Storytelling is a popular buzzword today. What was once something that was done around the campfire or beside the crib at bedtime has now become part of the lexicon of the best marketers.
So this leads me to the question:
“Can Architects use Storytelling?”
I think the answer to this question is a definitive: “Yes!”
Whether you’re an Architect or not, the most important thing for you to remember is that everyone has a story. The question is who’s telling your story and how are they telling it?
This month, the #ArchiTalks challenge was to write on the topic of “Architectural Storytelling.” I have to admit that for me, this topic was a very happy coincidence because when Bob Borson threw the topic out there I was already working on my “Architectural Storytelling” presentation for the AIA Indiana / AIA Kentucky Regional Convention.
My article this month will piggyback on that presentation. You can find a list of links below to the articles written by all my friends that also contributed to this month’s #ArchiTalks conversation.
Did you miss last month’s articles? My contribution was “This is Exciting: 5 “RE’s” to Change the Future of Architecture.”
This month I’ll talk about several current examples of brands whose stories are being told, either by themselves or by others. I’ll also talk about the effect of storytelling beyond the story itself.
Then I’ll talk about a couple people who work outside the profession of Architecture. They don’t do what we do but I think their thoughts and their work translates well.
Let me start with a story:
Once upon a time …
On a brisk Monday morning in New York, a group of men got together to talk about what was going on in their profession.
I thought this was a particularly applicable story to tell at an AIA Convention. That’s what we do at conventions isn’t it? We talk about how much work we have. We talk about good clients and bad clients. We talk about our victories and our struggles.
That was what these guys were doing, but the real reason that they had gotten together was that they could see they had a problem.
The state of their profession was declining. You see, it seems they were struggling to establish their credibility and sell their value proposition. They were having trouble establishing their expertise. In fact, the terms they used to describe themselves and what they did; the word they used to distinguish themselves was no longer exclusive. Anyone could use it. It was being coopted by masons, carpenters and other tradesmen.
Does any of this sound familiar? I think many of us can identify with this story.
The meeting between those 13 men took place on February 23rd, 1857. The term they used to distinguish themselves was “Architect.”
That meeting led to what would become the American Institute of Architects.
Over 150 years later the AIA launched its Repositioning Initiative to address many of those same issues.
Today, we continue to have trouble establishing our credibility and sell our value proposition. We argue about whether to call our young professionals Intern Architect or Graduate Architect or whatever, all the while IT professionals and software developers have coopted the term Architect.
What story is the AIA telling? How could we be telling it better?
How about another one?
I think it’s safe to say the NFL has a problem right now. They’re a $10 Billion per year brand that employs an army of Marketing and PR professionals and they’ve lost control of their story.
The likes of TMZ, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Police Blotters across the country are telling the NFL’s story right now and I’m fairly certain it’s not the story that Roger Goodell and the team Owners want to tell.
Never fear though, we’re into Pink October; the month that the NFL rolls out one of its most visible and important charitable initiatives. There’s no doubt that The Brass hope this yearly content blast will concentrate attention on the story they want to tell rather than the stories that have dominated recent headlines.
Have you noticed that stories of the NFL; of legal troubles and breast cancer (I sincerely apologize for grouping those two issues together) don’t speak to the game itself?
Why is that? What is the NFL trying to sell?
Let’s look at another one.
Are you a fan of HGTV?
Let me just tell you that I HATE HGTV! Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to figure out how to buy a beach house on a budget just as much as the next guy but the story that HGTV tells across its network extends beyond our living rooms.
Our profession has been HGTV’d! How many shows on that network tell an inaccurate story about project timelines and project budgets?
I was having lunch a while back with a bunch of students and several of our peers. Somewhere along the line someone mentioned HGTV … big mistake.
That was the point when faces started turning red and fangs came out! There was an obvious and passionate dislike for the shows on that network. People were spitting food as they talked about HGTV’s effect on their clients’ expectations.
I think we all know that much of the HGTV programming relies on donated materials and labor. We also know that many of the project timelines we hear about in their shows are impossibly short in the real world. You and I both know that renovation didn’t happen in 6 weeks and come in under $200,000.
Unfortunately, our clients are watching these shows too. They’re seeing the story that HGTV is telling.
What effect is HGTV’s storytelling having on your practice?
Ok, one more …
Have you seen the first season of ‘Cool Spaces!’?
In each episode of Cool Spaces!, Stephen Chung talks about 21st Century architecture. But he doesn’t talk about A building or AN Architect. He interviews the clients and the users. We see sketches and models. We get to re-live the process from client interview to grand opening.
Stephen is telling the realistic story of the idea, the conception and the birth of architecture with a capital ‘A’.
How does the Cool Spaces! story differ from the HGTV story? How is the impact on our profession different?
Let’s switch gears for a minute. Let me ask you a different question:
What if you were at an AIA convention and someone walked into the room and said ‘I need a new building’?
They’d be in the right place wouldn’t they? A room full of Architects is the perfect place to begin their search isn’t it?
But think about that for a minute.
A prospective client walks into a room full of Architects … Who is going to win their work?
If I ask you what it is that you do, what do you say?
Remember, we’re 157 years down the road and we’re still talking about many of the same issues that those 13 men created an organization to solve.
If your only answer to that question is ‘I’m an Architect’ you need to remember that a software developer may say that.
