Blog

  • (4/10/2020)

    For the forseeable future...

    Diagram: Stay Home, Stay Safe

    For the duration of California's Stay at Home order, I will exclusively be working remotely. I can record your meetings either via a camera or directly from my iPad. Please click here to schedule a demo! Stay safe. Be well.
    --Alison

  • (4/7/2020)

    Making the Most of Remote

    First, I hope you and your loved ones are well and that you have all been able to move to a long-haul approach to self-isolating. Together, all of us are all going through this extraordinary shift in our approach to living and working.

    Organizations have had to pivot almost overnight to everyone working from home. (The Zoom blog reports an increase from 10 million daily users to 200 million since December; Google Classroom, thrust upon teachers with no prior distance learning experience, has tips for improving performance here.) Stay-at-home orders have remade the “normal” working environment for everyone, even for those who are used to working remotely. If you find yourself struggling and frustrated, these suggestions may help:

    • Relax/reduce your usual productivity expectations for meetings, and communicate those to your team.

    • Provide time at the beginning or end of the meeting for brief personal check-ins; people are craving connection.

    • Ask yourself: Does it need to be a video meeting? Could it be a conference call, instead?

    • Assume people will have different levels of technical expertise; with practice, everyone will improve.

    • Make "patience, patience, patience” your new statement of purpose.

    Diagram displaying Zoom (videoconference) etiquette

    Finally, consider that folks in your team might be struggling with the competing demands of children, pets, partners, and their own ramped-up anxiety and cabin fever. Expect that their attention will not be as focused as it would be in a face-to-face meeting. A graphic recorder, working remotely, can help here. A visual summary of your meeting can provide a road map for moving forward to a series of actions and can help keep your team on track. (Yes, it can be shared on screen, live.)

    I can help you by capturing your remote meetings. Please contact me here if you'd like a demonstration.

    Stay safe, stay home. Be well.

  • (3/12/2020)

    Using Graphics to Mediate Conflict

    I'm sure you've heard that conflict is a normal, healthy part of being human. If handled well, where both (or all) parties remain calm and talk through their disagreement, are willing to compromise to reach a goal everyone can live with -- yes, this is healthy.

    How often does it happen, though, in real life? Let's take the example of a couple divorcing. Emotions are high. Both sides have been advised by their lawyers to go for as much as they can get. From here, compromise quickly begins to look like caving in, and attitudes harden.

    Imagine the two parties standing on top of their own respective icebergs -- where the tip of the iceberg, just above the waterline, is the emotive content of their disagreement. Hidden below the surface are the myriad systems--many of them entirely subconscious--that determine the positions of the parties.

    Diagram showing two jagged edges of a single iceberg with arguing divorcing couple. Values way below the surface converge.

    Lisa Arora is a visual practitioner in Vancouver who trained as a mediator following her own divorce. She uses the iceberg model to help the parties understand that they do have some things in common, often the well-being of their offspring. If she can show this on the wall during a mediation, the parties have already come to a position of agreement before the negotiating starts. It's a clever, interesting and creative way of to move people out of conflict and into solution.

    I got into graphic recording at the suggestion of my mediation teacher, who thought it would be a good fit for me, given my background in graphic design and my interest in conflict resolution. I use both these tools to help individuals understand their biases and why they might not be shared by a person who is perceived as an adversary.

    If you are in conflict with someone, try sketching out all your positions and assumptions. It might help both of you move forward.

  • (2/18/2020)

    Editing on the Fly

    Graphic recording is a kind of performance art where editing takes place in real time, in a process of distillation. My aim is always to capture the forest, not the trees, in a way that allows for the argument or gist of what's being said to be conveyed to those present (or even absent, after the fact).

    It is very helpful to me when the speaker announces ahead of time that there will be four main sections, as recently during docent training for a new nature park in the nearby City of Woodland.

    The point here was for docent trainees to be able to answer questions that arise when they're leading tours. It was a good, pithy presentation and easy to capture.

    diagram showing the different habitats birds need at different times of the year

    Consider this second presentation, which was delivered on the same night. The speaker has an encyclopedic knowledge of botany. He gave no sense ahead of time where his talk was going, and indeed it meandered through the history of the Central Valley and the western United States, all of it fascinating. What to highlight for the docents-in-training?

    My attempt is below. I see now that I could have done this any number of different ways. The punchlines, however, would probably remain the same: a) the soil type around the Woodland Regional Park hosts alkaline prairie plants (one of them endangered), and b) it is our responsibility as environmental stewards to act to stave off the current extinction crisis.

    Diagram showing the available plant habitat at the Woodland Regional Park in a regional context

    I suppose the take-home from this is that it helps the graphic recorder if the speaker can give them a sense, ahead of time, of what they want the punchline to be. This experience from last week has reminded me that I can also ask for it.

  • (2/4/2020)

    Mind Mapping

    Some people have described what I do as mind mapping. I did some research and found that only a very few charts I make could be described as mind maps. Mind mapping has been used since antiquity as a technique to convey complexity easily, mostly in a linear, hierarchical way (think organizational charts, genealogies, genomic sequences), but was given the name "mind mapping" in the 1970s.

    What I do is better described as concept mapping. Concept mapping is more concerned with relationships among disparate ideas and through multiple dimensions. A great example is a world map showing the spread of the new coronavirus: time, number of cases, geographic spread, and virulence can all be shown on one graphic.

    These "maps" are useful to illustrate lots of things. Yesterday, for instance, someone asked me how I got into sheep shearing. (I'm not a shearer! But I do help out at shearing day and other events at Meridian Jacobs, a local sheep farm.) I drew this on an index card so I could explain it to her. Although it might not look like an org chart, it's chronologically linear, outlining a sequence of events over time:

    Diagram showing a journey sequence from ham radio to spinning yarn and knowledge of sheep

    A concept map might focus more on the processes and the associations behind this trajectory and how these things connect, along with other factors affecting the final outcome. Here, I took the original concept and delved into the reasons I got into ham radio in the first place:

    Diagram showing a woman's reasons for becoming an amateur radio operator (Ham)

    Whatever it is you're trying to convey, getting the help of a visual practitioner to draw it out, perhaps during a brainstorming session, might be a valuable way to understand why you are where you are and whether that's where you want to be.

  • (1/23/2020)

    Writing Your Book

    Did you make a New Year’s resolution to write a book this year? Perhaps you‘re planning to write a novel in November, during the month-long sprint that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Or, you’re not sure yet— maybe you want to keep thinking about it until it’s more than a vague idea.

    Drawing of a person thinking about possible book projects
    I used to work for a university publisher. That experience taught me that it’s almost always better to think about a book first as a proposal: a one-page outline of your idea, along with a table of contents and a sample chapter. This is true whether you’re planning to send the book to an agent, directly to a publisher, or publish it yourself.
    Whatever your final plan, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what other books might compete with yours. Publishing is a risky business, and any editor will want to be convinced that what you are offering is new and, most important, sellable. It pays to do your homework. (A good place to start is to recall what books you bought in the past year. Make it a habit to frequent brick-and-mortar bookshops. Know what’s hot in your field. Be honest: is your idea a book, not just an article or a blog post?)
    Once you’ve decided for yourself that a book is a good plan, something that people will want to buy, spend some time working on an outline which will help you develop ideas in a coherent trajectory. This is where a graphic recorder can help: visually mapping out the flow of your book. I’m always happy to help people with projects like this. A little time up front can save months later.
    Good luck with your writing project!
  • (10/29/2019)

    Complexity in the Workplace

    Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

    It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

    Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

    Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

    Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

  • (10/29/2019)

    Visualizing Complexity: Why Does it Matter?

    Edward Tufte, author of numerous works on representing data graphically, gives a chilling example in the day-long workshop he's been running for years. Engineers working on the Challenger space shuttle mission failed to convince NASA that the lower temperatures expected on the planned launch date, and the possible failure of the o-rings, would constitute an unacceptable level of risk. They had data, they had graphs, they had diagrams of o-rings, but the launch went ahead. As we all know, the Challenger exploded.

    What if their presentation had instead featured a graphic like this?

    Challenger disaster visual of risk of low temperature

    (Tufte proposed a simple, elegant graph that showed the likelihood of o-ring failure in direct proportion to dropping temperatures. In all communication, understanding your audience is key.)

    Consider something complex but not quite as distressing: the map of the London Underground. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former employee of the Underground, produced this map, still recognizable to us almost 100 years later:

    London Underground map from 1931 by Harry Beck

    Earlier maps had followed the city's geography more closely, which is not relevant if you're traveling underground. Subway maps around the world have been modeled on London's, giving passengers information about transfer points and the number of stations between them and omitting extraneous geographical detail.

    Mapping the human genome, mapping complaints, mapping where items are found in the aisles of grocery stores: maps are visual tools that can help clarify complexity.

    Next week: What complexities are found in your organization, and how might they be made visible so as to render them more understandable?

  • (10/15/2019)

    Complexity, Visualized

    A few years ago, when the avian influenza epidemic raised urgent red flags about the potential for a global flu pandemic, I was working at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center. The epidemiologists there were working to understand the systems that could trigger such a pandemic and determine what steps might be taken to avoid one.

    A major concern for scientists, health personnel, and policymakers is that influenza viruses mutate easily and can even jump species. They are complex systems, they are highly adaptive, and their trajectory is not predictable. With so many people in the world keeping poultry and other livestock near wildlife, and with rapid global travel so common, one of these mutations can become deadly enough to kill people and then spread quickly. Communicating the danger inherent in such a complex system is made easier by the use of graphics: it's easy to follow the flow and trajectory.

    Drawing of the trajectory of the spread of a deadly disease

    We live in a complex world. How can it be understood more easily with the help of a graphic recorder? Next up, we'll look at the visualization of different complex systems.

  • (10/11/2019)

    Graphically Recording Nature

    I recently certified as a California Naturalist. I've been a birder for decades but this was a great chance to increase my knowledge of other pieces of the nature puzzle in our area like fungi, galls, and dragonflies and damselflies.

    Drawing of person recording observations in nature

    Something magical happens when you sit in nature, journal and pen in hand, and just take it all in. For me, it cleans out the inside of my head. It's a meditation.

    Sitting still and focusing on what you see and hear, and recording what species are in your local area, can serve as a valuable resource for scientists as well as addressing nature deficit disorder. Try it! I always learn something new. 

    Just like I always learn something new when I step into a room to graphically record a meeting or workshop.

  • (10/1/2019)

    Moving Forward with the Right Tools

    When we started talking about strategic planning, we looked at negative reactions and suspicions you might encounter when it's brought up. If you've taken some time to talk to members of your organization and communicated your belief in their value and honestly asked for their input, you might all be ready to move forward with a planning process.

    Some of the milder negative responses to hearing "strategic planning" evoked tedium and dread, summed up as "endless meetings in dark rooms with stale air."

    So: find a light, pleasant environment for a meeting. Make sure people are given healthy food choices. Never go over time, and be sure to include plenty of breaks.

    Find the best facilitator you can, someone who will naturally suggest all of the above. And have someone present who will capture the conversation, live, using images and words. (Someone like me.)

    You may find people looking at what's been said, and then ask, "What if we did this this other way?" —which also gets drawn. A path begins to emerge. It may not be what you had in mind at the beginning, but I encourage you to have the courage to allow it to form. The result may be something much better.

    drawing of a mountain with a trophy on top, with three different ways to reach it

    A skilled facilitator working with a graphic recorder can make all the difference in a room full of people who are jaded with planning processes. Try it. It could open up a whole new way forward. And if you've done all the communication legwork beforehand, it might make you look like a genius.

    If you'd like to schedule a free graphic recording demonstration, please click here!

  • (9/24/2019)

    The Solution Starts With You

    Last week we took a closer look at some people's negative gut reactions to the words "strategic planning." If you thought, "Wait! We don't do that! We don't think that way! We just want to know where we're going and how to get there!" — congratulations! What you actually have is a communication challenge, not an insoluble problem.

    Begin by understanding that every single person you work with has a unique perspective on the organization. At the risk of sounding obvious, it's in everyone's best interest that those perspectives be aligned if you're all going to move forward. Take the time to talk to people and ask questions about their perspectives. Pay particular attention to any answers that surprise you.

    If you think you don't have the time to do this, don't be surprised if people start polishing their résumés. Organizations whose leaders contemplate major changes without first getting significant buy-in from their employees are doomed to failure, according to John Kotter, emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change.

    Drawing of supervisor asking employees for input into some ideas

    If you have a healthy organizational culture, people will be unafraid to share their perspectives. You will learn a lot while at the same time instilling trust in your workforce. Trust leads to loyalty and a happy, productive team.

    Now you're ready to begin planning the way forward. Next week, we'll look at ways to make a strategic planning process less tedious and more fun, engaging, and effective.

  • (9/17/2019)

    Corporate B.S.

    Last week I mentioned the informal survey I had conducted to find out what friends in many different fields thought about strategic planning. Of the responses I received, the negatives outweighed the positives by a wide margin. Here are some of them. Do any match your feelings when you hear "strategic planning"? 

    Drawing of three figures with their different reactions to a strategic planning announcement

    "It's a waste of time." People who work for an organization are probably already trying to "do more with less," and the thought of a long series of meetings that likely "go nowhere" is filling them with dread and possibly contempt. They might feel, for example, that their input is being sought as lip service only, and that the leaders are "going to do what they're going to do anyway." If this were the case, it would certainly be a waste of their time to participate. 

    "Corporate B.S." According to Urban Dictionary, this is " new language that looks and sounds just like English, but is actually lies and propaganda spewed forth by big corporations." Take this example from the Corporate B.S. Generator: "fungibly synergize agile convergence." None of these words in itself is problematic, except possibly the verbification of synergy, but together? Meaningless. 

    "Brace for layoffs." If employees think a strategic planning exercise is an expensive and long, drawn-out way to justify laying people off, the implication is that managers and CEO's are cowards who point to graphs and numbers as a way to avoid uncomfortable words like "we think you should consider retirement" or "we've decided to take the organization in a different direction." It's dehumanizing. (This tactic was mercilessly satirized in the film Up in the Air.) 

    Clearly, not all organizations behave this way. Check in next week to find out how you can be sure yours isn't one of them. 

    To get these in your inbox each week, join my list!




  • (9/10/2019)

    What are they really thinking?

    I recently conducted an informal survey via Facebook, asking this question: What pops into your head when you hear the words "strategic planning"? The results astonished me.

    First, the sheer number of responses -- I got over 100 in 24 hours. I had clearly touched a nerve; people had strong opinions and were eager to share them.

    I put the responses into three categories -- positive, neutral, and negative. Only 16% reacted positively (mostly friends who do some kind of facilitation work or who have a managerial role in organizations). The neutrals (also about 15%) seemed to understand the need for planning, though they were just, well, neutral, though leaning toward unenthusiastic.

    The negatives? Over 60% used such terms as "boring," "waste of time," "corporate BS," "military/authoritarian," and on into "brace for layoffs," all indicating tedium, cynicism and deep mistrust.

    This was a small sample size, and it wasn't a scientific survey. But any organization thinking about embarking on strategic planning should understand that some of its members could share those reactions and prepare accordingly.

    drawing of a general asking workers to charge toward the future with a strategic plan

    Next week, we'll look into some of these negative reactions more closely to see how to turn them into positive interactions with your team to allow everyone to go forward in a purposeful way.

    If you'd like to receive this content in your inbox each week, sign up for my newsletter here.

  • (9/4/2019)

    The Right Tools for the Job

    Last week I talked about my first day of school in a new country and my trip to a magical stationery store. I got a pencil case so I could fit in with my five-year-old classmates and put my pencil, pencil sharpener and eraser inside so they wouldn’t get lost.

    What does this have to do with you?

    Knowing that you have the right tools for the job.

    What are your tools? drawing

    So much of what we do requires tools and the skills to use them. I’m typing this on a laptop using software I had to learn to use. Yesterday I was making some yarn on a spinning wheel. We cook our dinners with kitchen tools and we garden with gardening tools that have changed little since the middle ages—because they were well designed to begin with.

    When it comes to tools for our work, we are often given standard-issue equipment. Mostly it works well enough. But what if we looked at tools in a broader sense? Tools are often about what choices we make. Should I send this person an email? Call them up? Arrange to meet in person? Send them a handwritten note? The point is, the choice might have a strong impact on the outcome. “Management by walking around” is a style, but it’s also a tool.
    My own professional tools are markers, paper, and boards I set on tripods. I choose German Neuland markers because they come in a huge range of colors, they’re water-based (non-toxic), and refillable. I choose layout paper because it’s smooth and takes ink well and because the smell of it takes me back to the inside of a stationery store in Madrid on a September afternoon.

    What are your favorite tools, and how do they help you excel in your work?

  • (8/27/2019)

    When I was four years old, my family moved from San Francisco to Spain. I had my fifth birthday in a Madrid hotel. We moved into a house north of the city, and almost right away I found myself in an English-speaking school. It was technically British, but it hosted children from dozens of countries. I didn’t know any of them and walked around the playground during “break” (recess) whispering to myself, over and over, “I gotta bring a snack,” as I watched the others munching away. Back in Miss Thompson's basement, my classmates all had fancy pencil cases. I didn’t. I figured I had to have one of those, too.

    In those dusty days, Franco was in charge, sheep still had the right of way in downtown Madrid, and stationery stores were dream palaces. Fresh new notebooks, bottles of French ink, German pencil sharpeners and erasers—and, of course, pencil cases—were stacked high to the ceiling. I still remember that smell — fresh paper, full of promise, shiny covers newly printed. The shop owner stood behind the counter like Mr. Ollivander, the wand maker, and you had to ask for what you wanted. My mother’s Spanish was still rudimentary, but I could point, and I did. I got my pink and green pencil case. I cradled it all the way home, like a passport or a wallet. It was my key to belonging (now that Mum and I had ironed out the break-time snack).

