Empathy

The
first in a series of postings elaborating on those six key themes from “Why do
we listen”

Every
group, every time. This is the first reaon why people connect.  Tried it with kids, fashion designers, media planners, Head teachers, lawyers et al. I never cease to be amazed. It is always the first theme to emerge. We connect if someone shares a thought,
a dilemma, a passion, a query, a situation that has an emotional resonance for
us. We all want to connect, to find the sliver of the Venn diagram where this
person really understands the complexities of our lives. That our stories are
rich, emotional and someone , someewhere holds out a hand to our experience.

  Our thinking is intertwined with our experience and our
values. We remember the references to family, to the personal, to a similar sensibility,
to their aspirations, to their honesty if these situations mirror ours. Always.

Obvious.  Once we engage on this fundamentally emotional level the connection extends beyond the rational, intellectual. It can be proundly engaging.

What
does this mean?  Once people have experienced this they get it. Can
we be explicit about how we transfer this into a professional context without
looking a tad Oprah-esque? Or Jeremy Kyle if you’re really unlucky.

It
is incredible that despite Seth’s seminal Really Bad PowerPoint e-booklet, the majority
of presentations and pitches ignore the necessity of emotional engagement. It somehow appears to lack gravitas in the quasi -serious world of corporate and real business.

Well.
I will try to illustrate by example.

At RHM Architects I worked with the directors to shape up their pitch for a
national RIBA competition. We had previously covered some generic skills so
although they understood this as a guiding principle, putting it into practice
proved tough. Particularly in a high profile pitch, relatively new outfit.
High stakes so of course, they felt less able to take the risk. Invested a huge
amount of resources in developing the design for a large social housing
project. The stakes were very high. Easiest to revert to default and hope the plans
will win them over. But the panel had seen the plans. How could we really
exploit the presence of the team? They had to add something more.

Their
designs were gorgeous. Despite this The Guardian had not tipped the team to
win.  Not good so far. Safe option – unremarkable,
erudite pitch with the key focus on plans, the landscape and accompanying
thinking.

But
bless ‘em, they were prepared to engage in some creative exercises identifying
how the panel would be feeling. We realised only a couple were architects. The
rest – residents, members of the conservation society and councilors. (Always worth the research about who you are talking to. Personalise it according to what they know, are bothered about and learning styles).The development
involved moving people from existing social housing in Suffolk. Sensitive, personal and anxious. This was about people’s lives rather than some ludicrous
folly.

What
were their concerns?  These young imposters
would of course decimate their village. They would have little respect for the history
of the community, the sense of collective identity and the practicalities of
raising children in small, often cramped housing. Londoners to boot. Imposing
their overpriced, style- over -substance nonsense. Wasn’t this supposed to be an affordable housing scheme? How possibly could any architect understand that concept? (Sorry- we had to make some assumptions to release our
imaginations…)

What did we do?

RHM
had found a bit of extraordinary kit to create the bricks for the new buildings
from the excavated earth. Not just green but creating Suffolk from Suffolk. One was constructed pronto. It felt like the dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Except this time it worked! Funny
how easy it is to get excited over a brick… It became the focus for the start
of the pitch. Referring back to my post on the power of stuff. Objects are
tangible- they were there. This was their village, here in the room. We could see it, feel it.

We
also used an exquisite 18th century map, clearly pointing out the
geological conditions that would shape the materials, colors and tones used in
the design.

The
plans sung but to who? We explored presenting the images from the perspective
of how a resident would feel walking into one of these houses. What/who could
they see? Did it matter that the landscaping provided a safe environment for
outdoor play for kids? That the play area could be viewed from inside the house through
expansive windows? That allowed natural light to flood into the homes? What is
the impact of a double height atrium? Where could they park their buggy? How
does a combined eating and living space improve the quality of family life? Crucially, how
had these architects experienced this for themselves? Two of the architects had
designed and built their own homes with very limited budgets. What could we
learn from how they had chosen to live? Did it work? They had lived this
stuff. It wasn’t empty rhetoric.

Vitally
RHM had made a conscious decision to concentrate on housing.
This was not a stepping stone to some high profile public building that would win
awards and of course, illuminate their design credentials. No. Their work would
potentially have a greater legacy as they were solely committed to improving
the quality of people’s lives. Proving quality, cool, ecologically sound housing isn’t exclusive to a wealthy minority.

You
can guess the happy ending. I did lead you to it. Sorry. They won, beating six
other excellent designs. Thrilled for them. It was a testimony not just to their
superlative design skills (no silk purse stuff here, thankfully) but to their
trust in the power of empathy to connect and engage their audience. Take a look at  the press release.

Take
a look at the project here. It is called three gardens. It’s up and away.

To clarify. I am not an architect. Their designs deserve the credit. I simply steered them to use empathy to connect with our worst nightmare- a panel of judges.

 

 

28th June, 2007