Presentation & Pitching Tips for Architects

Presentation Tips for Architects 

We have recently worked with many of the UKs most brilliant and creative architects and designers. HOK, Nicholas Hare, tp bennett, Broadway Malyan and many, many others.

We either do presentation and engagement training for many people across the business, or work on live bids.

For us this has been a really enjoyable experience. You’re a lovely bunch of people you architects.

You can make generalisations about architects like, architects are smart, architects are creative, architects are enquiring, but there is one thing that is abundantly true – while you share many things in common, you are all incredibly individual.

Today I have brought together some recent thoughts on winning new business. You work in a virtuous cycle business – you win work – you do a great job – you win work because you did a great job….and so on.

But it all starts with winning new work.

As a profession you have huge strengths, but you also have deeply-rooted systemic problems with the way you talk to prospective clients. What follows is based on our observations of hundreds of pitches over 5 years.

So first the good news..

Why Architects are Great at Pitching

1. You love your jobs. I know that you may not feel like that when it’s the middle of the night and you’re not finished, or when the client wants more changes, or when the computer has crashed, but we have never met an Architect who wasn’t really immersed in what they do. When pitching, this translates into enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is infectious. Show it.

2. You find your jobs fascinating. Not the same thing as loving your jobs. The fact you find them fascinating means you enjoy sharing the ideas with others.  If you make an effort to dialogue with clients they will share your enthusiasm. Every design is a challenge.

3. Every design is a story. Human beings love stories, and every design has a story. You have a puzzle to solve. ‘How can we fit all of this in here?’ ‘What is the best shape to contain this?’ And usually there are twists and turns. ‘We tried that but couldn’t make it work, then we though Ah Ha!’  A great design is a solution to a mystery.

Tell your designs as stories and you will captivate.

4. Architects are creative and make things beautiful. We love beautiful things. We love beautiful new things. You create them. We get excited.

So that’s the good news, but what are the in-built errors in your training that make you less effective when talking to clients about new business?

CRITS are bad for selling

The crit system is embedded in the profession, and it is great for testing a design. But, and this is a HUGE but, it is totally, absolutely, completely wrong as a model for how to deal with clients. In crits you are taught to defend you ideas to the death. Only by sticking to your guns will your ideas be fully tested.

This is a real story, and it perfectly illustrates how this doesn’t carry over into client meetings.

In preparation for a big presentation and engagement session on a very big schools project, we were practicing Q&A over a model of a school.

We asked the Architect. ‘This part of the building you show painted orange. Can that be another colour?’


There followed a short silence during which, had it been real life and had I been the head teacher of the school, I would have asked the Architect to leave and never come back.

As a professional you bring your expertise to the project, which the client will, in most cases learn to value. But if the client feels they will have to fight over every detail they will go elsewhere.

Imagine you chose a lovely new Audi in black and the salesman said you couldn’t have it in black because it looked better in blue. You’d buy a BMW wouldn’t you?

JARGON makes you look stupid not clever

This one is simple, and most of us know this. There is a language we use to other professionals, and there is a language we use to everyone else. Forgetting this makes you sound foolish – like you have forgotten who you are speaking to – and if you are speaking to the client, that can’t be good.

I have never been in a vertical circulation space. I’ve been up and down in lifts, and I’m constantly going up and down stairs, so why would you use that term? Mostly because we forget, but the outcome is that it makes you sound foolish – like you’ve forgotten who you are speaking to, and if you’re speaking to the client…

Another term that just serves to rankle is floor plate. Why plate? Because that’s what it is? But not to me. Not to an accountant, teacher, doctor, shopkeeper. We have floors.

This may sound trivial, but if you are competing with someone who isn’t making this mistake maybe they come across as nicer?

It is obvious to us that certain sectors require a different, unique language. Education is one. If you speak the pure language of architecture to a head teacher they will not warm to you.

RUNNING TO TIME is just polite

You are asked to present for 30 mins. You present for 40 mins.

You have just perfectly demonstrated:

   You don’t listen

   You can’t follow simple instructions

Sometimes it’s fine, you get away with it, but isn’t that a bit like a child on a cliff saying, ‘I haven’t fallen off yet.’ Why take the risk?

We once had a 20 minute presentation, and the first words the client spoke at the end were, ‘Nineteen minutes and 30 seconds, well done.’


Yes, you can have too many visuals, or at least too many visuals on a screen or a page. Architects produce beautiful visuals of all sorts. Sketches, photos, mood boards, all can be beautiful, and often are.

