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Shorthand as a Graphic Recording Tool

After I had finished my degree in French and Spanish at university in England I knew I'd be spending a year living in Paris. My French was good but I had no idea what I'd do for work. I enrolled in a 6-month secretarial course in Cambridge, where I learned Teeline shorthand.

Teeline was relatively new (1967), invented by a teacher of Pittman shorthand, the standard in the UK. Its advantage was that it was based on the alphabet, not phonetics, so it was fast to learn. I got (briefly!) up to 120 wpm in my course, then set about studying how to do this in French. I bought a book. Shorthand relies on contractions and blending of words for higher speeds; in Teeline, the contraction "dst" meant "je vous prie d'agréer, Messieurs, l'expression de mes sentiments distingués," the French florid equivalent of "yours sincerely."

I was astonished to learn that Teeline is still being taught. In an era where executives, I imagine even in Paris, now type their own correspondence! But it's being taught to journalists. Think about it: recording devices are not allowed in courtrooms or other places, plus they just make people clam up. Fast. Efficient. And Secret! It was like having my own cryptographic system, assuming I never ran into anyone who learned Teeline. (For what it's worth, my mother still writes memos on checks she writes in shorthand, though she learned Gregg.)

I've been considering resurrecting my shorthand for use while graphic recording. Why? Sometimes what people say is too good to paraphrase. Or it's a mediation where verbatim recording is essential to reaching agreement. I have post-it notes with lines on (marks relative to lines have meaning in most shorthand systems). I just have to start practicing again.

Every recording system throughout history has had its advantages and disadvantages: speed vs. clarity vs. expressiveness. Consider this:


"The cat sat on the mat" written out in pen, in shorthand, and several drawings of a cat sitting on a mat.
Speeds of capturing content in longhand, shorthand, as a quick drawing. Note the possibilities of expression with minor changes in the drawings.

All I Did Was Ask

Terry Gross, the interviewer of NPR’s daily talk show Fresh Air, published a book with this title in 2004. It’s a cute quip for a veteran interviewer but also slightly misleading: the key to Gross’s success is obviously in WHAT she’s asked. Her questions, driven by insatiable curiosity, elicit often remarkable responses from people from all walks of life (who may not want to divulge all or even much). It’s a formula that has worked for decades; Terry Gross’s interviews are a unique record of American culture since 1985. She regularly pulls in 5 million listeners. 

My job is to listen. Listening to a room, listening to what’s said but also for what’s not said. Listening to a presenter, listening for content. Listening for emotional charge. Listening for that special kind of silence that tells me the whole room just got really surprised and is thinking hard and in new ways. Listening and then translating that onto paper or iPad, synthesizing on the fly, making connections. 

This listening? It’s also an ask.

Sometimes as a graphic facilitator I do ask directly, which happens more when I’m working with individuals. Yet there are lots of ways to ask questions. With groups, I often turn around when capturing what someone said to make eye contact and with gestures quickly establish that yes, I did understand, or “please could you repeat or rephrase that,” or checking to see how much emphasis I should be placing on this by reactions around the person — if lots of heads are nodding, I just got an answer.

Natural curiosity is an essential quality in an interviewer. It’s also an essential quality in a graphic facilitator. I can’t help feeling that more of it would do a lot of good in the world.

Marketing and social media experts keep recommending that we “tell our story.” There’s a good reason for this — it’s more compelling than the dry facts, making it more likely for us to be remembered in this age of information overload. When you’re a visual practitioner, something a lot of people have never heard of, it provides a way of explaining what we do; but even if it’s a profession everyone "knows" (firefighter, bank manager), what brought you to it will be unique and interesting--as they say, there are no dull lives, just dull obituaries.

I’ve been working with members of my small business network on their stories, drawing them out on paper as they tell them. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me to get to know these colleagues on a much deeper level; telling our stories sometimes takes us to vulnerable places, not necessarily the first thing people think of as a way to establish a professional persona. But I think it adds to the appeal: it makes you a person, not just your professional identity.

