The 4 Steps to Engaging Your Audience

If you’ve ever presented a design concept to a board of commissioners or a community group, you may understand the frustration that follows when your efforts to teach a lesson are met by blank stares. You’ve probably faced the temptation to just communicate more and harder to compensate for their inattention but this is not the answer. The key to getting a new concept to stick lies in engaging your audience.  Communications Professor Hak-Soo Kim, of Sogang University explains the process of engagement in his paper titled Engagement: The Key to the Communicative Effectiveness of Science and Ideas. According to Professor Kim, engagement can be interpreted as a sequence of events.  First, the audience is exposed to new information, next their attention is focused onto a specific problem, then they come to understand the information presented, and finally, they choose a response.  If you understand the process, you can shape your message to maximize engagement and communicate more successfully.

Engagement begins with the act of exposing

During a typical college lecture, a professor speaks non-stop in front of his students and cascades information down into spongy minds–minds that are already primed to soak it all up.  The students pay attention, but primarily because they’ve spent money on the class, they need to pass the final exam, or it’s required to complete their degree.  When you are trying to engage a general audience though, simply showing someone facts is only the first step.

Focusing Attention on a Problem

Professor Kim points out that most people engage with the weather more than anything else and furthermore, weather is the most frequently reported subject in the mass media.

As a matter of fact, weather is an omnipresent problem for us.  Because it is consequential to all aspects of our life, it comes to us as an ever-present problematic situation.

We engage with the weather as much as we do because it directly affects us and we constantly adjust our behavior to it. From this phenomenon, we can learn how to frame the problems in our messages in order to elicit engagement. Problems are most likely to engage an audience when they are easy to relate to and the audience perceives that there is something they can do about it. So, if you are writing about the increasing global population of slums, for instance, you may want to write about the effects of overcrowding on the global economy and suggest a list of charities to donate to.

Understanding the Problem

After we focus on a problem, we begin the work of understanding it.  Professor Kim points out three main modes of cognition that come into play: orienting to available information, constructing new information about the problem, and/or reorienting in response to feedback.  In the orienting mode of cognition, the audience seeks out further information about the problem in order to augment their understanding.  The construction mode of cognition refers to the formation of new ideas about the topic; in this mode of cognition, the audience might brainstorm solutions to the problem.  The third mode of cognition, reorientation, occurs when the audience reacts to the problem, receives feedback, and reacts again with the feedback in mind.  The process of engagement may include any combination of these modes of cognition but at least one form of cognition is required to respond to the problem.

The Final Step in the Process of Engagement: The Response

After the audience has come to understand the situation, they may chose to act (or not to act) in response.  If the ultimate reason for your communication is to get more people to use passive solar design, non-VOC emitting finishes, or even to read more about architecture, this is the step you want people to reach and making the previous steps easy will make you more successful.

Have any thoughts, comments, arguments, or questions? Leave them below!


Schiele, Bernard. “Engagement: The Key to the Communicative Effectiveness of Science and Ideas.” Science Communication in the World Practices, Theories and Trends. Dordrecht: Springer, 2012. 269-280. Print.

Comparison of the Communication Practices of Indoor Biologists and Architects


This post studies the parallels between the profession of architecture and the findings of a recent study titled What Are You Saying?  Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.

The study, published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment, identifies some of the challenges indoor microbiologists face in their efforts to increase public understanding and visibility associated with their research.  The authors interviewed 79 U.S. scientists and recorded the most frequently mentioned difficulties and concepts relating to science communication.  The researchers also contribute suggestions for improving future public communication efforts based on their findings.

Since the 1950s, science communication has emerged as a professional and academic field that studies the public communication of science.  Scientists, universities, policy-makers, and funding agencies all desire improved sharing of science research. We benefit from science communication because it informs policy-makers, it guides and illuminates ethical issues, and it increases the amount of funding available for research. Within the profession of architecture, there is currently no widespread push to improve how we share information with the general public.  However, architects constantly struggle to make an impact on policy-makers, people suffer from unethical designs impacting public health, safety, and economies, and lower demand for architectural services means fewer projects and smaller fees.