But, human beings can only process one piece of visual information at a time.  Some posh TV ads will take into account where the eye goes on each frame using eye tracking software. That’s because an image will be up for a second or less so you want to make sure the viewer isn’t looking at the nice lady’s shoes rather than the product.

Offer the eye lots of choices and you will get lots of variability.

We see many A1 folders where on a single page there will be a dozen small photographs, eight sketches, sixteen labels, six ‘swatches’ of materials and textures, a title, a sub-title and who knows what else.

Looking at them you can only assume the motto of the creator is “more is more”.

Many of them when printed are very effective. If you sit down and study them they tell a story.  It is a rich story that needs time to absorb.

But, almost none of them work as presentation material.  Projected onto a screen, or even printed on a board they dazzle.  The eye is confused.  You want them to focus on one thing, but they are looking elsewhere.

I have been shown thousands of these slides and virtually none of them worked.  They are often accompanied by words like, “as you can see we have produced many urban designs.”  But more often than not I didn’t see because I was looking at a funky bit of typography, or a sketch, or any one of the 50 images I had been shown.  The speaker assumed my eye went to the right image, but the speaker was wrong.

If you want me to look at something show me just that.

If you want me to see something clearly, make it big.

In print arranging 10 photographs on a page may look great. If I’m sat 20 feet from a screen it’s just frustrating. And many, many times, because I’m human, I’m distracted by something else.

We have worked with over 100 architects in the last couple of months. Each brought a presentation.  The one we liked best was made up of full-frame images (yes, just one) and a single word.  So, for presentations, we really do believe, less really is more.

THE ‘TEASE’ OR ‘REVEAL’  approach 

Everyone in our company has TV experience. I was an Executive Producer and after selling and staffing projects I was the “editor” of the programme.  Over many years it became obvious to me that nearly everyone learning their craft in TV would believe that the “tease” was a great way to tell a story.

We start on a road …. we don’t know where we are. The commentary says, ‘This is a story that begins on a lonely road.’  An unidentified person is heard saying. ‘We didn’t know what was going on.’  We cut to a car, but where is it going? A new character is introduced who says, ‘It was never meant to be like this’  

This approach can work in cinema, and can work brilliantly. In The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind it takes hours before the real story is revealed.  But, in real life it can just be annoying. In TV it is a recipe for channel flicking and so right now experienced Exec producers are sat in cutting rooms restructuring the front of numerous films while the young and talented Director sits sulking in a corner, and the experienced film editor is thinking ‘I knew this was going to happen.’

The architectural version is to have several very beautiful pictures of what the building/room/street/park/city will look like, but save them until the very end of the presentation. Only after we’ve sat through the process that you went through to create the design can we see what it will look like.  People in a room can’t channel flick, but I can assure you many of them would if they could – or at least they’d fast forward to the end.

We used to debate with Architects about this, but now we don’t.  We tell them to ALWAYS show the glossy picture first.

If you are having an internal debate about this, can I say, you are right that this can work. It is a way of describing the design as a story. But, our experience of watching hundreds of presentations taking this form is that more often than not it is a bit annoying and frustrating for the audience.

Also, I have two further reasons why you might change.

1. If everyone else is presenting as a ‘reveal’ then you will stand out.

2. People make decisions with their hearts – the picture speaks to the heart.  The process gives them the ideas to support their decision.

Get their hearts first, then give them the ideas to support it.

The Greatest Danger

The greatest danger for you is, falling in love with your own designs. Then you suffer fatally from confirmation bias. See some thoughts on our biases here That is, you hear the things that reinforce what you believe (the design is brilliant) and ignore negative remarks. We all do this, all the time, but for you it is a particular challenge because you have put so much of yourself into your work. It is hard to face that others may not like it as much as you.

A Bid Director told me a true story. After an engagement meeting where the client had be scathing about the design the architect remembered one thing. The one thing they had been positive about.

It is our experience that when the losing teams are told they experience huge denial. That can’t be true, they said they liked it??

After five tears in bidding I have come to the conclusion the hardest thing to do is to understand the “Yes” that means “Maybe” or “No”. There is no simple trick to answer that question, but it has to start with the notion that they might feel it could be better.

‘Do you like this?’ ‘Yes’ 


‘Do you think there’s still work to be done?’ ‘Yes’

The people we work with are pretty damn good at selling their ideas. But we think you can do better.

grist communications work with architects, constructors, designers, FM providers, and many more to help them win more business.