Don’t say it, draw it - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterCommunication
December 12, 2016

Don’t say it, draw it

Both Dan Roam and David Sibbet, who specializes in graphic facilitation, believe that sharpened meetings and sharpened thinking can flow from reducing words and enhancing the visuals in our communication.

Words, words, words. Blah, blah, blah.

Our days – our work lives – are punctuated by a sea of words. We use words to communicate. We use words to not communicate. We use words to share our ideas, to propel our innovation. Think of a recent meeting and you’ll likely think of blah, blah, blah.

But we can think and communicate through more than words. And a series of books in recent years have tried to help us to shift, adding a visual component to our meetings, communications, thinking and brainstorming.

Blah Blah Blah

Dan Roam

Portfolio, 350 pages, $29.95

Visual Meetings

David Sibbet

John Wiley, 262 pages, $35.95

The Back of The Napkin

Dan Roam

Portfolio, 278 pages, $24.95

Presentations specialist Dan Roam, who authored two of the books, says that blah, blah, blah is killing our ability to think, learn, work and lead. Instead of clarity, we have fog – complexity, misunderstanding and boredom.

“Ever left a meeting more confused than when you entered? Ever watched two hours of cable news and knew that you knew less about the world? Ever stifled another yawn during another conference room bullet-point bonanza? You get the picture,” he writes in Blah, Blah Blah.

He has even developed something he calls a Blah-Blahmeter to help us evaluate how bad the situation is. It has a scale – one to three blahs – for rating how miserable the situation is. The conversation, meeting or presentation is merely blah when the intent is to illuminate, the topic is complicated, and the message ends up boring. You’ve been to a lot of those sessions, undoubtedly, earnest but ineffective.

It moves up the scale of awfulness to blah-blah when the intent is to obfuscate, the idea is missing and the message is foggy. It’s blah-blah-blah when the intent is to divert, the idea is rotten and the message is misleading. By contrast, a no-blah event occurs when the intent is to clarify, the idea is simple and the message is clear.

Both Roam and David Sibbet, who specializes in graphic facilitation, believe that sharpened meetings and sharpened thinking can flow from reducing words and enhancing the visuals in our communication.

In Visual Meetings, Sibbet notes that when we think of meetings, we automatically think of words. Instead, he argues, the first thought that should come to our minds is visuals. And not PowerPoint, by the way. Instead, our meetings should revolve around a panorama of visual design, stimulating thought and recording our progress. So flipcharts, with sketches and doodles that express our thoughts in vivid fashion.

Instead of proposing an idea with blah, blah, blah you might draw it as part of a map that the group collectively creates to plot its journey together on a project. Or you might write it on sticky notes that could then be grouped on a wall with your colleagues’ suggestions.

“My confidence in this way of working is rooted in three phenomena that I have experienced since the first time I picked up magic markers and began facilitating groups visually,” he writes.

He argues engagement explodes in meetings when participants are listened to and acknowledged by having what they say recorded in an interactive, graphic way. Second, a group can think in a big picture way when their ideas are shown visually, allowing everyone to check for patterns or connections more easily. Third, creating memorable media increases the group’s memory and follow-through.

Of course, this is not totally foreign to us. Our meetings occasionally have some of these tools. But it’s occasional, while blah, blah, blah rules. He believes the visual element should be routine, a starting point to energize our thinking and the meetings.

If you’re like me, you may wince, not eager to have your inability to draw be shared with your colleagues. But both Sibbet and Roam are not talking artistry. They are talking stick figures and other simple sketches that theoretically anyone of us can do. In The Back Of The Napkin, Roam sets out basic shapes like circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, arrows, straight lines, happy faces and stick figures as the basic sketching tools you will need.

The most successful airline of our era, by the way, started with a sketch of a triangle on a napkin, he reminds us. Rollin King, who was closing his regional airline, told his lawyer Herb Kelleher that instead of running a small airline that services small towns it made sense to run a small airline servicing big cities. He drew the triangle and marked the three edges: Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. It was neat and simple, unlike the spaghetti of lines that depicted the complicated routes of the traditional airlines servicing big centres, and Southwest Airlines was born.

Of course, there was undoubtedly some blah, blah, blah at that luncheon meeting. And if the sketch had not been drawn, the airline might still have been developed. But the clarity of the sketch helped to make it more appealing, Roam believes. “Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see – both with our eyes and our mind’s eye – in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply ‘get’,” he says.