Here are some things I’ve observed over these past few weeks that might make a more compelling story: 

a) Remember, not everyone needs to hear the WHOLE story; tailor your story to your listener(s) and watch or listen for their cues. What are they interested in? Develop a series of mini-stories to have up your sleeve.

b) Practice. Practice with friends and family, practice in the mirror. Create a Facebook Live post in a private group where you’re the only member and post to it daily.* It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be authentic.

c) Notice where you get fired up and where you drift off. Chances are, others will notice this too. Rather than rambling, compress the transitions to get to the highlights.

d) This is your opportunity to deliver your WHY — why you do this, why you love it, and why the person listening to you should hire or refer you. Don’t be surprised if they do!

graphic depicting stages of telling your story to establish your professional WHY

*Many thanks to Vanessa Errecarte of Marketing Simplified for this suggestion.

Acknowledging your Champions

I'm a member of the Small Business Community Network here in Davis, California. We meet either in person or by video conference once a week. Members take it in turns to lead themed meetings that usually go on for a month. This month, we are Telling Our Story.

Following an exercise where we explored our core values, member Leah Eldridge led us through a guided meditation aimed at mining our memories for important events and people who have shaped us to become who we are now as professionals.

graphic of Alison Kent's journey to graphic facilitationI wanted to do this visually and was instantly astonished by a) the number of people who helped set me on my path, b) how few detractors there have been (it doesn't mean they haven't had a disproportional effect on my self-worth -- brain weasels are a thing). I just wanted to thank all the people, some of whom have died by now, who have helped me on my journey.

Who are your champions? Have you thanked them? Can you be a champion for someone as a way of paying it forward?

In Praise of Grids

ink drawings of people
People at Mishka's on a Saturday morning

I'm a member of the Davis urban sketching community. I almost always mark up a grid before heading out to sketch. I like the firm boundary (which I can break if necessary or if I want a particular effect), I like to work small so that I can work fast (important when sketching people), but mostly, the grid provides a flexible container within which to work.

My travel sketchbooks ALWAYS have a grid. I make a template from some cardstock and this allows me to tuck it into my sketchbook so I always have it ready. Working on a 6x9" format I make six rectangles, usually, in non-photo blue pencil, which allows me to ink in the borders or not later. I have made many sketchbooks with Sundance Felt paper which is folded into signatures but not bound until I get home, so I don't end up with tons of unused pages or, conversely, run out of room.

ink and wash drawings of Iceland landscapes
Iceland travel journal spread

In the spread above, I used the entire grid for my one drawing of the Öxarárfoss waterfall at Thíngvellír, whereas on the facing page, I took two rectangles for the top left and bottom landscape sketches, and a single rectangle for the flag at the parliament rock and arctic grasses.

I've been pondering how best to use a grid in my large format captures of meetings. My 48" x 92" paper is divided easily into vertical thirds by the fact that division between the three boards is clearly visible. I think I'm going to play with marking the horizontal sheet in thirds too and save intersecting points for especially important places, or drawings, or focus spots. I'll report back!

ink drawings of people and plants
UC Davis Arboretum Terrace, September 23, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to get up in front of 80 people and declare, as a scientist, that you don't have all the answers. Answers they need -- in this particular case, what the best way is to protect their livestock from predators. When some of those predators are protected by law, lethal control becomes less of an option.

Yet this is what happened on Thursday, August 31, at the Hopland Research and Extension Center. Researcher Alex McInturff provided a survey of what works, what doesn't, and most importantly, what we still don't know. It opened the way for a panel of ranchers to say what their greatest challenges have been with predators. (For many, two-legged predators and dogs, rather than coyotes, mountain lions, bears or even wolves have been the biggest problem.)

I was privileged to be able to capture the conversations over the course of the days as participants saw demonstrations of different control methods then came back together to talk about it. When you say "we don't know" you are opening up the question: what if? what if we knew? and -- most important -- opening the way for coming up with a collaborative solution, where all stakeholders contribute their knowledge and experience. (For now, the biggest way forward seems to be to try a combination of techniques and keep switching them up to stay a step ahead.)

