Stick Figures vs. Spreadsheets: Why You Should Doodle at Work


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Author Dan Roam discusses his new book on visual communication.

Draw to WinWhat do circles, squares and stick figures have do to with effective business communication? According to management consultant Dan Roam, doodles and drawings are the among the best ways to convey information because most people are visual learners. In his new book, Draw to Win: A Crash Course on How to Lead, Sell and Innovate with Your Visual Mind, Roam says anyone can use visual communication — no art degree needed. He recently appeared on the on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss why the brain excels at processing information when pictures are part of the message.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the impetus for this book?

Dan Roam: I am a business guy who comes out of an art background. I have drawn all my life, starting as a little kid. If you think about it, most of us have drawn when we were very young. I just kept on doing it. That brought me into a managing consulting role, where I was the weirdo who would go up to the flip chart or the white board and draw a picture of whatever I heard people talking about. Now I want to be clear, the pictures I was drawing were exceedingly simple. They might be a couple of circles, a box, a triangle, an arrow connecting them. If I was feeling really artistic, I might even add a stick figure up there somewhere and then some labels.

The idea is that we’ve all been through business meetings a million times, but how different it is when someone takes the initiative and tries to visually capture what is being said? It kind of changes the temperature in the room. If it’s an aggressive sales meeting, it becomes a little bit more collaborative. If there’s a lot of politics, a lot of that washes away because people then pick up the pen and add to the drawing. It’s very powerful.

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think the effectiveness and attention on a person who is drawing out a game plan or a sales idea is greater than when someone is just standing at a podium speaking.

“If we spent our lives tapping on a keyboard, we’re bypassing one of the most powerful mechanisms that our brain has to retrieve and capture information.”

Roam: Oh, it’s incredibly powerful. There are some very, very powerful cognitive and neuro-biological, neuro-mechanical reasons why that is so. Probably one-third of every neuron that you have in your brain is there to help you process vision. More of our brain is dedicated to vision than any other thing that we do. By orders of magnitude, more neurons are active in vision than anything else, including language and talking. The second data point that’s kind of cool is that the human brain is actually a pretty small organ in our body. It only counts for about 2% of our total body weight, yet our brain consumes 20% of our energy at any given moment. What we’re trying to do in a meeting is get and capture the attention of the other people in the room. There is nothing more powerful to do that than being the person who draws the picture, activating all of those neurons that want to process imagery, calling them to task and getting them into the meeting. When typically, that whole visual part is just lying dormant. That’s why it works so well.

Knowledge@Wharton: You bring up this concept that drawing is thinking. We don’t write as much as we used to. Most of it’s done on computers. In some respects, drawing is a way to bring back a skill that has been lost.

Roam: It is. And I would amplify that by saying that the studies are now conclusive — done across the world and over the last couple of decades — that there is no better way to help you remember things than writing them down and drawing little icons or little sketches or little doodles that help you clarify. That’s point No. 1.

The second one is the tactile act of putting a pen or a pencil in our hand and sketching on a piece of paper. Although it does not seem like it, it turns out to have measurably improved impact on what we know and what we remember. It turns out that if we spent our lives tapping on a keyboard, we’re actually bypassing one of the most powerful mechanisms that our brain has to retrieve and capture information, which is the physical act, the kinesthetic act of trying to sketch it out on a piece of paper. A keyboard is an amazing tool for inputting a very linear set of symbols, which become linear words, which become a linear explanation of an idea. That’s awesome. But what they do not do is … to capture the more spatial, kinesthetic and visual side of ideas. That’s where the pictures come in.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is efficiency the reason we’ve seen this shift away from writing and drawing, whether it be business or in school?

Roam: There are a thousand reasons for that, and we can go all the way back into the history of our educational system. It’s really an interesting little switch, isn’t it? Because if you think about the dominance of social media right now from a technological perspective, the image and photos are really the core of so much of social media. Whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram or even Facebook or Pinterest or any of these things where the image has really become central to the way that we communicate.