Essentially, he is arguing that the shapes we draw are an extension of our thinking. He observes it’s a more balanced way of thinking, bringing together different elements of our brain. “The reason for all the blah, blah, blah is that we’ve simply forgotten how to use both our minds. For 30,000 years, humans have been making marks on walls (then on paper, and more recently on touch screens) to reflect our thoughts. For 25,000 of those years, we drew pictures. Only in the past 5,000 years did we begin the gradual shift to writing words. The problem is that now we have gone too far,” he says.

In Back Of The Napkin, Roam tells us there are six fundamental questions that guide how we see things and then how we show things. Each question has one dominant visual method – a simple-to-draw visual method – for displaying the results of your thinking:

  • The who and the what: As we start to get oriented to a situation, our thinking commences with who and what. Take the example he gives a training manager who is struggling to come to grips with the many programs at her new company; for her, the thinking (and sketching) begins with who gets trained, who does the training, what topics are taught and what lessons are presented. This is best depicted visually through portrait-style sketches, perhaps a video camera to show that method of delivering programs and a number of stick figures or simple portraits of faces to represent those who will be attending a course.
  • The how many and how much: Next we quantify what we have been seeing. How many lessons are required and how much time do they take? How many people can attend each lesson, and how many instructors are needed? Charts capture this aspect of the problem.
  • The where: Spatial orientation follows. Where will the lessons take place? In the company’s stores, in training facilities or at home? A map can illuminate this issue, perhaps also capturing the conceptual issue of where the lessons might overlap in content, structure or intended audience.
  • The when: The training manager must address when do the lessons take place and in what sequence do they need to occur? A timeline will help here.
  • The how: How does one lesson relate to another? How do you know when you are ready to move on from the subject matter you are studying? Flowcharts reveal these linkages.

The why: Everything must be brought together to understand the core of the issue. This will be the most complicated chart, with a coterie of the variables displayed in one creative sketch.

So imagine your next meeting as a blizzard of sketches instead of a sea of words. Not no words, but a better balance between words and visual thinking, adding up, together, hopefully, to a no-blah zone. To help you get there, any of these books could be helpful, but I’d probably suggest The Back Of The Napkin and Visual Meetings as a combo.

 

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
 
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...
 
We learned in grade school that one plus one equals two, but when we are faced with two choices in decision-making – and usually decisions end up framed around two possibilities — our approach might be described as one versus one equals one. We discard the lesser choice and move on with the better one....
 
Did your high school valedictorian go on to achieve greatness? High schools select their valedictorians because they show promise and exemplify the best the school has to offer. So it’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to achieve great things. Many achieve success in their future careers. But greatness tends to be rare. And...
 
Yogi Berra, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter. Five elite athletes who led championship teams. However, there’s a difference between them – a critical difference – that could be important to government executives seeking to be more effective at work. Three of those stars – Berra, Richard, and Russell –...
 
Radical candour sounds rather outré as a prescription for government executives. Careful caution is often the norm. But consultant Kim Scott believes candor is critical for relationships and internal organizational communications. And if that doesn’t convince you, her new book, Radical Candor, still has some terrific ideas to improve your weekly schedule of meetings and...
 
Innovation is prized and praised these days at work, even in government. We are supposed to relish creative change. But what if the reality is that humans instinctively reject such change? Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist at the University of San Diego who has focused on creativity, is making waves with her claim that our...
 
Leading the Unleadable By Alan Willett Your team probably includes some difficult people. You may not have chosen them – they could have been inherited – but they are your responsibility, even if at times you don’t know what to do. Should you shunt them off onto a project? Chastise them in public? Ignore the...
 
If you want to learn from mistakes in how to handle an interview, you could take a lesson from Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, and Alexander Haig. The three public figures all had celebrated careers. But each also had one moment when they badly flubbed an interview. Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy he had...
 
As understanding of social behaviour increases through intensified research, many government executives are learning about the art of nudging. Governments are establishing nudge units to encourage the citizenry to adopt desired behaviours and, less formally, ministries are trying other routes than laws and regulations to get results. Related posts: Where you sit is where you stand...
 
We curse meetings, but they are essential to today’s collaborative leadership approach. We may long to eliminate them – and no doubt some could be trimmed – but the bigger issue is to make the ones we have more effective. Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings,...
 
