When I attended the Graphic Medicine (Un)Convention online in 2021, the way comics were being adopted by physicians, nurses, therapists, patients, and public health officials blew my mind. The reasons they were doing this were many, but there were some commonalities. Comics are inherently comprehensible on at least two levels -- visual and verbal. They are easily seen as a sequence. The viewer controls the speed at which information is assimilated. Most important, they do not require advanced literacy to communicate well.

I realized something interesting while looking at the incredible presentations that were made during that convention: this is something I was already doing on some level in Graphic Recording. Words + Image, and a sequence. What makes comics so much more than this, though, is the use of sequential panels to indicate time passage. And a constraint in graphic recording is having to make images on the fly at speed, so practice is very important. But another important point is that in comics, comic-book characters are expected and can be used to great advantage when discussing important issues. In this example, I’ve turned a COVID-19 cell into a character.

Four-panel comic about the spread of COVID-19 and communication.

Davis, California was blessed to have a real death-positive role model in Cathy Speck. She lost her mother and brothers to ALS, and when she got the diagnosis, she knew what was in store… but she decided to keep riding her crazy bedecked tricycle around town, even when she got an additional cancer diagnosis. I had this wonderful conversation with her back in 2016.

Chart showing Cathy Speck’s advice on how to be with a dying person

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.

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.

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!

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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?

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!

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.

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

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.