Concurrents: How vs. What: The Craft of Communication 

Maria VanDeman

A Latin proverb states, “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn,” which is exactly what happened when I was a guest instructor for IIDA’s Design Your World program in Miami.   “Design Your World” holds two very special meanings to me.  The first is the Design Your World children’s book I co-authored with Doug Shapiro to bring awareness to the interior design industry and develop more diversity in design. Second is IIDA’s Design Your World program created to build access to our profession for high school students from underrepresented communities (which inspired the book).   

Through the Design Your World program, students gain a new perspective on the built environment, collaborate with other young creatives, exercise their newfound knowledge through a design project, and see a mosaic of diverse representation in designers, manufacturers and educators in our industry.  It’s a powerful experience to work with the students, share my love of our profession and to represent a community as a person of color in a way that I never saw through my career or education.   

In the classroom last month, I had the goal of sharing my professional journey from school to interior design to furniture, a few fun projects, and the value of contract furniture.  As I went through the presentation, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Instead of asking about products or projects, the students inquired about public speaking, communicating, and how I had managed to capture their attention for 60 minutes. I was fascinated that they were more interested in how I had communicated than what I was communicating about (shocking, coming from a group of teenagers!).  As my focus quickly shifted, I shared these three valuable how lessons:  1.  Communication is your gateway.  You can be the best and most knowledgeable person in your field, but it will mean nothing if you struggle to communicate ideas efficiently and effectively.  I reminded them that effective communication is a muscle that should be continually exercised.  We can’t expect to run a marathon if we don’t put in the effort to train and prepare.  Preparation opportunities are all around, whether talking to a bus driver, engaging in a classroom discussion, or interacting with people in everyday circumstances, we can all practice articulating our ideas more clearly, kindly, and confidently. The more intentional we are to engage in conversation and explain our why, the more natural and effective our communication will become.  2.  Your story is your strength.  Stories have the power to engage and connect with people on a deep level.  Researchers at London School of Business found that people retain only 5% to 10% of information if it consists of statistics alone. But, when they hear a story, they remember 65% to 70%.  Whether promoting a design solution, motivating a team, or selling a product, learning to weave your ideas into engaging and descriptive narratives makes you a more compelling communicator. By mastering the art of storytelling, you can captivate your audience and make your message (and yourself) unforgettable.   3. Practice makes a public speaker.The students were surprised to hear that when I was growing up, I was not the kid who raised my hand in class.  I was not the kid who engaged with the teacher.  I was not the kid who relished a chance to speak in front of my peers. Instead, I was the kid who sat quietly and completed my work while praying that I would not be called upon to deliver an answer to the class.  As I scanned the classroom during this story, I could see that there were several students who could relate to me.  Only as I grew and practiced, did I gain the motivation and ability to speak confidently and passionately. 

Psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian developed the 7-38-55 communication rule which indicates 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Each of these areas takes practice and development, and we can all continue to seek opportunities to raise our hands, ask for feedback and critique, smile, observe great TED talkers and podcasters, and if you’re like me, you’ll make every close friend and family member listen to your speeches (over and over and over).  One is never too old to enhance their ability to express ideas, influence others, and confidently navigate challenges. 

I could’ve talked to the Design Your World students about design, furniture, sustainability, and the workplace for days.  After all, I was there that day to teach. But when the students shifted the conversation, they revealed an invaluable truth: passion is an infectious force and mastering how we communicate holds equal importance to what we communicate.  No matter where the world leads these students, my hope is that they will always remember this lesson (and that you will, too). 

Maria VanDeman, NCIDQ, IIDA, is an accomplished workplace advisor at OFS, interior designer, published children’s book author and advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.  With a passion for helping people and designing for human needs, Maria strives to make a positive impact on the world through her work and mentorship.  Connect with Maria on LinkedIn: