You thought when you finished university, you said goodbye to presentations forever. But now, as an architect, you’re standing up in front of a group of strangers at least a couple of times a month, whether it’s presenting project ideas to a client, giving updates to a board, presenting at a conference, trying to win over a council, or lecturing to a room of hungover students.
I’m a pretty seasoned speaker, having given presentations at several national and international conferences on a diverse range of topics, as well as lecturing students. I still get nervous every time I stand up in front of a room, but the truth is, if you weren’t nervous, you’re probably not concerned about doing a good job, and that meansyour audience isn't going to relate to you. Being nervous before a presentation is totally normal.
Here are my top tips for crafting a spectacular architectural presentation:
Common Mistakes Architects Make in Presentations
- Too many words. Too few images. The truth is, if you’re trying to get someone to buy in to the idea of a space, you need to show that space and get them excited about it. People are more excited by images than by words describing a space.
- Using jargon your audience doesn’t understand. If your audience don’t know what you’re talking about, you will quickly lose them.
- Running overtime. Your audience are busy people: they have meetings to attend and decisions to make and kids to pick up from soccer practice. Don’t take up their precious time by going over your allotted slot. It’s rude and will reflect badly on you.
- Getting rattled by things going wrong. The projector won’t work, the main decision-maker gets stuck in traffic and can’t attend, you’ve forgotten your notes … inevitably, something will go wrong. The important thing is to not let it rattle you. Just go on the best you can. Your audience will respect your attempt.
Step 1. Think About Your Audience
The most important aspect of your presentation isn’t actually what you say, it’s who you say it to.
In order for a presentation to be successful, it has to hit home with the audience. What some people are interested in will completely bore others. It’s your job to figure out who the audience is and craft a presentation that will keep them engaged.
- What are your audience members’ goals? Are they students looking to understand a concept so they can pass an exam? Are they decision-makers in a firm looking to choose a design for their new building? Are they community members concerned about a new development? Think about what their goals are for the presentation.
- What are they interested in? When you’re trying to sell a design, it helps to appeal to people’s selfishness - think about what most attracts people in the audience to a space (work space improving productivity, relaxation, eco-principles), and highlight these features.
- What are the three things you want your audience to walk away with?
Step 2. They Don’t Need Every Detail
Do you know what drives me mad when I attend presentations or lectures? Presenters who write all of their content on the slides, and simply proceed to read the slides to the audience. Bor-ring! If I wanted someone to read to me, I’d call Benedict Cumberbatch.
Mmmmm. Benedict Cumberbatch.
Where was I? Oh yes, improving your presentation. You are not trying to get your audience to remember every single bit of information on your project. If they need specific details, they can look them up in the documentation or ask you later. What you’re trying to do is get them excited or help them understand the overall concept.
Your presentation isn’t about the minutiae - it’s about the big, flashy, sparkly concept. It’s about the stuff that makes people go wow. Focus on getting people excited, rather than bombarding them with details:
- Putting all your text on the slides does not make people remember it. It makes them nod off.
- Use images instead. I always use images as cues - so each images represents a concept I want to talk about. When I want to discuss a new idea, I move on to a new image that represents it. (For example, one image might show the clever use of light and shadow in a building design, while another showcases the sustainable details of the same building).
- What actually works much better than extraneous details is telling a story. Talk about how you arrived at a particular idea, at how a building’s history has shaped your design, a crazy story about a famous architect whose work has influenced yours … stories engage your audience and build a connection between you and them.
- At the end of your presentation, you could include a summary slide where you briefly state the three main points or themes you covered. This helps ensure everyone walks away with the intended message.
Step 3. Create a Stunning Presentation
You’re an architect, so you like things to look pretty. Putting together the presentation is probably your favorite part of the process (I know it’s mine!). Here are some tips to make it shine:
- Use a simple, plain background. Let your images and text pop. I’m a huge believer in using as many images as possible, but minimal text.
- Add some humor. When you tell a joke or show an image that makes people laugh, it helps your points to stick in people’s minds. When you go home after a day of presentations, whose do you usually remember? That’s right - the funny ones. So it never hurts to add a few giggles.
- Avoid jargon, unless your audience are seasoned architects. You may think talking the lingo makes you appear professional and knowledgeable, but all it does is make you sound like a prat. An architect friend once said to me that he, “talks as if I’m explaining something to Grandma.” Talk at the level of knowledge your audience is at - this will help them grasp the concepts of the project you’re trying to portray.
- Keep it simple! Remember, you’re not trying to win the Pulitzer Prize here (unless you are), but you’re just trying to get your idea across - focus on stripping things back to your main points and getting people excited about your concepts.
Step 4. Practice Makes Perfect
One of the best ways to combat your nerves is to be prepared. The better you know your material, the less likely you are to have a total brain freeze. Here are some tips for practicing your presentation:
- Practice in front of your family at home. If you live alone, sit your pet down on the couch and get them to watch. If anyone is going to tell you what they really think, it’s your cat.
- Remember that you are presenting in front of a group of interested colleagues, stakeholders or students - not the Spanish Inquisition. If you mess up, stumble over a word, or get a slide in the wrong order, no one is going to crucify you. As long as you can convey your enthusiasm for the project, you’re going to do just fine.
- If you turn into a blubbering mess every time you stand up in front of an audience, then perhaps you need some more focused skill-building in public speaking. Joining a debate club, speech competition or toastmasters class will help you perfect your skills. Professional speakers associations in your local area often run workshops for budding public speakers. Go along and learn as much as you can from professionals. The only way to conquer your fear of standing up there is to keep standing up there til it’s not fear anymore.
Step 5. Deliver It BeautifullyAh, now we come to the hard part; the palm-sweating, floor-staring, uncontrollable-shaking, inarticulate stuttering part. You have to stand up in front of a crowded room and deliver your presentation. Here are some tips to make it a little less painful:
Choose clothing you’re comfortable in. If you always feel awkward in a suit and tie, wear something else. You can still look professional and feel comfortable at the same time.
Avoid lecterns and other props that discourage movement. No one likes watching a statue talk. Wave your hands, stamp your feet, move around the room. This comes naturally to some people, and others have to work on it. Watch videos of speakers you admire on youtube and watch what they do.
Vary your delivery techniques. A lot of speakers like to ask the audience questions, and use these questions as a jumping-off point to talk about concepts.
Leave time at the end for questions.
6. After the Presentation
I know you’ll never want to think of it again, but it can help to take time after your presentation to evaluate what went right, and what you could improve on. If you’ve had someone video your talk, look over the footage if you can (I am always way too embarrassed to do this), and see what the audience sees. Did you talk too fast? Did you make eye-contact? Were your slides easy to understand?
If possible, gather feedback from others. Talk to attendees after the lecture or send them out a quick questionnaire by email. You might be surprised at the responses you receive - good criticism can help you improve for next time.
Extra for Experts
Have a look at these articles stuffed with presentation tips for architects:
- 10 Tips to Help You Give Amazing Presentations, from First in Architecture.
- Presentation Tips for Architects, Part 1, from ArchDaily.
- Presentation Skills, Tips & Techniques, from Life of an Architect.
Have you had to present an architecture project before? How did you overcome your nerves? What tips do you have for fellow architects?