Kim Rodrigues photo
Hopland Research & Extension Center Director Kim Rodrigues sums up the day with using Listen-ink's charts

Navigating the Medical Maze

drawing of heart and caduceus
Medicine + heart: graphically recording the maze of medical treatment

I'm honored to have been asked to guide someone through an exciting new medical therapy to treat a genetic condition.

Medical advocates are people whose purpose is to sit with a patient during medical visits, take notes, ask questions if things aren't clear, and advocate for the patient if needed. Often, particularly with serious diagnoses, patients are not able to hear, process, and remember everything that is said during the barrage of information, treatment options, pros and cons of each, pain management issues, and so on. Having a medical advocate present ensures this is all covered so the patient can evaluate all the information in a less stressful environment and much longer time frame. It is often useful to have this person not be a family member, who is similarly facing a lot of information that will impact him or her directly.

If the medical advocate is also capturing the information graphically, along with the patient's hopes, fears, dreams, and is able to motivate them through the treatment -- how much more powerful could this be? I'm excited to see. Stay tuned!

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Getting a Book in Print: Think Like a Publisher

Received wisdom is that publishing a book can help you establish your authority in your field. Nathan Berry, Robert Bly, Gerry Robert and many others are very confident that it's the way to be seen as an expert. But book publishing is a beleaguered industry and editors are overwhelmed; the odds of finding your manuscript accepted for publication are slim; the odds of the book making it to the remainder shelves seem to grow with each passing year. Publishers are always eager for the great new bestseller, but what they mostly see are manuscripts they'd have a hard time persuading anyone to buy, manuscripts that end up on the dreaded dec pile I described in this post.

There is, of course, self-publishing. Publishing-on-demand is a relatively low-risk way to enter the self-publishing game. That said, it would probably be a great idea to follow the same rules as you would if you were sending in a book proposal to a publisher. Ask yourself these questions: Is this book covering something that's been published elsewhere? If it is, does it have a new take on the subject? Have you bought books by the competition? If not, what makes you think your intended audience will want to buy yours? (Does your intended audience even buy books? Do you have a good sense of who your intended audience even is?) Is a book the best way to say what you have to say? Might a journal article, or even a blog post, say it better, more succinctly, with a lot less time and aggravation?

If you've given thought to all these questions and you're not sure whether you should go ahead, consider having a graphic facilitator draw out your book plan. You might be on to a major winner, though definitely do the math to see whether it's worth your time, energy and cash. Writing a book and getting it published takes a lot of all three, so it might be worth spending a little up front get help asking yourself the tough questions.

 

Capturing Oral History Differently

People who are interested in genealogy are told over and over to interview the living before it's too late. To ask them what they know of their own forebears, or even rumors about them; what it was like when they were young, whether they can identify people in old photographs. It's a big project and can seem overwhelming.

I have started to interview some of our elders to ask these same questions and realize that graphic capture of oral history can be an excellent tool for genealogists. Best if a family member does the interviewing, they can focus on the subject while I quietly capture in the background. Using a digital audio or video recorder helps too, but the essence is caught in one sheet of paper.

Below is a prototype "short sheet" I made with a friend; working larger would allow more room for material.

Oral history graphic
Short capture of oral history, March 2017

Incidentally, speaking of connecting with our elders, be sure to check out Susan MacCleod's Humans of St. Vincent's on Instagram. A project of great humanity.

Graphic Recording is Like Translation

The best  job I had in college was as a translator for a project of hail suppression in southeastern Spain funded by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. This region of the country is almost entirely agricultural and was at risk of weather patterns often resulting in damaging hail. It was fun, it was very lucrative for a poor college student, and it taught me to listen, hard.

Graphic recording feels to me very much like translating. You get input in a certain form -- spoken language, perhaps with PowerPoint slides thrown in to the mix -- and your job is to output the results visually in real time. You have to listen to every word and make sure you understand what's said, and get the essence down, quickly.

Of course a lot of the work is also interpretation: deciding on the fly what to put in and what to put down. A lot gets left out. My job is to capture the essence and make the connections. (People are better at this than they usually think -- we do it all the time. If someone asks you what a book you've just read is about, you don't recite the whole book, after all.) Yet selecting what's REALLY important, synthesizing on the fly, getting it down quickly and making the pieces work together: this is my work.

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