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LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE IS VITAL FOR ARCHITECTS

Consultant Judith Gilmore cites research that shows body language and voice projection are far more important than content in a presentation

Lack of effective communication between architects and clients can result in dissatisfaction at both ends. But training in communication and presentation skills can help architects to bridge this gulf and gain the trust of clients.

Have you ever stood up to make a presentation and completely frozen? Or pitched for a job and bumbled your way awkwardly through the interview? The good news is that help is available.

Many practices, and the RIBA CPD programme, acknowledge that communication skills are critical for architects and training is essential. There are people who can help you overcome your fears and understand how to develop your own personal style of what Judith Gilmore of Effective Communications calls 'powerful presentations'. Though public speaking may come naturally to the chosen few, most of us can benefit from a bit of coaching, be it in a group or one on one.

To get the most out of these sessions, you have to be ready to bare your soul. Complete confidentiality and trust from all participants is required. I recently attended two such workshops in the dual role of participant and y-on-the-wall journalist. The style and nuances of the workshops differed but common themes emerged and many of the tools were similar. In both instances, participants were asked to make short (five minute) presentations in front of their peers which were followed by personal feedback on content and delivery from the leader and fellow participants, who act as 'mirrors', commenting on the good and bad in your presentation. It immediately becomes up-close-and-personal.

With clients ranging from Foster and Rogers to David Morley and van Heyningen and Haward, Santa Raymond of Santa Raymond Consultants runs in-house or off-site workshops called 'Communicating and Presenting'. An architect and interior designer with particular expertise in the office sector, Raymond has spent several years as a client advisor. She developed her communications workshops in response to a perceived communications gulf between excellent architects and dissatisfied clients. Like the car salesman, says Raymond, you need to be able to 'listen to the subtext' and build empathy with your audience.

One way to achieve this is by eschewing jargon - Raymond cautions: 'make it so your grandmother can understand.'

Raymond believes that the most important factor in getting people to listen is the personality of the presenter - not what you say. According to Raymond, this can be established in the opening minute. She advises workshop participants to visualise a challenge that they enjoy prior to an important pitch, and then transfer that calm and confidence to the presentation - it might be skiing a field of moguls, holding a difficult yoga pose or dancing with a partner. A natural conversational tone, with pauses and eye contact, are as effective as a polished performance. And a key point for architects: visuals should be used to reinforce a talking point not to introduce one. Handouts should be given only at the end of a presentation - otherwise you risk losing your audience. It's all about 'winning trust and confidence, not about showing you're an expert'. And remember to be enthusiastic and 'make it fun'.

As Raymond says, you have to 'put yourself in other people's shoes', and be attentive to how what you say is received, 'visually, verbally, intellectually and emotionally'. Preparation is key. If the content is crisp and wellfihoned, you are free to focus on delivery. Gilmore recommends a template and cue cards for any presentation: start with a compelling hook to grap the audience's interest; give three supporting arguments with a bit of detail; and conclude by reiterating your core message. She suggests writing out your introductory and concluding sentences and listing the remainder in bullet points. 'It's good to rehearse your core message in your head on the way to the meeting, ' says Gilmore. Raymond suggests arriving early to check out the room and any AV equipment. Raymond and Gilmore both stress the importance of smiling, posture, body language and strong vocal projection.

Much of this advice is common sense. But how do you actually internalise it to improve your own personal performance?

The key is to make - or in some cases, force - workshop participants to engage in the process. The two workshops I attended were quite different in format. Gilmore's was a three-hour evening session for a group of 10, while Raymond's was an all-day affair for four. Both say that having six to eight participants is ideal - enough to create a dynamic exchange and still allow time for individual feedback. There seems to be a clear advantage in anonymity between participants. Nevertheless, many practices opt to conduct this training in-house - but sometimes off-site to create a sense of detachment from daily work.

Raymond's all-day workshop uses a short questionnaire to establish the parameters of the issues to be addressed, and participants then exchange stories of heart-stopping presentation moments. The day alternates between role play and presentations by participants, and short lectures from Raymond on topics such as chairing meetings, pitching for work, dealing with an aggressive contractor, PowerPoint presentations and body language.

Raymond's strength lies in establishing a rapport between members of the group and creating a sympathetic atmosphere which allows for honest and constructive criticism. It is compelling stuff.

Gilmore, by contrast, is an extremely professional performer with 20 years of experience and a wide range of clients - around a third of which are architects, including Atkins, Aedas and SMC. One of her services is coaching on how to win work.

'Don't let your audience be agonised by the agony of the presenter, ' says Gilmore. Her business grew out of wishing to overcome a deep childhood fear which resulted from a traumatic solo performance with the school choir. She is entertaining and high-energy and, like Raymond, full of practical tips.

Both Raymond and Gilmore say that it all boils down to trust. People buy people, not schemes or pretty pictures, they say.

'Do I trust her?' is the main question a prospective client asks.

Training can help you learn how to win this trust.

For more information visit www. effectivecommunications. co. uk and www. santaraymond. com

EXPERT TIPS FOR COMPELLING PRESENTATIONS

Prepare, prepare, prepare. If your content is ready, then you can focus on delivery;

get inside the head of your client/audience;

know who's who in a meeting so you know who to direct the various parts to;

phrase it so that your grandmother could understand - no jargon;

check out the room and the AV equipment ahead of time;

mirror client behaviour and body language;

don't be afraid of silences;

say tough things in a sympathetic way;

less is more when it comes to visuals;

use visuals to reinforce a talking point, not to introduce one;

only give handouts at the end of a presentation - otherwise you could lose your audience;

smile and make eye contact; and

be enthusiastic and 'make it fun'.

Santa Raymond, Santa Raymond Consultants

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