller is about understanding the impact you want to impart. Doing so? You need a few key pieces of the puzzle to target your story appropriately. Get your head around A) what you want to say, B) how you're going to say it, and C) how your audience will react. 


First, find the kernel. What do you want to say? What are you passionate about? Your voice is legitimate and should be heard. Find the lesson or the key point of your story and build out the beginning and end from there. 


Secondly, how are you going to say it? What can you to do put your personality and your inspiration into the story? How are you going to make it memorable for your audience? Practice, practice, practice! Ensure your pauses make sense. Be confident in your delivery and let yourself be real. Your audience should always leave feeling as though they've received a genuine part of yourself. 


Lastly, know your audience. When you know your audience you will be able to predict how they will react and how your story will affect them. When you can do this, you understand the impact you are having. 


Create a Repeatable Story Structure 

A different way to think about storytelling is by generating the story based on a simple methodology for creating a structure that will quickly and efficiently get your point across. Your story is the vehicle for your impact.  


1. Context - Develop the background for the story. Distill this down to the necessary components. Do NOT be George R. R. Martin; you are not world-building in this stage. Give your audience the backstory and the hook and get on with it! 

2. Action - Create an action which gives the story an experience that you're sharing with the audience. The action builds you up to the kernel of your story. Let your feelings about the story shine, and encourage the audience to truly engage and empathize. 

3. Result - Give them what they want! Show the audience about the experience, give them your crowning achievement, your success, your lessons, and the culmination of your efforts. The result is the purposeful showcase of the conclusion, and a really satisfactory way to end a story. This step replaces the "And yeah, it was great! So the end." Awkwardness. This is where you truly deliver your meaning. 


Get Yourself Out of the Weeds  

1. Know the subject of your story. Your story should be personal but it doesn't have to be directly about you to be effective. The "who" or "what" in your story will set the stage for the "how" and the "why" later. 

2. Know the takeaway for the audience. I really can't stress this enough. A story may contain facts but it does not have to be a scientific experiment. You can start with the result (or the punch line) and build the context and action after the fact. Also known as the "Chapelle Method" because, well, it works for him too. 

3. Include a call to action. I mean for this one I would make sure it truly fits your story, but if your audience is being called to approve a design or a concept, you sure as heck want to make sure that you're encouraging them to make the choice you feel is best (as the expert, of course). Or say you're in an interview - those folks on the other side of the table should be itching to vote to hire you by the end! This is the "why" that supports the story - because you believe. 

4. Write/ record, then edit. Encourage your brain to explore other avenues for the story by writing a whole bunch first. There's a reason the editor comes in after the author is done with the story to massage the kinks out. Try writing each piece or plot points on post its, and rearranging them into a logical sequence to eliminate unnecessary details. 

5. Big ideas stick. Make your idea simple to understand and repeat after you are long gone. Minimize the complexity so that any inevitable questions don't detract from your desired impact. Your communication strategy should be purposeful and directed, especially in a formal setting. In an informal setting, you should be able to get to the point before the other person accidentally interrupts you because you've been rambling. 


Go Forth 

I hope that this framework gets your butt off the ground, but that it also has demonstrated that the skill of storytelling, or making words meaningful, is critical to how our industry is perceived by outsiders. Our stories are what make us heard by our communities & industry partners, and how we tell them reflects who we are. What do they hear and see us saying? How will you tell your story? Good luck! 


Special thanks to Little Diversified's Kelly Thompson (marketing) for our great discussions around storytelling and effective and empathetic communication. 


For other posts on the topic "words" for this month, follow the links below. I will update the links as more posts are published. 









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