Running a successful architectural practice requires a multitude of skills. Design and technical talent are prerequisites, of course, and you’ll also need some marketing, some management, and a modicum of financial savvy.

Running a successful architectural practice requires a multitude of skills. Design and technical talent are prerequisites, of course, and you’ll also need some marketing, some management, and a modicum of financial savvy. This is true regardless of firm size, location, or specialty.

There is another essential ingredient, one that is often overlooked, which is the ability to communicate your ideas clearly and persuasively not only to your clients (who, after all, are paying the bills) but also to your staff (so that they can produce the work properly). You may fancy yourself as another Michelangelo, but if nobody understands what you’re up to or why, you won’t have much of a following.

Luckily, architects have many different ways to express their design ideas-diagrams, drawings, models, and so forth. At the same time, complex architectural concepts can be difficult for most people to grasp at first glance, especially if they are rendered by abstract plans, sections and elevations, which often defy intuition. Even a relatively simple project requires many sheets of technical drawings plus voluminous written specifications to communicate the design intent, and given the complexity of this “instruction manual” (for that’s what it really is), it should come as no surprise that construction documents are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. It’s ironic but true that communicating in great detail can often be more confusing than enlightening.

Architects are often heard to complain that “the client doesn’t get it.” You can blame the client if you want, but the truth is that design professionals, by and large, are relatively poor communicators. How do we know this? Because, by their own admission, they’re so frequently misunderstood. How many meetings, presentations or public hearings have you attended which ended in confusion, frustration, or outright disagreement?

Part of the problem is rooted in the training that most aspiring architects must endure-the jury system. By its very nature, the jury system promotes an “attack and defend” mentality that creates more resentment than enlightenment and teaches students to be combative rather than apologetic. What’s needed instead is a way of communicating ideas about design that will be understandable, accessible, and convincing to everyone, professionals and laypeople alike.

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers have all developed their specialized professional jargon, and architects are no exception. Using code words, acronyms, and other arcane language may create an illusion of rarefied professional expertise, but it doesn’t do much for communication. Why say “fenestration” when “windows” will do? In attempting to impress clients, architects often confuse them instead. Clear, convincing communication is a prerequisite for building trust, and therein lies the power to persuade. The point here is very simple: if you want to get your ideas accepted, you need to be understood. Here are a few tips:

Use the listener’s language. Some clients are visually oriented and can read diagrams and drawings with relative ease. To others, these are as baffling as hieroglyphics. Some clients respond better to models or sample boards, where they can see what they are getting in three dimensions. Still others are quantitative-they need to hear the numbers. Many clients have difficulty interpreting abstract spatial concepts and require translation by means of written text or verbal presentation. Whatever the situation, figure out the appropriate medium and use it. It doesn’t make any sense to speak in German if your audience is listening in French, no matter how articulate you may be.

Tell the story. Stories are memorable because they have a beginning, middle and an end. Nearly everything that you have to say can be told in the form of a story. Even complex concepts can be quickly and easily communicated if you get the story line right. Simple phrases like “this is how…” or “this is why…” will lead you where you want to go. Use them.

Let your work speak for itself. If you know what you want to communicate, your diagrams, drawings, models, renderings, perspectives, sample boards, mockups, and computer animations will need little explanation. If you find yourself having to explain these things in great detail, they are probably not very clear to your audience. If done well, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Think backwards and know when to stop. Start at the end of your presentation. What do you want your listeners to take away with them? That’s the message you need to convey-all else is fluff. When you have made your point, sit down. Sometimes more damage is done by over-communicating than under-communicating. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, “when you have the votes, call the roll.”

Don’t blame the audience. No matter how clear you think your message is somebody is sure to get it wrong. This can be extremely frustrating, but it makes no sense to blame the listeners. If they just don’t get it, find another way to get your point across. Remember that even common terms can have more than one plausible definition and that the potential for misunderstanding increases geometrically with the size of the audience.

Keep it short. Enough said.

Ask for feedback. The only way you’ll ever really know how you come across to others is to ask. And when they tell you, listen on their terms, not yours. Take the feedback at face value-don’t editorialize or filter it in any way. One really good way to validate feedback is to pay careful attention to body language. Posture, gestures, eye contact and other nonverbal clues speak louder than words. Don’t judge by what people say, but rather by what they do.

No matter how brilliant your design ideas, they are of little use unless they can be properly communicated. In the final analysis, it helps to remember that architects are not the final decision-makers. It takes a client to commission and pay for a project, and it takes a contractor to build it. The ability to articulate your ideas in a way that they can be put to use by others is an absolute prerequisite for success. The only real power the architect has is the power of persuasion.