I think that we spend a lot more time looking at pictures than we do probably writing or had in the past. But the trouble is just because we’re looking at pictures does not mean that those pictures are helping our brain learn very many things. That’s why I like to step away often from the kind of eye candy imagery that’s associated trying to capture our attention by showing us an image that may be evocative at the deepest level of our brain. I would like to use that and replace it by saying, “Well, since we’ve got visual attention, what kind of images or pictures can we create that are useful, that move our mind ahead, that clarify problems and give us more information?” What I’ve found is that those pictures that work the best are the hand-drawn, simple images. Stick figures, circles and arrows. You draw those, you are going to get someone’s attention in a powerful way.

I want to be really clear, I am not talking about an artistic process. I am talking about a thinking process. In these meetings or these sales sessions or these planning reviews, nobody cares about the quality of your drawing. What people care about is, “Do I understand your idea? What are the three main pieces of your idea and how does the first piece lead to the second, which logically leads to the third?” When I can see it, my visual mind lights up and says, “Yeah, I get it, I get it. Can I have the pen now because I saw it the other way and maybe connect an arrow?” This handing the pen back and forth is really easy. It becomes an incredible mind meld, especially when you’re in a leadership position or a sales position where you are trying to convince someone of the power of your idea.

“Stick figures, circles and arrows. You draw those, you are going to get someone’s attention in a powerful way.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Personalities are vastly different. But you break it down looking at two different people and the success that they have through this venue. One is Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, and the other is veteran journalist Diane Sawyer.

Roam: I like to compare Jack and Diane because they’re both very, very successful people by any kind of measure. Both personally and professionally, they are generally regarded as very, very successful people, which is great. Yet if you look at how they talk about what they did and what motivated them to move into business and do it the way they did, they come from polar opposite directions. Diane Sawyer says, “Find the thing that you’re passionate about and pursue that, and you will be successful.” Jack Welsh comes at it from the perspective of saying, “Identify the thing that makes your business very successful and then push with that.” It’s interesting because it’s almost binary. One is coming from this direction, one is coming from this direction, yet they both have this amazing success.

In the case of both of these characters, what I also like is that both of them were extraordinarily visual. Lots of charts, lots of diagrams, lots of sketches as a way to map out their own paths. Another character I’d add into this drama, who is kind of the hero of mine, is Marc Benioff, who is the founder and CEO of Salesforce. He’s this incredible drawer. His drawings are not good, but the number of times that Marc Benioff has been quoted as going into a meeting and saying, “I picked up a pen and sketched out an idea to show how does Salesforce work or how does the cloud work or how does the technology stack work.” What a powerful sales tool.

Don’t be afraid of your artistic talent. We’re drawing very simply shapes. If you look at any of the sketches that are created by any of these characters — Steve Jobs was an incessant white board drawer — the drawings are not gorgeous. But what’s amazing about them is that when you look at them, you get the clarity of the idea. The other point that I think is important to put in here is like any skill, like speaking clearly or doing just about anything you want to do well, practice does help. So, it’s really good if you decide to choose this path to try to be a little bit more visual in your meetings or in your presentations or your leadership style. By all means, do it, because you’re going to be in very good company. Richard Branson draws all the time.

“All you need to do is turn your picture upside down.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Explain how sales and innovation are affected by having this kind of philosophy.

Roam: I live in Silicon Valley, and I’ve been blessed over the last many years to work with many of the leading companies in technology, whether it’s Google or Microsoft or Salesforce. It’s really a great place to be if you’re into this world of innovation. The driving technical term these days for business success is innovate, and there are lots of great tools out there for how to be a good innovator. But I think what’s been neglected is the most powerful and simple tool for how to innovate, which is this: You simply take a look at whatever the technology is or the solution is to a problem today and you sort of map it out, just sketch it out. Pick any problem you want. It could be air travel. It could be light bulbs. It could be energy consumption or energy production. What does it look like today? All you need to do is turn your picture upside down. I know it’s metaphorical, but it’s also literal. “What would happen if I turned today’s existing solution upside down? Would I see something that had been missing as we’ve optimized this particular process over the years?” If I turn the whole problem upside down, maybe I find that what we’ve done is we’ve kind of evolved the solution, which may be a little archaic today given some of the technologies we have. I think the best definition of innovation is as always the simplest definition — innovation to me is looking at the same old things through a new set of eyes. And what possible better way is there to draw a picture of the status quo and then reverse it and say, “Is this a better solution, or do I see something new?”