    Drawing of a mother and daughter inside a stationery store
  • (8/20/2019)

    On the Other side of Listening: Being Heard

    I was recently at a conference of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners (people who do what I do for a living). The keynote speaker was a photojournalist. Halfway through his talk, he looked down. Everyone in the front row was drawing what he said. He chuckled in surprised appreciation. Being a photographer is often a solitary occupation and doesn't allow for the experience of seeing how others respond to your work. Here, people were responding to his words, visibly, in real time. It was evidence that they were listening intently. He felt heard -- and seemed quite moved.

    Drawing of a chart with a question: I think you said this: did you?

    Graphic recording isn't just sketchnoting in large format, though it uses a lot of the same skills.


    Often, people in a meeting are so focused on what they want to say that they're not really listening to anyone else. If I can get down what they say, they can relax. I often turn around and make eye contact with the person who just spoke to give them an additional cue that I heard them. The energy in the room shifts. The talkers-not-listeners can then start participating, contributing in a meaningful way to the creative process. Graphic recording is a path to making that happen.

    I added a video to my Listen-ink Facebook page to explore this topic further.

    If you'd like to receive information like this directly into your inbox, please join my mailing list, here.

  • (8/13/2019)

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    drawing of someone listening to a lecture in order to understand the content

    When we're in a presentation or lecture, the most important thing to listen for is content . We are on the receiving end of information transfer. Sometimes the information is very complex and is strictly nonlinear, which is why sketchnoting can be so powerful -- it liberates you from the bullet-point format.

    Of course, we can't get everything down, nor should we. The key is to get the essential points. If your neighbor is sketchnoting they might be on a completely different planet as far as understanding what the essential points are. DON'T GET DISTRACTED! You're distilling the essential points for YOU. Don't forget to capture questions afterward if they're relevant, or ask clarifying questions yourself.

    diagram of a meeting in progress

    Meetings are, or should be, different. Information is transferred but is then discussed, ideas are exchanged, and new meanings or purposes can emerge from the collaborative space. Again: non-linear. Catch the flow. Enjoy the messiness of a creative team at the top of its game!

    Listening for content takes concentration, but in terms of a skill, we've had a lot of practice. There are other ways of listening: for empathy, for tone, for what's not being said (particularly valuable, particularly hard). Listening is one of the most valuable tools in a manager's toolkit—it builds trust, which improves the performance of the team. Almost all great managers are good listeners—almost all great leaders are even better ones.

    How well have you listened today?

  • (8/7/2019)
    Learn to sketchnote!

    Diagram of how to take graphic notes
    Become a sketch noter...

    You're in a meeting or a lecture. It's important and you’re interested, but the lights just went down for the PowerPoint, and you're afraid of dozing off after lunch. You want to concentrate! Taking graphic notes will help you do just that, and research shows it will also aid in memory retention. Grab your pen and a notepad--they're all you need. Just go for it! Some tips:

    a) Listen. Listen for the essence. Don't get distracted by too many bullet points or general wordiness.
    b) Don't know where this talk is going? Start in the center of the page so you won't run out of paper.
    c) Think hierarchy. Bigger > smaller > smallest. Bolder > normal > light. Caps > printed > script.
    d) Make containers (boxes) to group content.
    e) Connect the containers with different kinds of lines.
    f) Finish. At the end of the talk you can add shading, make additional connections. Work fast. Did any questions after the talk clarify things for you? Add them. Add color if you want.

    When I'm doing graphic recording, I get a lot of comments. Often, it's something like "Wow, I could never do that." I'm a strict egalitarian when it comes to art -- remember, we all drew as children! -- but if you look at the example above, I haven't asked you to draw anything more than a goofy face with ears. You can draw two boxes and connect them with a line!

    Next time, we'll dive deeper into the first step, which is listening.

    Until then, have fun sketchnoting!
  • (4/30/2019)

    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.
  • (4/18/2019)

    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.

  • (3/5/2019)

    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.

  • (2/19/2019)

    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?

  • (9/24/2017)

    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

  • (9/3/2017)

    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

  • (8/17/2017)

    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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  • (3/23/2017)

    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.

     

  • (3/19/2017)

    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.

  • (1/25/2017)

    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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  • (1/17/2017)

    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.

    Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.
    Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.

    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.

  • (2/25/2016)

    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.

     

  • (9/28/2015)

     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.cap referral dwg

    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.

     

     

  • (9/12/2015)

    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.

    Acknowledge contributions from everyone including the slow-to-speak, whatever their reasons. Capture them visibly. Watch your meetings become more productive and meaningful.thatguy

  • (9/8/2015)

    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:

    1. What your book is about
    2. Whether you are the best person to write this particular book
    3. What your writing style is like
    4. 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.

    bookproposal