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:
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!
*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.
I 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
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.
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!
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.)
Navigating the Medical Maze
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!
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.
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.
What Motivates Me
The past week has been a blur – capturing conversations following three separate performances of Pronoun, a play about a transgender youth’s journey with his peers, parents, school and the medical establishment. The cast was entirely made up of high school students from Davis.
I have been so energized by these conversations. I hope my graphic capture was able to help energize participants. Here’s what I noticed, especially on the third night of my activity onstage next to these amazing high school students: What we do in graphic facilitation is a kind of performance. We are, like the young actors in this play, hoping to bring understanding and clarity, and at the same time to inspire activism. In my case, it is finding a way for my professional work to ignite and stoke my own activism. Meaningful work, captured and organized meaningfully.
This is a week when so many of us are wondering where to put our energy and activism. Pronoun director Emily Henderson, pictured here, said during one of the panel discussions that she had only enough energy to have her activism intersect with her professional life. I couldn't have put it better myself.
Frightening Diagnoses: Visualizing Healing
I've been honored to work as a graphic recorder individually with people with serious illnesses, to help them face their fears and, more importantly, visualize hope. It is a great gift to be able to bring people clarity in the midst of overwhelming (and terrifying) information. We can help map out the intricacies of our medical system to make it easier for patients to navigate their care once the scary diagnosis has been made, which also allows multiple support team members to see all the same information.
In this work, I use a large pad of paper while sitting down, not large boards -- I need eye contact. Then I ask them how they are, how they are feeling. They usually give me involved medical information which I'm obviously not qualified to evaluate, but I can usually tell pretty fast whether they trust their doctors or not, which takes me in the direction of their actual treatment. Acute patients are usually on multiple medications which usually means they tire easily, so it's important to be efficient -- and ask them to envision what their healing (medical / spiritual) looks like. They are sometimes a bit stumped so I offer some possible images -- like a flower opening, say. I show them the paper during the process several times and make sure this is where they're comfortable and that almost always causes them to say "can you draw a XXX here?" -- they do get it and then start to drive the visualization process.
I can imagine this process also to be very helpful for patients in hospice. Dying people have many fears -- being alone, being ignored, being in pain -- and acknowledging these fears honors them and holds space. With sick and dying people it's essential to let go of our own religious ideas/principles and respect theirs, but I don't probe this -- I let them bring it up if they want to. If they do, it's pretty easy to guide them to envision it!
One client put her five different sheets (done on five different sessions) on her ceiling, so when she was in bed awake at 3:00 am wracked in fear, she could look at her metamorphosed butterfly and calm down. This client had also had some pretty negative initial medical contact and wanted me to record that to shake it off. I gather this is not unusual at all in cancer diagnoses; in her case, she ended up with a stellar team (much further away, but that's how it goes), and I was able to record them as a group, each helping to heal her, with herself in the center. I included all her friends and family -- her non-medical support team -- so that the circle of healing is holistic and substantial.
Adding Faces to your Meeting Notes
I was once sent to a meeting to represent an organization whose board I'm on. Sitting in a meeting with people I mostly didn't know, addressing a topic with which I was unfamiliar, I started to sketch their faces and surround them with the things they said. They were likenesses, not portraits as such, but recognizably (mostly) to the people whose faces they represented.
People came up afterwards and wanted to take photos. It was a very different record of their meeting than the usual meeting notes. It was engaging. It was whimsical. And it caught the essence of their meeting in a way they all recognized. Most important, it helped me remember who had said what, and that gave me a greater connection with them to be able to work as a colleague.
James Lake has a great post here where he gives shortcuts on how to draw faces.
If you aren't confident in your drawing skills, try the art of the art-free caricature by Roy Blumenthal. Roy added this note to a comment:
In Scott McLoud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS, he offers a very powerful reason why my artless caricatures work...
The more REALISTIC a drawing is, the less universal it becomes. The more GENERALISED the drawing is, the more universal it becomes.
So, think of the most basic version of a smiley face... The circle with the big arc representing a mouth. That is almost universally recognised across multiple cultures, education levels, and class strata as a happy face.
As you add detail, so the recognition factor narrows. As an extreme example, consider a realistic picture of a man smiling broadly, showing his teeth, and his eyes clearly wide open and looking directly out of the page at the viewer.
In many Western cultures, this will be identifiable as happiness. But in many other cultures, it could be confused with arrogance, anger, deception, violence. The realism of the depiction makes it MORE AMBIGUOUS.
So back to my artless caricatures... They take the minimum recognizable trait of the person being depicted, and they abstract everything else. They lack any sense of realism. This makes it easy for viewers to identify them. And they aren't judged aesthetically.
I love this approach and I am working to make my faces more generalized.
We all like to feel heard -- especially in a professional context where there may be unequal power in the room. An engaged workforce is important for productivity, for teamwork, for a unified mission. Strong leaders know this.
We've all been in a meeting, though, where someone is so intent on what they're going to say -- something that will amaze the whole room -- that they are not listening to what's going on. They are rehearsing in their head how best to say their piece so it will have maximum impact. Many of us do this, if we're honest. I know I have.
Catching this contribution and getting it down on paper in front of the whole group is one of the most powerful impacts graphic facilitation (or graphic recording) can have. I've seen shoulders go down, the whole body tilt forward, eyes lock onto the speaker as it happens. The person, previously alone and marginal, really joins the group at that moment.
The Book Proposal: How Graphic Facilitation Can Help
I used to work for a scholarly publisher, and the sad fact of the matter was that most unsolicited manuscripts were dispatched to the "Dec" (decline) pile with just a cursory glance. Some weren't even remotely suitable for publication by an academic house, others were far too narrow in scope. But some of these projects might have had a chance of moving up out of the Dec pile if they had followed the basic rules of the game: send in a) a one-or-two page book proposal with b) a table of contents and c) a sample chapter.
A book proposal is the author's chance to show the editor these four things:
- What your book is about
- Whether you are the best person to write this particular book
- What your writing style is like
- Whether your book has a chance of selling well: who is your audience? Are there enough of them? Do they tend to buy books? Do they tend to buy books in hardcover?
Books are a huge risk for a publisher. It's very expensive to take on a project that has a small chance of success. Sometimes they make big mistakes -- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was turned down twelve times before the editor at Bloomsbury picked it up -- but mostly they want to avoid costly failures. Times are tough in publishing land.
The book proposal should sell your book to an editor or agent. Do your homework -- is there anything out there in the market already like this? If yes, why and how is your idea different (and better)? Will your book appeal to more than 500 people (be honest, here)? If the answer is no, you might want to consider self-publishing, which is fine -- but you should still go through the process in order to clarify your ideas and build the strongest book possible.
A graphic facilitator can help you hone your ideas into a scheme that makes sense. Answering the four questions, above, and have them outlined live, on paper will help you craft the best possible book proposal, saving it from the dreaded Dec pile.