Communicating clearly is one of the most powerful “design tools” available, and yet very few of us ever receive formal training in how to be good communicators.

Much like the word “design,” which can be both a noun and a verb, “communication” has many meanings. It can be both a thing (a letter, e-mail, or fax), or a process. It can be something that you send or something that you get. It’s such a simple word that we all think we know what it means, but all too often our attempts at “communicating” can create profound confusion. Experience tells us that even the simplest instructions can (and will be!) misunderstood. Confusing communications knows no hierarchy—whether up or down the food chain, the problem is pervasive. We all know that good communication skills are essential to the design process, because there is a tremendous amount of complex information that must be accurately conveyed to clients, contractors, and consultants. And yet, try as we might, we never seem to get it just right. Why is this? Why is simple communication so hard?

The answer, of course, has to do with people—the essential element in all communications. To communicate, there must be both a sender and a receiver, each of whom has one mouth, two ears and a brain that filters all incoming or outgoing information. Since there can be multiple senders and dozens if not hundreds of receivers, it’s easy to see that the problem of communicating clearly increases geometrically with the distribution (and presumed importance) of the message. Indeed, rather than wonder why there’s so much confusion in trying to get the point across, perhaps we should be amazed that so much of the intended message actually survives intact!

Communicating clearly is one of the most powerful “design tools” available, and yet very few of us ever receive formal training in how to be good communicators. Good communicators understand the difference between broadcasting a message and receiving it; they know that a musician performing on stage does not hear the same thing as the audience. Good communicators are also aware of the many ways messages can be conveyed—not just with written or spoken words, but with inflection, body language, and a myriad of visual clues. Good communicators know that too many words can garble rather than clarify the intended message, and that silence—literally saying nothing at all—can sometimes be the most powerful way to connect with an audience. Good communicators know how to distinguish signal from noise; they present information in a way that it is least likely to be misunderstood. They also understand the human proclivity to listen with a limited attention span, to hear only part of the message, and to passively or even actively misinterpret what’s being said. Finally, good communicators are empiricists at heart—they know that what they say doesn’t really matter, it’s what the audience hears that really counts. They don’t judge their success by what they were “trying” to say…they judge their success by whether or not the audience “gets it.”

How does one become a good communicator? First and foremost, it’s important to realize that no personality transplants are required. You don’t have to be P.T. Barnum to move the masses—the famous mime Marcel Marceau was amazingly eloquent while speaking literally not at all. While you can learn a great deal from observing effective communicators, don’t try to imitate anyone else. Just be yourself. The more of you that you put into your message, the better your chances of being understood on your own terms. Remember that communicating is essentially about creating a linkage between the speaker and the audience, whether that audience is just one person or a whole roomful. Have something important or interesting to say—something that you believe in—and you’ll hold their interest. Here are a few tips:

1. Watch your word count. Generally speaking, the more words you use, the better the chance that you’ll confuse things. If you talk for half an hour, people might remember that you gave a speech, but if you speak for only five minutes, they’ll remember what you said. This is the secret to the Gettysburg address: make your points brief, simple and to the point, and put it in language the audience will relate to.

2. Write less, say more. As a corollary to #1 above, write with clarity and economy. As a rule, keep all memos to one page or less. If you feel that you need more space to wax eloquent, write a one-page summary and include the rest as an appendix. Chances are nobody will read past the first page anyway, so write accordingly.

3. Let your drawings and models do the talking. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words; use this to your advantage. Instead of explaining all the details, say “as you can see on the model (or in the plan)…” Your drawings and models will say far more in a glance than you can in an hour, and much more eloquently.

4. “Present in reverse.” Before starting any presentation, decide what you want the outcome to be, then design your talk backwards from that. Take as little time as necessary to get to your point. As you speak, trade places with the audience in your head—be sensitive to how they are responding. Are you getting good eye contact? Are they paying attention or are they listless? Do they understand what you are saying? Are they convinced? How do you know?

5. Avoid inconsistency and exaggeration. Don’t say one thing if the drawings or models say something else. Speak the facts plainly and let the audience draw its own conclusions; they’ll appreciate your confidence in their judgment. And while it’s OK to be dramatic to make a point, if you blow things out of proportion, nobody will believe the next sentence out of your mouth.

6. Watch the visuals. Your posture, your clothing, and your presentation material do make a difference. An eloquent speech can easily be derailed by visual distractions. Remember that presentation is a performance art—you are literally doing theater. Control what your audience sees as much as what it hears. Graphics are important. Pay attention to the design of your letterhead, brochures, drawing layouts, proposal formats, etc. Make sure they’re attractive and easy to read. Like the clothes you wear, they tell a story about you whether you like it or not.

7. Go for closure. The two main purposes of a presentation are to share information or make decisions. You’ll never arrive at a conclusion unless the audience says “yes.” Make this easy on them by having all the relevant and required information at hand— “decision-ready information” —then don’t be afraid to ask for an answer. If the client can’t commit, find out why. Remember that the largest part of being a good communicator is being a good listener.

8. Know when to stop. Many a cake has been ruined by being left in the oven too long. If you plan to speak for five minutes, don’t take seven. Remember Thomas O’Neill’s famous dictum that “when you’ve got the votes, count the roll.” Your audience will appreciate your brevity and will reward you with their confidence (and their votes). “Over-communicating” can be just as dangerous as “under-communicating.”

Since the art of communicating clearly is so fundamentally important to the practice of good design, it’s extremely odd that this skill is foreign to most practitioners. To be successful, it’s essential to understand the client’s goals—what do they really care about and why? It’s also critical to make sure that all the design team members (including consultants and contractors) are on the same page, working in concert. Yet, for centuries architects have used an arcane symbolic language (construction documents) that is so complex and confusing that few practicing professionals, let alone clients, are fluent in it. No wonder there’s so much confusion in the office and on the construction site! Because sharing information is so critical to design, success will flow to those who know how to communicate well. When all is said and done, the only power the architect really has is the power of persuasion.

—Scott Simpson
President and CEO, Stubbins Associates