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WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme

Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.

By Norman Weinstein
September 5, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Here’s a familiar scenario I would like you to “try on” imaginatively in order to learn a new communication tool. You’re talking to a client about a project delay. Your mind suddenly goes – blank! Or you’re writing an e-mail about an unexpected budget overrun – and your fingers hover in mid-air over your keyboard waiting for the right phrase. Now what?


There are countless books and websites informing you to push past that feeling of wordlessness and write on, talk on, however much you’re digressing, because sooner or later you’ll get back on track. Sometimes that tactic will succeed – but much depends on the tolerance of your audience to the length and complexity of your digression. Here’s another way.


In an uncommon profile of the profession, architectural writer Andrew Saint, in his book, Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry, describes architecture as a calling in which its members “must be groomed to persuade.”  If you never heard the phrase “groomed to persuade” in architecture school, you’re hardly alone. You probably can readily accept that you’ve been professionally trained to design – but “persuade” conjures up a salesperson’s pitch, a talkative attorney’s summation, a politician casting for votes.


A very simple definition of architectural persuasion would be: those verbal and graphic materials proposing synchronization with client requirements and promoting ongoing architect-client trust. Some of this oral, written, and graphic material is informational, educating your client as to materials, processes, schedules, necessary tradeoffs, etc. Much of it is persuasive, since you are building a particular case for why trust in your services is warranted through a complex and costly construction process.


Try an experiment. Reduce a client presentation to a thematic statement of two dozen words or less. For example: “This design meets your needs by offering X, Y, and Z services. As you look at the drawings, contract, budget, what do you need to add, subtract, or modify?” This is a pretty stark approach. So let’s try a variation – and cast our word count to the wind. For example: “I’ve really enjoyed our process of getting this project into sharp focus. With as eagle-eyed a perspective as I have now, here are detailed documents you and I still need to consider together. What exactly in the ‘big picture’ is still blurry for you?”


Not so stark this time. I’m persuading my client that I’m working at the top of my intellect – but I still need lucid client communication to succeed. Note the tonal variation – “eagle-eyed” evokes precise vision, but throws the humor of an almost self-effacing image (“old eagle-eyed”) into the mix. Then the metaphor shifts into that of a lens bringing a subject into focus, an engaging process.


Let’s try one more variation. For example: “You know, sometimes working on this project I contact that kid in me who used to repeat on road trips, ‘are we there yet?’ From my perspective, we are – but I need yours.  Here are drawings and written documents we need to examine. Is there anything that gives you the sense that we’re not ‘there’ yet?”


These are three variations. There could be 30 or hundreds. Architecture, like music, is a repository of themes and responses. How do you learn to expand your ability to create variations on a theme? Begin with the extremely condensed statement of design intent. How persuasive can you make it, economically, environmentally, aesthetically, in two dozen words? Then practice expanding your concise statement through substituting a different vocabulary, or trying different phrases, to convey your original meaning.


Look at a book by the Renaissance philosopher Erasmus, On Copia of Words and Ideas. He offers 195 variations on how to express “Your letter has pleased me greatly.” If you’d like contemporary examples, look at how a silly story is related in 99 completely different writing styles in Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. And if you only have a few minutes reading time to spare, look at poet John Ashbery’s poem “Finnish Rhapsody,” which opens with these lines: “He managed the shower, coped with the small spattering drops . . .” with every line following using a different pattern of words after a comma to essentially convey the same meaning found before the comma. You’ve been trained how to do minute variations on a theme in drafting. This is transferring that theme-and-variation mindset to designing words. As in drafting, copious expansion of key ideas is not indulgence – it is a tool generating copious, cogent, and persuasively original lines of thought.


(With thanks to Witold Rybczynski for clearing a route to Erasmus and beyond.)


Norman Weinstein writes for Architectural Record and other publications and teaches communication skills to architects. He can be reached at


See also:


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.


(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2008