Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Visual Thinking And The Death Of PowerPoint

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series that explores basic ways to enhance your communications skills.  Today, it's about the value of engaging visual thinking via fluid graphics to enhance a group presentation.

Fluid Graphics: A Case In Point

Just the other day, I presented a complex plan to a group of people using this method.  As a task force tackling a project with a hot deadline, we had already had a couple of meetings.  But some parts of the plan were still cloudy.  What were the top-priority objectives? How would everything connect?

Our dialogue needed focus. We needed to get past the talking stage. Define the pieces. Divvy up tasks.  Get to work!

So this time when we met, I led the discussion graphically.  Here's what I did:
  1. I put a big piece of blank flip chart paper on the wall.
  2. As I talked through the project overview , I started positioning sticky notes on the paper, using different colors and sizes to represent various project elements.   
  3. Using a marker, I labeled the slips with key words as I went -- just enough to make them understandable -- but I wrote no other text on the chart.
  4. When all the elements were on the chart, I placed arrows between them to indicate flow and sequencing.
  5. Once I'd set up the project representation in graphic format, I asked for feedback. 
From that point on, the group went into overdrive.  As team members brought up additional thoughts, alternatives, or  objections,  I re-positioned the colored squares and arrows to show how their ideas changed the flow.  The group could instantly grasp how different approaches impacted deployment.

The result?  Details that had formerly stalled discussion were no longer obstacles as people literally "saw the big picture." Everyone could tweak the structure until it made sense.  When the session ended, people could take cell phone pictures of the finished flip chart so they could leave with a ready-made visual reference (and send it to colleagues who weren't at the meeting).

This story has a postscript that's too good to skip.  The next day, I brought the flip chart to the executive committee meeting to present the project proposal on behalf of the group.  As it turned out, the senior managers had some new information to add to the mix.  No problem.  I just labeled a couple of fresh sticky notes, rearranged the ones already on the paper, and moved some arrows to show how the new elements would fit into the flow.  The instantly-revised plan got the committee's attention, approval and quick sign-off.

Visual Thinking: A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words... And At Least Thirty Minutes

As this story shows, a dynamic use of fluid graphics during live presentations can:
  • illustrate complex ideas and relationships;
  • enhance communication about those ideas and relationships;
  • unify a group around a central thought process;
  • minimize distraction;
  • empower collaboration and problem resolution to elicit team consensus;
  • simplify the process of winning stakeholder approval.
AND... do it in half the time.

Because of all these advantages, a growing number of organizations are adopting this methodology in problem-solving meetings instead of its old-school, idea-killing, time-guzzling predecessor, the PowerPoint presentation.

The big bonus: as we've just seen, you don't need to be a trained graphic artist to use fluid graphics!  Sticky notes and  markers are tools that anyone can use.

To read about other ways that companies are using fluid graphics to boost creative productivity, click on this story from the Wall Street Journal, or check out  The Back Of The Napkin by the dean of graphic communicators, Dan Roam. This book is a great primer for using graphics to talk through just about any question or proposal. Dan says, "You can solve any problem with a picture."  He uses simple drawings instead of sticky notes, but the concept is the same.  You can click here to browse Dan's website,  Napkin Academy, and access its many free resources.

Do you need to help people visualize something today?  How can you use fluid graphics to not only get your point across, but to also:

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