Government is replete with silos. Like the weather, everyone complains about them but nobody does much to change it. And if they try, they often find the silos sturdier than expected. That’s why Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect is an interesting book for government executives. Primarily about business, it still includes government, which is rare...
 
Words, words, words. Blah, blah, blah. Our days – our work lives – are punctuated by a sea of words. We use words to communicate. We use words to not communicate. We use words to share our ideas, to propel our innovation. Think of a recent meeting and you’ll likely think of blah, blah, blah....
 
Government executives are writers. Maybe not like Margaret Atwood or Joseph Boyden, but they pound out words every day themselves on their keyboard, in emails, memos, and other missives. Unfortunately, a lot of what they write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid...
 
Gladwell made Anders Ericsson famous—or, at least, his research work. A professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson conducted the study of violinists that the best-selling journalist glamourized in his book Outliers, imprinting on our consciousness that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at whatever task you devote such attention to....
 
Every evening, Marshall Goldsmith pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions about his behaviour that day. As a high-profile executive coach, he knows how difficult it is for top leaders to cleanse themselves of destructive behaviours. He makes his clients accountable to the people around them in order to heighten the...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some popcorn. Specifically, an experiment some psychologists dreamed up in which they handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn to everyone arriving at a suburban Chicago movie theatre in 2000 to catch a Mel Gibson flick. It may sound like a good...
 
David Dingwall is familiar to many government executives for his role in the Chrétien government where he held several cabinet posts, from public works to health. He later became a government executive himself, presiding over the Royal Canadian Mint, improving operations to the point the organization secured its first surplus in a number of years....
 
Are you an undermanager? We’ve all been warned not to overmanage – become a hen-pecking, micro-manager, obsessing about details, instead of delegating wisely. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes the opposite, under-management, is epidemic. Indeed, he insists it’s hiding in plain sight, but we don’t notice. “It is so often what’s going wrong in so many...
 
A leader’s job is to illuminate the path ahead. It’s vital to keep employees engaged and aligned with end goals on every project you undertake. And that challenge might be made easier–illuminated for you–by presentations specialist Nancy Duarte, who developed former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s powerful climate change slide show, and colleague Patti Sanchez in...
 
Ottawa’s Chris Bailey turned down a number of attractive job offers after university graduation in favour of something even more attractive: Figure out how to be productive. It was a personal Odyssey, as he tested the ideas peddled by productivity gurus to see what worked and what didn’t, and added his own twists. The result...
 
At the height of World War Two, a clever scheme was developed to disrupt the Nazi regime behind enemy lines in occupied territory without being detected. It involved a variety of obvious tactics such as slashing tires and draining fuel tanks but also included some unusual ideas to sabotage internal workplace processes. Those might seem...
 
Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99 If you think that much of what you read and hear from leadership gurus is BS, you have a supporter in Jeffrey Pfeffer. At first glance he’s an unlikely backer since he’s a leadership guru himself. But he’s a professor of organizational behaviour at the...
 
If you want to improve your management procedures, search Google. No, don’t put those words in the search engine’s magical white slot. Instead read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. The head of Google’s people function shares insights gleaned from the company’s rapid growth and its many experiments with different procedures, to see what works best. Of...
 
Mentoring can be one of the most critical – as well as challenging and rewarding – tasks we undertake in the workplace. Sometimes it’s formal. Sometimes it’s informal. But always, when effective, it’s important. Related posts: How to cultivate a sponsor Coach or mentor: Which one do you need? Intrapreneurship in Action: An interview with Nick Frate...
 
In recent years, it has been customary for government – and government executives – to be looked down upon, while business has been exalted. Somebody who hasn’t succumbed is management guru Henry Mintzberg. Related posts: Adobe: SMARTnering with the public sector Breaking through the digital miasma with creativity The Public Sector Integrity Commission (PSIC) in Perspective...
 
Many studies have shown that women are socialized to fit in, not stand out. But fitting in can leave you a follower, forever. To advance at work, you need to be noticed. You need to stand out....
 
In 1994 psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait” to describe a common problem he saw emerging in the workplace: The tendency to hop from task to task in a rush, without proper focus on what people were doing or should be doing....
 
