I’ve been working with students at an international university for the last few months where English is not the students first language. I’m teaching English for Architecture communication, and I’ve learnt some valuable things about how students organise and present their ideas in their studio presentations or crits. I believe the things I’ve noticed and the advice I’ve accumulated could be useful to everyone – ESL students (English as a second language), students, and architects regardless of whether English is your first or second language.
Firstly, something I’ve felt essential to focus on is cultural differences and making my students aware of the styles that different cultures, in general, tend to adopt. Why? As Erin Meyer describes in her book, The Culture Map different cultures have different ways of communicating. Being aware of these differences can help to make your presentations more successful and you more confident.
Three of the most critical points I’ve learnt from reading the culture map and communicate with my students:
1. In English speaking countries, we are more likely to give explicit instruction which means we say what we mean with minimal hidden messages. We also tend to value concise presentations that are to the point. Feedback can also be a balance between positive and negative feedback.
2. It’s okay to express opinions and disagree. Tutors and lecturers will often ask you to expand on points or to defend your ideas so it’s okay to question and disagree as long as you can explain why. It’s not the end of the world when they challenge you; it’s just part of their job to push you, to test you and get the best out of you.
3. English being your second language doesn’t have to be the reason you should feel held back from succeeding in your studio crits.
ESL students can feel held back as they believe they lack the technical vocabulary or don’t have the same skills and expertise as their peers who are native English speakers. However, lacking the technical language doesn’t necessarily mean your presentation can’t still be excellent.
So what can you do? Structure your ideas.
How to structure and organise your ideas
One thing I’ve found is that students can over-complicate their ideas and go off on tangents. They may feel that more complex ideas and solutions show better understanding, but this isn’t always the case. They can question themselves and their ideas and compare themselves to their peers. One way to be confident of your ideas is to go back to the fundamentals of your concept by knowing and presenting your thoughts in this order:
- What is it?
- Why is it like that?
- How does it work?
It sounds so simple, but one thing I’ve noticed is as soon as a presentation lacks structure, the message becomes lost. Sometimes I understand what the student was going for; however, without the organisation and those three key points, I’m lost and feeling frustrated that the student’s great ideas are disintegrating before my eyes.
ArchiMarathon makes an excellent video which explains just how you can do this. The main point they discuss is to keep the structure of your ideas simple by answering the following questions:
What is it?
Don’t just say what the thing is. It’s not a house or a school or a library – it’s more than that. As Kevin from ArchiMarathon points out – it’s the things you can draw – the forms, the pieces of the puzzle and how the elements and features come together. It’s the parti diagram you would draw if someone asked you to explain your concept on the back of a stamp or a napkin. It’s the program, the shapes, the road map of your idea. When you start your presentation with the what, you’re starting to tell the story to your audience. Knowing the ‘what’ terminology will help you to explain how your concept works later.
- The concept takes the form of intersecting rectangular forms with a box subtracted.
- The form of the envelope is a series of staggered boxes in the shape of a curve.
- The overall shape is radial/spiral with a series of rectangles projected from the centre.
Why is it like that?
Once you’ve explained the ‘What’ you can start to explain why you made some of the decisions to include different forms, you can then explain things like how the site context and surroundings or other external factors influenced your choices. When you do this, you can start to see how certain things affect your concept, and if you can’t explain this, then you might need to go back to the drawing board.
- I chose to use the radial form with projecting rectangles because I wanted to emphasise the centre as a gathering point.
- I chose to use the simple rectangular form oriented east to west because I wanted all the windows to face south (or north if you’re in the southern hemisphere).
- Go back to your parti diagram to help you explain your overall concept, the program, the features.
How does it work?
Finally – explain how it works as an overall concept. The tendency with some students can be to explain how the idea works first and the tiny details.
However, when you do this, you’ve missed the valuable opportunity to ease your audience into your concept and to tell them the story. Kevin explains and demonstrates this in the ‘What, Why, How’ video using Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum. He tells the story by starting with the Where, and Who (to give more context and understanding) and then continues with the What, Why and How formula. By telling the story with that formula, I gained a much better appreciation for the building and the story behind it.
The how is, how it works as an overall concept. How do people circulate through space? How does the concept respond to the surrounding environment? For example, the light, the shadows, the prevailing winds and the landscape.
- “People circulate through the spaces which radiate from the centre, and the form of the spaces guides them back to the central gathering space.”
- In summary, when you follow the formula, it’s easy to see there are no right or wrong ideas. People may disagree with you. However, it’s up to you to defend those ideas, but how can you do that well?
Practice Practice Practice
Once you have answered, these three key ideas write your answer under these subheadings. Then practice, practice, practice your presentation out loud. When you practice, think about the delivery of your presentation. Being clear and concise doesn’t mean saying it quickly and getting it over and done with.
Use the expressions and terminology you already know well. Like I always say to my students using sophisticated language doesn’t necessarily mean more exceptional communication. The key to being clear and concise is using structure.
For example, use signposting language, you already know well. When you know your structure well, you have a better chance of standing your ground and having the answers for when your tutors and lecturers question you. Practice your presentation with your peers or friends and family. Ask them to tell you if the what, why and how is clear and obvious.
Examples of signposting language:
Remember too that not all questions and feedback will be negative even if they are questioning you or disagreeing with you. ArchiMarathon makes another great video to explain why it’s essential to know your main idea well so you can defend it in a studio crit. Another reason why knowing your what, why and how will put you in a better position to defend your main idea.
English might be your second language, but it doesn’t need to hold you back. Just keep it simple and structured and don’t forget to practice.