If you are a team leader, a business person, an entrepreneur, you have to communicate ideas to others in a regular basis. You can get a lot of benefit from learning visual thinking skills and it is a lot easier than you may think.

 

Why you should create your own visual material to think, create and communicate

Visual communication is growing at every minute. And there is a good reason for it: we understand images 60.000 times faster than language. That means, if you are a content creator, a team leader or a business person, that you will have a few things to share and the sooner, the better.

But what if you are not visual, can´t draw, or you are not artistic? Fear not. It is about ideas not art. We are going for symbolic representation here, and you will see, that means very simple shapes. You will be able to benefit from even the most basic skills that require only that you are able to write single letters. 

You can see the process of drawing the above diagram and listening to the explanation here:

 

Here you can find a visual thinking primer that shows you how to start without drawing:

 

 

When you use visuals to present your ideas, people will be able to follow along, understand you better and faster, and when there is a need for a consensus, it will be reached faster. Images are powerful.

But you will understand it better with examples of what you can do:

  • Before you have a message to share – learn (visual summaries)
  • To come up with a message to share – ideate (brain dump -mind maps)
  • Simplify your message – visual vocabulary
  • Tell your story – visual elevator pitch
  • Share your message – social media material
  • Engage your people – live meeting facilitation

 

How to use visual summaries or sketchnotes for learning

Before you have a message to share, or when you are thinking about a theme, you may want to do some background research. While you do, you could start honing your beginner drawing skills by taking notes with a bit of visual spice. At the beginning, you can just use frames to surround chunks of text, and slowly, add a little image here and there, until you develop your very own sketchnote.

 

Sketchnoting is a term popularised by Mike Rodhe in his book The Sketchnoting Handbook, and it requires more skills than just drawing: listening, synthesising what you hear, then thinking of an image to represent it, then drawing the image. Some people with experience are able to process a message and interpret it visually in real time. That is not the purpose here, where you may be researching to create content for a presentation or social media.

Here is an example of what I drew during an interview to Tyler Hayes, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Atom Limbs. He was being interviewed by Eric Koester during the Speaker Nights at Creator Institute. I didn´t know anything about him, nor most of the guests, but I kept showing up to learn about new people and topics, while writing my book Join The Playful Revolution. It was a way to feed my knowledge base and stimulate my creativity with a degree of novelty and randomness.

 

How to organise your thinking with Mind maps

Once you have done some research or filled your brain bucket with ideas, it is time to start harvesting. I love mind maps to perform a ‘brain dump’ of everything I can recall about a topic. I was introduced to them by my English teacher, while helping me prepare to write an essay. What I like about them is that they are an easy introduction to visual organisation of ideas without drawing.

A mind map is a tree-like network of concepts. You start with a main idea in the center of the page. Next you write the main subtopics around it, and connect them to the main idea. For each subtopic, you add a level of detail, and you can keep going with more granularity if you need to. Here is a simple image to show you an example:

 

When I was thinking about writing a book about creativity, I approached it by systematically responding to the journalists 6 W related to the book: who, what, why, how, when, where. Each of these concepts led me to different topics I could write about, as you can see below:

 

You can use this framework for any content creation. I have used 6W to help a project manager clarify and simplify the elements of a complex project. If you have to talk about a new technology, an initial framework could be: background, competitors, benefits, costs, and so on. As you see in the picture, you can add some color to it too.

How to simplify your message with visual vocabulary

At this point you have a series of topics to talk about, and it is time to simplify your message by synthesising it with the use of images. You need to develop your own visual vocabulary, maybe 5-10 images to represent the most important or frequent concepts you use at work. But don´t get stressed: If you can write, you already have enough skills for the kind of drawing I will share with you.

If you can draw a circle, and an inverted U underneath… you just drew a person.

 

That was easy. 

 

Next: a horizontal rectangle and two circles underneath, at each side. It is a car. I know it doesn´t look like one, but you can write CAR underneath too. Or BUS or TRAIN… whatever you want it to mean. Remember, we are drawing to share ideas, not creating art. 

We are looking not just at an image that represents our concept (i.e a bulb to represent ideas), but to do so with the minimum effort sufficient to represent the concept. Thus my simple rectangular car.

But you may think “yes, that is all very nice, but I’m in business and continuity is a thing: how do I represent Resilience?” I’m glad you asked. Normally, since I’m very visual and have been practicing sketchnoting for five years plus, I have a visual library in my head I can draw from. Diversity? I get my ‘person’ with different head shapes (see picture above). Brainstorm?  A cloud with a thunder. But when Carlos Carpizo from Kosmos requested Resiliency in our visual thinking coaching session… I didn´t know what to draw, just like you may feel when you start and have no library yet.

Solution: go to google, write the term + ‘icon’, and search for images only. In our case, that would be ‘resilience icon’. Alternatively, you can go to https://thenounproject.com/ and write your concept as is (i.e “resilience”). You would be scanning to find an image that is both representative and easy to draw. Then you should practice drawing each of your visual concepts 20, 30 or 50 times, until you feel confident enough.

