The Importance of “Likeability” in Architecture Communication

We humans are optimists; we want everything to turn out well.  In movies, we back the Katniss Everdeens, the Luke Skywalkers, the Lara Crofts, and the Clark Kents–the good guys.  Audiences love to like likeable characters.  As architectural communicators, we should study these characters and learn to be likeable because we can use the best metaphors, the most engaging story plots, and the clearest messages, but if nobody likes us, no one will listen.

Science communicator Randy Olson discusses this issue in his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist.  Olson left his academic career in science to learn filmmaking in Hollywood and has used his experience to create critically acclaimed science documentaries. Now, he lectures, conducts workshops, and writes about science communication.

Don't Be Such a Scientist

From his Hollywood acting classes, he learned the first rule about likeability; audiences don’t like characters who “rise above.”  That is, they don’t like characters who condescend, talk down to, be arrogant, or act superior.  All these are decidedly unlikeable traits.

Olson recounts an acting exercise during which someone would play a wife who just stole money from her husband.  The actor playing the husband would respond in two ways: as an angry, belittling combatant, and then again as a betrayed equal.  The audience would invariably side with the wife (the criminal) in the first scenario and with the husband in the second even though they were given the same contextual information in each scene.  This goes to show just how unlikeable a character can be when they “rise above.”

I would love to scream and berate some of my architectural enemies–whoever was responsible for the demolition of the original Penn Station, for instance–but doing so increases the probability of coming across as the bad guy and consequently losing my audience’s support.

Maintaining likeability as a critic can be particularly challenging because you must criticize without being a bad guy.  However, Olson’s insight for scientists can once again be easily applied to architects:

The entire profession of science has at its core a single word, “no.”  Science is a process not of affirming ideas but of attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth.

Similarly, architectural design is a process full of “no.”  How many thousands of ideas must be rejected in order to arrive at an acceptable design?  Each building is an experiment.

What is admired within the cloisters of academia can be horrifying when unleashed on the general public.  And that’s because the masses thrive not on negativity and negation but on positivity and affirmation. [. . .] Just look at the most popular movies.  They’re mostly inspiring stories of hope.  Not a lot of blockbusters that end with the hero plowing his truck into a school bus full of kids.

So even though our academic and professional lives are filled with critical negativity, we could benefit by limiting our negativity, and instead focusing on the positive possibilities. Most architects are actually very practiced at positive and constructive criticism but the internet presents a dangerous climate for us.

Blogs and forums foster the kind of unscripted spontaneity and off-the-cuff energy that’s so important in engaging an audience.  This ease of access also means that it’s an easy place to lash out and spew vitriol with minimal repercussions.  However, if you intend to connect to a broader audience who perhaps isn’t used to the critical environment of academia, it is wise to try to remain positive.

Olson ends the discussion with the following simple observation, “When you combine positivity with the spontaneity of blogs, you get a pretty powerful method of communication.”

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