Let’s walk and talk

Aug 08, 2021

When interviewing your co-workers, peers, and clients, take a walk and harness the power of storytelling together.

In March, The Zweig Letter ran an article titled “The Power of Storytelling” by Katie Crawford. As I read the article, I was silently affirming her points.

  • “We understand the power a story can hold.” Yes!
  • “Every project tells a story.” Yes!
  • “The most genuine project stories can be found by just having a general conversation about the project.” Again, yes!

But how, exactly, does a marketing professional get from a general conversation to a written story?

Marketing roles in the AEC industry are often wide in scope with a range of job responsibilities. Interviewing skills – a way to get from conversation to story – should be among them. So, how do we bring ourselves to a level of comfort and experience in the role of interviewer?

William Zinsser’s classic, On Writing Well, devotes an entire section of his non-fiction writing guide to interviewing. From his 1st edition to the current 7th edition, the advice is consistent:

  • Have basic tools – paper and some well sharpened pencils. Yes, even though so many of us have recording capability in our hands at all times, Zinsser advocates “be a writer. Write things down.”
  • Keep your tools out of sight until you need them – some people may freeze up at the sight of your posed pencil.
  • Let the conversation warm up before beginning your questions and note-taking.
  • Do your homework – don’t waste time asking questions about facts you should already know.
  • Prepare questions beforehand but don’t require yourself to stick strictly to them – allow the interview to unfold.

Before the interview, I would also recommend reviewing your assignment, the end-product you are looking to create. Are you writing content for a blog post on your company website? Are you creating an article for an industry publication? Examining your purpose will help to frame your story as well as help to choose the individuals to interview.

Of course, the actual interview is made easier when working with people who are naturally inclined to engage. As Katie Crawford points out, some people may genuinely enjoy the opportunity to do something slightly different, yet still productive and project-related, during their workday.

But what happens when you encounter a project expert who is less inclined to engage or uncomfortable with the process?

Whether your expert is a co-worker, professional peer, or a client, taking a walk may be the key to success. In the book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz, the author uses the power of a walk to uncover fascinating content and details.

Although Horowitz does not include any AEC professionals in her book, I have taken many walks with architects, engineers, planners, and landscape architects. I have been rushing to the rental car at the airport and been delayed by the engineer who is admiring a rain garden or particularly well-designed detention basin. I have been approaching a conference hotel with planners who can’t help but comment on the flow – or lack of flow – that is inherent in the journey from parking garage to hotel entrance. Stepping onto almost any college campus with certain architects and landscape architects I know, invariably turns into a lesson in architectural styles, aesthetics, and circulation.

So yes, take a walk with expert eyes! With your specific assignment in mind, think about the people who are closest to the project, and invite them to visit the site with you. On any given project, the professional, depending on their discipline, will notice different things. The architect’s eyes will likely be drawn to the structure – the materials used, the shape and proportion, the details. The engineer may point out the rain garden or search for the location of the HVAC units.

As the marketing professional, you may not immediately focus on any of these details, but if they are extremely well done, innovative, or integral to the success of the project, they need to be part of the story you are telling. Your experts will undoubtedly reveal them to you.

If challenges like distance, or perhaps a pandemic, limit your ability to go to the site in-person, use photos or video. Having visual reminders of the specifics of the complete project will help to spur thoughts and focus throughout your interview. An advantage here is the ability to easily show the same project in different conditions – morning, noon, and night and winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Seeing the same space in varying conditions can be especially valuable and impactful for certain types of projects. Additionally, whether in-person or through photos/video, seeing a space in use can be marvelously revealing and add life to your interview and writing, training a lens on the ultimate users and their experience of the space as well.

One of the best things about working for an AEC firm is being able to walk in, around, and through a space you have helped to create. So, let’s do that! Let’s get out there, take a walk with our co-workers, peers, and clients, and harness the power of storytelling together.

Jane Lawler Smith, MBA, is the marketing manager at Derck & Edson, LLC. She can be reached at jsmith@derckandedson.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.