Architects spend a lot of time talking to fellow built environment professionals. However, the vast majority of their clients do not inhabit this world. When it comes to communicating projects on your practice’s website - or in social or print media - it is important to question what it is you want to say, and how you are saying it.
Many practices’ websites can unwittingly give the impression of architects talking to other architects. There is an unspoken convention on the language that is used, suggests Juliette Mitchell, who runs Architypal, a writing consultancy specifically for architectural practices.
She is a copywriter herself and a former editor at Penguin Books, who runs workshops and provides training for practices. Her aim is, in many ways, to show architects how to write less like architects: to present their projects as conversations with clients that, crucially, are all about clients.
It is easy to lose the lay reader through the use of specialist and technical terms. And it is also easy to forget just what constitutes ‘specialist’ here: even such commonplace words as ‘floorplans’ or ‘elevations’ are not habitual parlance for many clients.
Before starting to write, the architect should take a moment to review:
- who they are writing for
- where they want to take the reader
- what message they want the reader to take home
This underpins Mitchell’s core advice: to approach projects and case studies as essentially stories. They may be short stories of no more than a few paragraphs, but they still require thought and consideration of their structure.
“Projects are born to be stories,” Mitchell reminds us. “They are about change and transformation. So stop writing detailed project descriptions and instead tell a story.”
Stories have a power of their own. A good story gives meaning to a project: it will pull people in; keep them interested; and lead them to empathise with the characters in the plot. Treating a project as a story, she adds, actually makes writing much more easy.
The story of any project should have a beginning (perhaps the inspiration, the ‘why’), a middle (the challenge, the ‘how’) and an end (the impact, the ‘what’). It is the clients rather than the architects that should always be at the heart of the story.
One of Mitchell’s many clients is the practice George & James Architects, for whom she has carried out workshops and provided copywriting. Read the text describing the private house which George & James took on in London’s Kidbrooke Grove and you will learn how the practice came to the rescue of a project with problems, worked with the clients through these dark days and succeeded in delivering the project that they wanted. The text is quietly selling the architects as an empathetic practice that is totally client-focused.
Good storytelling flows naturally and can benefit from a conversational voice. But producing deceptively simple, conversational writing can be challenging. Mitchell has one workshop exercise where architects are asked to write something unselfconsciously, in their own conversational style, in just five minutes; knowing that nothing will have to be shown or read out to anyone else.
Most people are pleasantly surprised by how much they can say in five minutes, she reports. They then have the basis of something that can be reviewed, worked on and improved.
“The process of writing helps you put your thoughts in order. It will make you better at other things too – talking to your clients, understanding the impact of your work, and conveying the value in what you do.”
Thanks to Juliette Mitchell, founder, Architypal.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
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First published Thursday 14 April 2022