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Design masterclass: why communication matters and good communicators win

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Tim Smallwood FFCSI addresses the importance of explaining your foodservice design effectively

When you first present your design you need to remember that everyone will see it differently: the owner, the manager, the chef, the architect, the engineer. They are all looking at the same thing, but it doesn’t mean they see what you see, or what you want them to see, unless you take control.

In the same way that all the stakeholders will be seeing your design differently, when you explain the design, each of them are thinking in a different language so you have to communicate in such a way that connects with them all. This foodservice consultant language will need to be easily translated into all these other languages spoken around the table for you to connect and get the sign-off of the design.

Acknowledge all the concerns

To get maximum benefit from the first presentation requires planning – and not just printing off the report or plans in time. Firstly you need to be clear what overall idea you are trying to communicate in order to get buy-in from all stakeholders.

For all that, the good thing is that all these stakeholders are generally fairly predictable and they will tend to obsess over and about the same thing, so you should be able to ensure that you touch on all the stakeholders concerns in this first presentation. This one is the most important, because it is the only time that you will have all stakeholders’ undivided attention.

To make sure you get maximum benefit, rehearse or practice the presentation before the meeting. This will also have the benefit of proofing or validating the design and maybe even identifying adjustments that have to be made before the presentation.

Clarify the thinking

After your presentation and in future meetings it is important to let stakeholders talk without interrupting or jumping in to correct what you see as an error. Talking through their thoughts can enable a non-designer stakeholder to clarify their thinking and ideas and understand more clearly. They can even sometimes end up explaining your design without you having to say a word.

Not everything a stakeholder says will be clear. Think about what they are actually saying; often what they say and what they mean can be two different things. They will often use a trade name, for instance a particular brand of combi oven when they actually mean the process or type of equipment. It can also be hard to respond effectively to a “like” comment that is subjective, rather than objective. To respond you will need to ask “why?” and get them to rephrase it to “works”.

Most people have a ‘no reflex’ when confronted with new or challenging ideas. This works both ways; when a client offers an alternative solution you will have a similar reaction to theirs when you propose an idea that they’ve not thought of. The first answer in both cases should be a positive “yes”.

In fact it is a good idea to lead all responses with a “yes”. Check in your ego at the door. Don’t take yourself too seriously; lighten up and don’t be too fixated on just “getting things done”. And never say to a stakeholder, “you’re wrong”.

“No one ever listened themselves out of a job,” said Calvin Coolidge. The strength of your design and your presentation of it will be in the data you use to support it and it will be the best way of getting agreement because it is the most scientific way to demonstrate the design will work. Use data to test the design options so that you can better explain how you arrived at the solution. But remember the data has to be good – using bad or manipulated data can be convincing but result in the wrong solution.

The goal is for the designer to get the best and most cost-effective solution for the client and to skew data to support a particular solution will get found out in the end. Data can be in the form of calculated throughput, capacity or flow diagrams and charts and references that all should be fully documented for the record, even if the summaries are used for the presentation.

Getting agreement

Failure to correctly articulate the design can mean wasted time and extra meetings as well as raising doubt in the clients mind. At some point you are going to need sign-off. If a client is still undecided you will need to be direct and ask the question: “do you agree?” At every meeting, so that when the answer is finally yes, you will need to have a copy of the current design available with an acceptance signature stamp ready for client signing.

When you have the agreement it is important to follow up; confirming and thanking for all the stakeholders efforts, etc. In this way there will be a formal closure to this particular stage or point in the project that all stakeholders clearly understand.

Tim Smallwood FFCSI