Knowledge@Wharton: For people who do not work in a visual world, how do they move into that mindset?

Roam: I have a simple little toolkit and a simple little approach for people who think they might want to be more visual, but who are not in a visual world or don’t know how to do it. Just take a pen and a piece of paper and simply draw a circle. Draw a circle on your piece of paper and label that circle with whatever is the first thing that comes to mind when you start to think about your challenge or your problem. It could be anything. You might label that first circle “me” or “my program” or “my listeners.” Go ahead and draw another circle and say, “Well, what would this one be like?” If the first one was called “me” and the second circle was called “my listeners,” what’s the size of those circles, where there’s only one of me but lots of listeners? Then draw a little square that says, “This is the content that my listeners are most interested in.” Maybe draw another little square that says, “This is the content that I tried last week, which didn’t work so well,” and then maybe make a start over here and say, so what could I do about that?

“Innovation to me is looking at the same old things through a new set of eyes.”

The point that I’m trying to make here is it’s a very simple, beautifully elegant little way to capture things that are running around in our mind in these various clouds by simply drawing these shapes and then connecting them with some arrows and thinking about, “Well, which shape is on top here? Or what shape is in the center? Am I at the center of my world, or is my audience at the center of my world? How would that look if it was different?”

Knowledge@Wharton: If you’re flipping the circles, aren’t you just putting more focus on the people than rather yourself?

Roam: It could be. You don’t know until you’ve had a chance to think it through. That’s why I love these tools. By taking advantage of the power of our visual mind, what we’re really doing is intentionally coming to understand how this incredible process of vision actually works. What I mean by that is literally the neuro-mechanical, neuro-biological, electrical process going on in our brain thousands of times a second of turning the light into meaning in our head. When we open our eyes, light comes in and almost instantaneously that’s where all that visual energy is being expended.

We’re turning that light into meaning, into pictures that we see that give us direction. And when we understand literally how that process works, we can hijack that process. This is what I really love, that vision is predictable. If I need to explain something to you, I know what your visual engine is going to be looking for in terms of what pictures does your brain want to see and in what order. If I can create those pictures in advance and then feed them to you in the right sequence, you will see exactly what I wanted you to. That’s very, very powerful. The second part of it is, you and I together will begin to see things that would have been invisible if we were just talking about them because we’re activating all of these visual processing centers that are so powerful and so quick. Most of the time when we’re talking, those centers are simply lying dormant.

“Pick up a pen, draw your picture, you’re going to win.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Then the potential for the level of effectiveness goes way up, correct?

Roam: The effectiveness of what you’re trying to communicate goes right through the roof. If you think about it, how many mechanisms in a business meeting do any of us really have to be the person who captures attention? Maybe we can be the most attractive, the most charismatic, the most thoughtful, the loudest. But the one artistic, brilliantly visual thing that any one of us can do in any meeting and guarantee that we’re going to get attention is simply go up to the board and start drawing. I mean, we can’t dance. Nobody gets up on the table and says, “Let me dance out my project plan.” We can’t break into song. That rarely happens in a meeting where someone says, “Let me sing to you my innovation vision.” The one sort of creative aspect that we have that taps into parts of our minds that really want to engage is to be visual. Pick up a pen, draw your picture, you’re going to win.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about conveying big data?

Roam: I think IBM in their global report last year said that 90 percent of all of the data that has ever been captured in human history has been captured in the last two years. That’s crazy. That is an amount of data that none of us can even conceive of. Here’s where pictures come in. Our visual mind is super good at looking at vast sets of data and making sense of it, as long as that data is represented in a visual way. That could be a chart, it could be a map, it could be a schematic diagram. When we look at a bar chart, we instantly know which lines are longer than which other lines. That is orders of magnitude faster than it takes us to parse a spreadsheet. And if you imagine the depth of the data spreadsheets that are now available, it’s overwhelming to us.

Think about what IBM is trying to do with Watson and get it to parse this vast amount of data very quickly. We are better than Watson because we have a visual engine. We can look at visually presented data and instantly see patterns and outliers and trends that would be invisible if we were just looking at spreadsheets or trying to talk our way through it. That’s what I really want to capture. The way we’re going to get more big data is we’re going to become more visual, not less.

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