Of all the challenges facing architectural firms today, figuring out how to win more work definitely sits at the top of the list. Yet, I find it interesting that many companies are tragically out of touch with the basic trends shaping how projects are secured in the first place. Nowhere is this break more prevalent than in the project pitches that many architectural firms are presenting to their clients.

Gone are the days when you could just rely on your name and reputation, or even the quality and relevance of your design to secure a project. Today, projects are often won and lost based on the “performance” of the presenters. It’s not just about the ideas they are trying to convey, but how they go about doing it.

The architectural firms that will earn the most business in 2015 and beyond are those that know how to connect to the needs and preferences of their clients. They have a narrative that speaks to their clients in the words that their clients are using.

If your team can learn how to get that narrative right, then chances are you will already be well ahead of the competition.

The Case of the Stumbling Starchitects

Just over two years ago, some of the biggest names in the industry, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, all vied to secure a high-profile project: a new tower for L&L Holding Company on Park Avenue in New York City. This stretch of prime real estate is home to some of the most expensive properties in the United States and a popular enclave of fortune 500 companies as well as the rich and famous.

Norman Foster won the contest with a rather traditional, sensible design: a stack of three glass boxes connected by an exposed steel scaffolding and separated by three landscaped terraces.

Shortly after it was announced that Foster had won the contract, The Guardian ran an article that included video excepts from all four of the pitches. The lessons that can be learned just from watching these architects in action are priceless.

So, why did Foster win? Here are three good reasons:

  1. He knew his audience. Of the four architects, Foster is the only one who didn’t sound like he was talking to a bunch of art directors or architectural aficionados. Good thing because he was speaking to a risk-adverse corporate crowd. These are people who think in terms of measurements, profits, and practical results, and that is exactly what Foster gave them. He showed them that he knew his design intimately, particularly the important numbers, square footage, and rentability – precisely the kind of information needed to reassure his audience.
  1. He presented a clear, focused message. One notable difference between Foster’s presentation and the others is that he chose to avoid the PowerPoint slides in favour of an easel and poster boards. Though the move may have seemed risky given his audience, it ultimately paid off. With less visual “distractions,” the investors were able to focus on both the person behind the idea and on the fact that the details of the project were well-known and thought out- and that is exactly what Foster wanted.
  1. He knew how to tell their story. Most importantly, Foster knew how to craft a compelling story line. But, it wasn’t his story he was telling, and it wasn’t the story of New York City, either. It was his clients’ story- a narration full of solid, no-nonsense facts and figures and a smattering of corporate-speak. In the end, his audience was left with a clear vision- a vision that included them.

While not every architect and his or her team may be gifted orators, however, these are skills that can and should be learned. It could significantly make the difference between a year of wins or a frustrating year of losses.