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Telling Tall Tales; The Apartment Developer's Dilemma

When recently asked about which skill I felt was the most important for a real estate developer to possess, I was stumped for about thirty seconds (which is an eternity when someone is staring at you and waiting). My mind raced. How could I not just rattle-off something well thought out and brilliant? Shouldn’t this be a question that every developer must be able to answer without flinching? Well- I flinched. But at the end of that short eternity, my answer was ‘They must be great storytellers.’


 I say this for one simple reason: At his most basic level, the developer is a master salesman. We sell our visions and dreams to our investment committees, the communities in which we work, municipalities, equity partners and debt providers, and eventually to the end user.


So what makes someone a great storyteller?


1.       VALUES. More specifically, understanding what your audience values. Unlike a Dr. Seuss fairytale, the developers’ story is intended to illicit a response. It is designed to excite and sway the audience to allow us to build, help the designers understand our vision, invest in our project, lease or purchase from us, etc.  Our story will only connect with the listener if it appeals to what they value. For instance, telling a County Commissioner about how much money you stand to make will not excite them…hearing that same story, your equity partner will be quite pleased.

2.       FOCUS. A good storyteller understands that they are only providing a framework for the listeners’ imagination. There are items which are critical to every story and therefore must receive increased amounts of detail; and there are non-critical elements which can remain general. Allowing the listeners’ mind to fill in the blanks makes your story personal to them; it becomes their story as well.

3.       CONFIDENCE. Confidence does not mean that your manner is necessarily forceful or brash or that you ‘tell it like it is.’ Quite the opposite, confidence allows the storyteller to be funny and playful or humble or vulnerable as well as excited or strong when appropriate. Confidence allows the storyteller to not have to be the hero in all of their stories…which is ultimately much more compelling to the audience.

4.       SILENCE. One of the greatest mistakes that lesser storytellers make is to not know when the story is over; in other words- when to stop talking. Because our stories have a purpose, knowing when our goals in telling the story have been met is critical. This comes from watching and paying attention to the listener. And if it is clear that the purpose related to that story is not achievable, the adept storyteller adjusts and shortens the story. They regroup, retool and live to fight another day.


And while my answer to the most critical skill that a developer must possess is somewhat unconventional, without it- his greatest visions may never have the opportunity to become reality. Remember, a developer with no buildings is not a developer, they are just a critic. So if you have a great one, tell me a story?

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  • I recognize that what I wrote about above might be more helpful with examples. Obviously storytelling can be verbal, written or pictoral. Like many developers, as I put together the vision for a piece of dirt, I create a vision of what that property 'wants' to be. The package always contains density, intended demographics, psychographics, etc. One of the things that I always incorporate is a narrative story that is intended to convey my vision and ignite the imagination of those who consider my proposal or are on my design team. Here is one from an unbuilt mixed-use apartment project in the Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta. Note the play between specificity and generality...then realize that everyone who reads this has a different image in their mind than the one that you created.

    “Imagine a beautiful modern masterpiece sitting proudly above the intersection of Piedmont Road and Garson Drive. Life and energy spill out onto the street from the retail and residential uses. Like you, attractive twenty and thirty something’s adorn the patio as if they are growing from the landscape like a group of lithe saplings- drinking frothy coffees or cocktails. Their black and gray outfits stand in stark contrast to the glowing white architecture. Evening approaches and the world around you is a backdrop of shades blue and orange and purple and eggplant. Once inside, you ascend to an open second-floor lobby where people stand and talk, work on their computers, and play games. There is a slight but discernable sound of voices coming from the restaurant bar below and somewhere behind you (although you can’t tell from where) there is the low rhythmic thump of some upbeat music coming- possibly from the walls or some unseen sound system. The energy is everywhere. Are you living in a rental community or the W Hotel? Sometimes there is little distinction. But it’s been a long day and you can’t decide, head-up to your apartment and relax, change clothes and grab a quick 45 minute run, or succumb to the rhythm and descend those stairs right now for a couple of drinks and a small plate. As your feet move forward and the floor level rises to meet your eyes- you know that there is only one way that this night will end…”

  • Kent44

    I need an apartment but not one that has roaches.

  • Kent44

    Or mice because they have fleas.

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