Leaders motivate. They nudge and cajole staff into inspired work, wielding monetary incentives when required, at least in the private sector. Without motivation, employees might wither and certainly wouldn’t shine. That’s a basic premise of leadership and managerial thinking. And it’s dead wrong…...
 
When you think of creativity and innovation in government, John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably don’t spring to mind. Neither worked in government and, indeed, they were anti-establishment types who you can imagine sneering at “government bureaucrats.”...
 
You can’t appear for your important presentations in a black turtleneck and jeans like Steve Jobs did. And you don’t have alluring electronic gizmos to talk about. So suggesting you might learn from the presentation approach of the hallowed Apple pitchman might seem ludicrous....
 
We know feedback is good for us. We know it can help us improve. But receiving feedback can often be difficult. We tense up, even get irked or angry. Only part of the message, or perhaps none of it, slips through, as we slide into defensive mode. Related posts: Leader as mentor: The power of experience...
 
Leaders need to know how to inspire and manage, and have a solid understanding of the policy field in which they operate. But that’s not enough....
 
As I rush-rush-rush through the day, I occasionally remember the notion of “cool time” from a book published 12 years ago by Toronto time management consultant Steve Prentice....
 
Before a presentation, uncertainty and fear can lead us to try to include all the information required to answer all the questions recipients might have. There’s also a temptation to pack in as much detail as possible, to show the extent of our research, knowledge, and hard work in preparing....
 
Much has been written about decision-making in recent years, as we learn more about how the brain works and behavioural economists devise experiments to understand how we approach choice. But much of it could lead us astray… Related posts: Deliberating over decisions...
 
Elections can bring a change of government. They certainly bring a change in the face of government, as some ministers lose their re-election bid and others are shuffled by the returning prime minister. Related posts: Public servant use of Twitter requires 9 levels of approval What would make public servants more motivated? A clash of expectations...
 
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously....
 
Governments monitor monetary inflation, and have kept it in check in recent years. But there’s another inflation, rampant, that isn’t monitored and walloping all of us: communications inflation. Technology allows us to connect – and communicate – in a host of ways not available to us just a few years ago, let alone a couple...
 
The dramatic clandestine rescues by Navy SEALs and their daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s lair may make their work seem a world apart from that of government executives. But in their 2003 book Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs, advertising executive Jeff Cannon and his brother, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon…...
 
If you can be a better leader through healthy living, the key to success in your job may lie in three words: Eat, move, sleep. Certainly Tom Rath believes they are important. And Rath, a Gallup researcher, has offered cogent advice before to government executives, in his writings on using their strengths at work and...
 
Finding mentors has been one of the holy grails of career progression, hammered into us by innumerable career consultants and the lessons of our own career. Yet now, someone is telling us to forget them. Related posts: The art of mentorship The benefits of an executive coach How Changemakers Get Things Done in Government: Intrapreneurship in Action...
 
Today, when emotional intelligence is treasured, Sherlock Holmes would seem like a poor role model for government executives. The man lived in his mind and seemed remote from humanity. He could get enmeshed in a drug stupor or sidetracked by some obscure experiment or offbeat intellectual interest. Definitely not the model for modern, progressive governance....
 
No. The word jars us. Just two letters, but it makes us decidedly uncomfortable. In the workplace, Yes is the golden word, the winning word, the expected word that garners plaudits....
 
Our days are a series of decisions, some minor, some medium, some major – and the occasional one humungous. It might seem daunting to think of your day in that fashion, since it’s obviously hard to get every decision right....
 
Presentations make the world go round, particularly in government. Unfortunately, too many of them are ineffective. Incomprehensible graphics, too much text, and garbled messages....
 
Your first instinct might be to deny it, but you are probably a salesperson. Most government executives are, even if the public service is seen as galaxies away from the grubby world of commerce and sales....
 
Getting subordinates to take responsibility in the appropriate situation can be a mind-boggling pursuit. Often we find ourselves lurching into frustrating tugs of war, where they take more responsibility than we want and then take absolutely no responsibility when we are hoping – and perhaps insisting – they do....
 
To improve your job performance and prepare for promotions, should you work on your strengths or weaknesses? What about your subordinates? In getting the best performance from them, should you prod them to enhance their strengths, or shore up or eliminate weaknesses?...
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
As the World Bank in the 1990s was preparing for a major transformation to mark its 50th anniversary, consultants Chris McGoff and Michael Doyle met to discuss the plan developed…...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...