A technique for communicating “vision”

Are you a developer that’s having a hard time describing your project vision to architects, lenders, or public officials? Try this simple technique—think about what make and model car your building would be. It sounds unconventional, but it’s actually an exercise that can help clarify your project’s vision.

I sat down for a chat with a real estate developer friend of mine last week. I greatly admire his work and always try to understand how he approaches his projects. Just for context sake: he invests in and develops mid-range to luxury multifamily rental communities and condos.  Even after narrowing down his work to a specific asset class, he always says that he produces a wide range of building types.  After hearing that, I got very curious about what strategies him and his team use to convey their many visions and ideas to various influencers and stakeholders (architects, equity partners, lenders, city officials, and the public).

His response went something like this:

“Well, because each project is so different, we often spend a lot of energy reinventing our pitches over and over again based on the audience and state our work is in. Convincing people of the vision, in a short pitch or presentation, is one of the most challenging parts of the process. If they don’t instantly connect our vision to their interests, our viability goes out the window very quickly”

Quick note: I’ve met this developer for a coffee chat more than a few times and have always been extremely appreciative of his time, advice, and openness to talk shop. After many chats, I felt like I could FINALLY help him with one of his problems (or at least offer a tip that he could test and decide on his own if it helped).

Here’s one technique you can use to sharpen your vision.

Going through business school, convincing stakeholders through pitches and presentations followed a simple framework—convey how the idea makes sense from a business perspective by communicating the benefits of profits, investor returns, market growth, etc. When pitching a concept to stakeholders who may not be entirely motivated by the business side of things (neighborhood associations, aldermen, etc.) one has to rely on selling the vision more than anything else. This vision, however, isn’t so easy to nail down. In many ways the “fluffy stuff” behind a vision is the hardest aspect to communicate to different audiences.

Try this: Describe your development to a stakeholder as if it were a car.  On the surface this sounds overly simplistic. In many ways, however, cars are directly analogous to buildings, yet have far more powerful connections to one’s vision (which can be used to your advantage). Both cars and buildings have to be expertly designed, both have mechanical systems that must be effortlessly integrated, both must keep out the elements (easier said than done in many buildings), both have specific market segments and classes, both have relative costs of production/construction, both must be engineered to withstand strong external forces, and both can test the limits of what’s possible in design (usually at a hefty price). The list goes on and on.

By treating the car analogy as an exercise for communicating vision, you can get extremely specific with their intentions. Also, because cars are so engrained in our lives—and them being relatable to buildings in so many ways—stakeholders are able to connect the dots between the two very quickly.

Even if you aren’t pitching your project to any stakeholders, as an internal exercise, nailing down your development to a specific make and model can do many things for clarifying your vision. Here are a few examples:

  • -It forces you to commit to a certain market segment.
    • Are you going after young, urban-professional males looking for a differentiated product?
    • Are you trying to appeal to retired couples looking for a sensible alternative to single-family home living?
    • Are you looking to attract soccer moms that want a little bit of an edge over the neighbor?
    • Is your new office space on the 100 percent corner and will appeal to Class A tenants?
    • -It allows others to instantly understand the marketing and branding of your development. Automobile manufactures spend millions of dollars marketing their products—which creates strong brand recognition that you can tap into.  By relating your project to a specific car, stakeholders can instantly connect it to branding messages that automakers have already spent millions of dollars crafting.
    • -It places instant parameters on your development budget and cost of construction.  Because cars have such specific product types and segments, you can drill down to exactly what budget will position your property in the right market.

    • -It summarizes to architects and designers exactly what scale, style, and level of effort you want in the design and engineering. You don’t want your architect attempting to design a BMW M5 (one of the best engineered cars on the market) when you only have the budget for a Toyota Corolla LE.
    • Contractors are able to understand the level of quality, finish, and materials desired for a specific building or space right away.  For example, the Interlagos Plaid sport fabric found in VW GTIs has a specific level of quality and craftsmanship while the leather interior of an Audi S4 has similar craftsmanship, yet far superior materials. Explain this to your contractor and they can understand exactly what you mean when you want beautiful craftsmanship, yet can only afford glazed concrete over terrazzo.

When I explained my building=car analogy to my developer friend, I was thrilled when he understood the benefit of the exercise and would give it a go on his next project.  It may not be the perfect method for communicating your work to everyone or for every project, but nailing down your work as if it were a specific make and model could provide some clarity and direction for your vision.   If anything else, it is worth a shot.

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