 

How to create a visual elevator pitch

Great, you developed your visual library, and now what? Use it… to take notes, to make a point, or even to present your company’s (project, idea) elevator pitch. I assume you are familiar with the elevator pitch concept, where you present the benefits of a product or service and the people who benefit from it in a compelling yet brief manner… enough to fit in the time you reach your floor in an elevator. First you need to refine the message, then you represent it visually.

There is some skill in structuring an elevator pitch. Following Graham Cochrane simple framework for a service, I suggest you some:

  • I am (WHO) “a visual thinking coach”
  • And I help (WHOM) “tech & bizz people and entrepreneurs”
  • WHAT “communicate their ideas effectively by using visual skills”

Another example is my summary of my vision to develop Design Thinking. I distilled the necessary skills you need to practice regularly, then added the principles I embed in every practice session. It was a process that took some time, and lead to the creation of my Creative Coffee sessions I share in my book Join The Playful Revolution. The skills were empathy, collaboration, storytelling, visual language and creativity. The principles: play and humor.

 

Case study: a Visual Thinking coaching session with a tech company 

Kosmos is a social company that builds on art and technology to bring job opportunities to youth at risk of exclusion in Mexico and USA. They hired me to help them with communicating the companies values to their clients: young people between 17-23 years of age undertaking their training program.

Before our practical session, we exchanged emails where I asked them:

  • Their elevator pitch: Who they are, what they do, why they do it (so I got a bit of context)
  • A list of frequently used terms so I could prepare in advance.

Later in the session, I first gave them a primer in visual thinking, to learn basic skills, and then we moved onto practicing with their company’s specific vocabulary:

This was their list:

  • Home
  • Community / Anti-selfie (thinking of self only as evidenced by the % of selfie photos)
  • Belonging 
  • Mindset
  • Emotion
  • Perspective shift / New perspective
  • Curiosity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative Thinking
  • Resiliency

Finally, we moved onto finding a cohesive way to present their project.

Kosmos elevator pitch is:

  • What they are: Kosmos is a positive space where technically savvy disadvantaged young adults can learn new skills, at the intersection of tech and art, yielding life ready professionals.
  • How they do this: Technical Skills training are hosted under artists’ workshops or art centers where we transversally braid intentional art interactions into the core program of skill capacity development. We want our students to have the opportunity to learn how to learn. By teaching a base skill  we provide the technical basics, however our model of intentional interactions develops enabling sub-skills that will position them to have the skills and base knowledge they need to learn how to learn.
  • Why they do this: Opportunity should be for all. We believe art is a key component that is very underestimated in the tech industry. Through art interactions we push our students to think outside the box, to explore different possibilities and horizons and to just experience and let their imagination flow. This way we develop competencies such as curiosity, critical & creative thinking, collaboration, communication and compassion. 

To develop their final image, I focused on their Why, where art (represented by the palette) is the foundation over which they develop (and mix) their set of competencies (colors and attributes).

 

How to create Social media material with your simple drawings the easy way

Finally, another use for your brand new visual vocabulary and drawing skills is to create images to share your project, message or brand in social media. 

To streamline my process I use my iPad (2018)   with an Apple Pencil (generation 1) and the apps Paper (free) and Canva (also free). That is the oldest iPad that will allow me to use the Apple pencil. However, you only need any tablet or mobile phone that will allow you to draw with your finger or a basic stylus. 

I may hand draw my concept in Paper, save as a picture and share it in Social Media as is, like in my sketch about the book editing process (I didn’t show up with scissors to ‘cut’ but with a chainsaw… so much I cut)

Or I may elaborate it more, with details, and color, but still in Paper, like in my word count graph about the same book editing process (now you understand my feeling).

Eventually, I may upload the image to Canva.com to add some more elements to create a more elaborate image, or series, like The Story of a Book example below.

 

How to engage your team with visual facilitation of meetings and retrospectives

There is one more use for drawing that can make your team and meeting participants happier: visual facilitation. I’m just going to prompt you to run meetings using visual templates aligned with the agenda, whether it is a strategy session, a retrospective or anything else.

If you are running a project planning session, the following template may help you guide the discussion:

 

  1. Goals for the project
  2. Potential risks
  3. What may give the project or team impulse
  4. What may delay the project or team

You can facilitate in many ways but I have used the following methods:

  • You asks participants about each point (in order), while you write down the responses on the wall (did I say you need to reproduce the picture in a big panel?)
  • Alternatively, you give participants time to write down their contributions on sticky notes, then ask them to clean up duplicates, and come to a consensus

For retros, you could use the boat template, or the star template where the focus is on:

  • Things to do more of
  • Things to do less of
  • Things to keep doing
  • Things to stop doing
  • Things to start doing

 

In the case of remote teams, you can use collaborative whiteboards like Miro or Mural with the same frameworks (they both allow for drawing and use of digital sticky notes, as well as uploading images, or using their own templates).

Where to learn more

I hope you are encouraged to start your visual thinking journey, one way or another. Here you have more resources to keep learning.

Verbaltovisual.com

The Sketchnoting Handbook –  Mike Rhode 

The back of the napkin – Dan Roam 

Mind Map Mastery – Tony Buzan 

 At Risk of Greatness – Carlos Carpizo 

 

(Some of the above contain affiliate links, which means you pay the same but I get a small amount that helps support this project.)

 

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