How do you distinguish yourself from other Architects (the building type, as well as the software type)?
Let me introduce you to Austin Kleon; he’s an Artist and Author. He’s written three books about creativity. I’d like to talk about his latest … “Show Your Work!”
That title says a lot. Let me ask you another question:
What do the non-architects that you work for like the most about architecture?
You may have a different answer but I think that one of the things they like the most is the process. They love all those sketches and models; they love looking at photographs and talking about what they like and don’t like.
What better way to get clients and prospective clients excited about working with you than to “Show Your Work!”?
What better way to differentiate yourself or your firm than by showing your work?
Austin Kleon talks about two different types of people; Vampires and Human Spam. They’re different types of personalities but they’re equally as bad. They’re both takers; they aren’t givers.
A Vampire will spend all their time (and their victim’s time) feeding off creativity. They draw energy from their victim’s ideas and creativity. At the end of the day, their victim is left exhausted and spent while the Vampire is energized and productive.
Don’t be a Vampire.
A Human Spam is a person that takes without giving (like a Vampire). They’re the person that wants you to help them promote their latest project without ever helping you with anything; they’re the one that won’t put in the work (they want you to do it for them).
Don’t be Human Spam.
In my recent article “Architects Find Their Ideal Client With Social Media Marketing By Giving It All Away” I wrote about how we shouldn’t be afraid to share all of our knowledge and expertise.
In “Show Your Work!” Austin Kleon talks about the power of revealing your method, in fact publically documenting your process. He talks about building influence and gaining attention by being a giver.
Be a giver. Find more clients; engage your network by showing your work.
There are lots of Architects out there doing a great job of showing their work on their websites, blogs, Instagram and other platforms.
How can you tell the story of your work by showing your work?
So if showing your work can attract prospective clients, how do you sell those clients? Better yet, how can storytelling make you more money?
Do you know who this is?
Very few people do.
The reason you don’t know is because of these men …
And this …
In “Start with Why” Simon Sinek tells the story of Samuel Pierpont Langley … and the Wright Brothers. As it turns out, Samuel Pierpont Langley and the Wright Brothers had the same goal; to create a flying machine.
But that’s where their stories diverge.
What’s important to understand about the outcome of their stories is why Langley and the Wrights wanted to create a flying machine.
In 1898 Samuel Pierpont Langley was paid $50,000 by the War Department and $20,000 by the Smithsonian to build a piloted flying machine. That was a huge sum of money for the time. Langley’s notoriety (and the sizeable contracts) attracted a lot of fame and media attention.
I think it’s fair to say that his motivations were obvious.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Wright brothers operated, after-hours out of their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. They had no outside funding. Today we’d say they “bootstrapped” their operation. They didn’t have War Department funding or media attention.
They wanted to build a flying machine because they knew that manned flight would change the course of history.
So here you have two different “businesses” with the exact same goal but with completely different motivations. Their “Why” was different.
I think we all know the outcome of these parallel stories. The Wright Brothers achieved manned flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Samuel Pierpont Langley abandoned his attempts that same day.
Who’s “Why” was more powerful?
You can watch Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” TEDtalk by following this link.
So why is “Why” so important to Architects?
“Why” is a critical factor to the success of our marketing efforts because “Why” is what people believe. People identify, relate and pay for what they believe. Sinek says:
“People don’t pay for what you do; they pay for why you do it.”
I believe that Architects are in a unique position to be profitable storytellers. We have so much work to show; so many artifacts to share and so many of us share the same passion that the Wright Brothers had. We believe we can change the world.
I know this has been a whirlwind tour so let’s review:
Everyone has a story. You have a story.
Are you telling it or is someone else telling it for you?
Is it the story that you want being told?
Is your story being told in a way that it excites your clients and prospective clients? Do you show your work?
Is the story about you and your practice or is it about your reason and your passion?
Here’s a list of other professionals that are stepping up and pushing us forward. Let’s see what’s exciting them:
Bob Borson at Life of an Architect (@bobborson): “Architectural Storytelling – It’s My Thing”
Matthew Stanfield at FiELD 9 architecture (@FIELD9arch): “Stories in Architecture”
Marica McKeel at Studio MM (@ArchitectMM): “Take the Time to Tell Your Story”
Enoch Sears at The Business of Architecture (@BusinessofArch): “The Secret Ingredient To Convincing Anyone To Do (Almost) Anything”
Mark R. Lepage at Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect): “AE048: Success Through Storytelling with Bob Fisher of DesignIntelligence”
Evan Troxel at TRXL (@etroxel): “It’s Their Story”
Jeremiah Russell at r|one studio architecture (@rogue_architect): “architectural storytelling : #architalks”
Lora Teagarden at L2 Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC): “Architectural Storytelling: The Legacy of Design”
Collier Ward at Thousand Story Studio (@collier1960): “Architecture and Storytelling are Forever Linked”
Nicholas Renard at Cote Renard Architecture (@coterenard): “The Story of a Listener”
Lee Calisti at lee CALISTI architecture + design (@leecalisti): “Architecture As Storytelling”
Cormac Phalen at Cormac Phalen (@archy_type): “THE GENERATIONAL STORY – ARCHITECTURE AS STORYTELLING”
Andrew Hawkins at Hawkins Architecture, Inc. (@HawkinsArch): “Architectural Story Books”