Although there has been no empirical assessment of public communication efforts made by architects, this study reveals that scientists and architects share many opinions regarding their relationship with laypeople and the perceived difficulties of public communication.  Specifically, the comparison questions the role of scientists and architects as information sources for laypeople and it suggests that, like architects, scientists struggle to frame their research in a way that people find it relevant.  Luckily, the academic study of science communication offers solutions that can be used by architects and scientists alike.

Is there a Responsibility to Educate the Public?

Of the 79 scientists interviewed, 60 identified themselves as information sources for laypeople.  There is no empirical evidence indicating how many architects identify as information sources for laypeople, but when I asked graduate architecture students in my studio if they believe architects serve as information sources for laypeople, the overwhelming majority replied “no.”  One student responded that he didn’t think architects should worry about educating the public because the public doesn’t generally care about architectural issues and it would be a waste of time–if someone wants to learn about an architectural issue, they should find the information themselves.

The authors of this study found it common for scientists to attribute successful communications with positive internal attributes and failed communications with negative external attributes.  That is to say, scientists often say they succeed because of their skill and expertise but when they fail, they blame the audience’s inattentiveness or lack of interest. The authors cite psychological attribution theory as a possible explanation for this phenomenon and suggest that future communication efforts must seek to share the burden of communication more equitably between communicator and audience.  In summary, the two parties must discuss what needs to be communicated.

The Issue of Relevance

When asked to identify the research topics that interest non-experts, the scientists mentioned questions about the impact of indoor environments on human health most frequently.  This reflects a common belief of mass communicators that audiences are primarily interested in topics that are relevant to them.  In the discussion of their findings, the researchers state:

This [observation] suggests that these researchers are aware that although they may not personally study human impacts, this is the relevant information about which the public has questions. This responsiveness may at first seem intuitive and somewhat obvious, but our research team observed many of these researchers as struggling to connect their research in meaningful ways to the audience they were addressing.

As many public communication texts suggest, communication is most successful when the audience finds the content relevant.  Both scientists and architects should consider the relevance of their work to non-experts.


Science communication provides many benefits to both scientists and non-scientists.  It’s reasonable to argue that architects and the public would also benefit from a similar mass communication practice.  This study reveals that scientists deal with many communication issues that architects are familiar with.  Both professions question whose obligation it is to educate non-experts and both struggle with framing their work in a way that is relevant to a broad audience.  Perhaps architects can take advantage of the communication research already completed by scientists.


Kahlor, L. A., A. Dudo, M.-C. Liang, and N. Abighannam. “What Are You Saying? Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.” Indoor and Built Environment (2014): 682-88. Print.

Architects, Tell a Story! ( And Don’t Forget the Conflict)

Bjarke Ingels is well known for using storytelling to craft convincing arguments for his designs. This image is from his storytelling video, Worldcraft.

Storytelling pertains to all scales of architectural communication from simply meeting with a client, to writing an op-ed for your local paper, to talking with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show (Come on architects let’s dream!)  Your storytelling skills have been put to the test during every desk critique, every pin-up, and every final review.  You’ve probably already had hours of practice by the time you finished school, but you could probably use many hours more.   Bob Borson — author of Life of an Architect and probably one of the best architectural communicators out there — had this to say in his own post about storytelling:

Since a lot of what architects do is esoteric, being able to articulate my reasons for solving a problem in a particular way – without being condescending – is an important skill. I need to walk people through my design process in a way that they can understand the end result in a more appreciative manner – it works way better than telling someone:

I’m the professional here, just do what I’m telling you to do.
[Career tip: Don’t do that.]

If you don’t already know, this blog is actually a study of how architects can learn from science communicators and Hollywood scientist Randy Olson can definitely teach us a thing or two about storytelling.  In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, he lays out a simple three-act story structure that almost every famous story follows:

You set up your subject (first act), give it a twist at the end of the first act (first plot point), explore several possible ways to untwist it and relieve the tension (second act), reveal a possible solution (second plot point), and then weave all the content together to release the source of tension (third act.)


A simple architectural story might go something like this:

Our client wanted to build a house in a beautiful forest but the site had a 40 ft cliff running right through the middle of it.  We tried a skinny tower scheme, but it created too many stairs for the client’s mother to climb.  We then tried a single floor cantilever over the edge of the cliff but the required structure would have been too expensive.  In the end, we went with a subterranean design that pokes out the face of the cliff.  The structural engineers, the mother, and our client are all happy.

“House in a forest” is the setup.  “40 ft cliff” is the conflict. The “skinny tower” and “cantilever” approaches are the second act attempts at resolution.  In the third act, the “subterranean” solution resolves the conflict, and “they’re all happy” is the final wrap-up.

Some may say that a story structure like this spends too much time on failing and not enough time on the solution.  In my experience, however, clients love seeing the design process, and some of the failed ideas might inspire alternative solutions.  Jody Brown, of Coffee With an Architect, also argues that architects might gain some respect if they show their work more.

Additionally, making the design process seem easy may kill the entertainment value of the story.  Randy Olson writes:

One of the simplest rules they drilled into our heads in film school is that “the heart of a good story is the source of tension or conflict.”

So when you’re about to get on The View to discuss the development of brutalism in America, keep the three act story structure in mind and don’t forget to talk about the conflict!

For another architectural example check out Place Exploration where I use a three act story structure to describe the 200 Year Birth of the International Style in 5 Minutes.

The Architect’s Appeal to Head, Heart, Gut, and Groin

In most interviews with architects, you’ll notice they tend to talk with fingertips crossed, a solemn look of contemplation, and the cadence of a dish washing machine.  They use a posture that has evolved over time that portrays intelligence and authority.  Is that the right way to broadcast a message to a broad audience though?

Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker-turned-science-communication-author, argues that anyone–scientists in particular–must appeal to more than just intellectuals to reach a large audience.  In his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, he describes The Four Organs Theory of Connecting with the Mass Audience,

“When is comes to connecting with the entire audience, you have four bodily organs that are important: your head, your heart, the gut, and your sex organs.  The object is to move the process down out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor, and, ideally, if you’re sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal.”

Like scientists, most architects dwell in the area of the head. They use head-heavy communication to discuss the ins and outs of programming requirements, code issues, and structural strategies.  These architects aren’t likely to capture the interest of the average Joe.

Some architects paint emotional images of sensual retreats or cities plunging below the globally warmed oceans. These architects appeal to the passionate ones–people driven by their hearts.  “Heart people” are more prone to sentimentality, quick to fall in love, and they are emphatic believers in faith.  Generally there are many more “heart people” than “head people” in the world.

The gut is where humor and instinct live.  I know many architects who are funny, but I don’t know many famous architects who are known for their sense of humor.  Maybe it’s a sign that humor is best left out of architecture, but maybe we just haven’t realized its potential yet.  Bjarke Ingels comes to mind when I search for gut-oriented architects but that’s about it. Architecture is a very serious business, affecting the well-being of every human being on earth, but so is science, and they’ve got plenty of funny science personalities.  My science communication heroes, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson often crack jokes while blowing our minds with science. Architects may dress in all black and think deeply about whether walls have conversations with furniture but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor.  Slap happy all-nighters in studio give them at least some level of practice at being funny.

Last of all, we arrive at the groin.  To quote Randy Olson’s book again,

“All I have to say is ‘penis’ and you’re either physically smiling or internally smiling.”

This is me casually posing and not looking very sexy despite all my best efforts. But wait…
Edited for Sexiness
With a little image editing, the photo becomes much sexier, meaning it will connect with a much larger audience.

The sex organs follow no logic, but they powerfully drive the actions of people the world over. Just look at mass media today and you can see they’ve wholly adopted the use of sex appeal.  Everyone succumbs to sex appeal.  How can architects use sex appeal though? I doubt anyone is going to start giving lectures in bikinis, but we already use sex appeal all the time in renderings.  If you based your understanding of the world on architectural renderings, you’d probably think beautiful models just love to hang out in world class museums.

So next time you’re preparing for a presentation, a lecture, a blog, or anything that you want understood, don’t shy away from jokes and sex appeal.  They can be vital to capturing a large audience.


Olson, Randy. “Don’t Be So Cerebral.” Don’t Be Such a Scientist Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Washington, DC: Island, 2009. Print.