Collective Storytelling: 6 Fundamentals of Graphic Reporting

Author: Christopher Fuller

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Educational / How-To

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November 19, 2019

Read why Griot’s Eye believes “graphic reporting” is a more accurate description of what scribes do versus “graphic recording.” And learn what longtime Griot's Eye considers are the six storytelling fundamentals of graphic reporting.

For me, it’s really more about graphic reporting versus graphic recording

As a scribe, depicting the “collective story” of a meeting in visual form is my reason for being at any session I have the responsibility of capturing. This responsibility to the collective story is why I have increasingly begun referring to myself as a “graphic reporter” rather than a “graphic recorder.” Because “recorder” in my opinion addresses only part of my mission – recorders bring to mind notions of machines like cameras and audio decks that capture information but do no sense making of what they input. A reporter also captures information, but builds a narrative around those facts to create a story. Reporters in the news profession think of themselves as storytellers. It’s why you always see newspaper people in old movies demanding to know, “what’s the story?” and not, “what’s the record?” Because, even if they write for “the paper of record”, they are not just data recording, they are making sense of that data and building a story out of it. Graphic recording may be the accepted terminology, (and Google Analytics tells me I should utilize that term if I want anyone to find my articles which is why I have used it on my site) but it is graphic reporting that you are doing when you record that information and add a narrative to it – because just like a reporter surrounds her fact-gathering with a narrative, a “graphic reporter” (née recorder) adds a visual narrative to the data they record.

It all must start with having the right mindset for listening and understanding your role and responsibilities as a real-time visual storyteller

First, I must note that this all begins with listening and having the right listening mindset. If you do not have that as your bedrock and put the emphasis on drawing over listening and discerning what you are hearing, then your graphic reporting will suffer as a visual story. The right mindset consists of: openness (listening without bias); creative exploration (synthesizing by listening for where ideas converge and diverge); and being of service (sharing your special and unique skills as a graphic reporter).

The Listening Mindset Principles of Griot's Eye © 2019 Griot's Eye Inc.

While in my listening mindset I make sure to keep in focus my personal “north star” and the reason I am doing this in the first place – and that is to fulfill my four roles and responsibilities as a real-time visual storyteller: 1) reporter 2) mutual-educator 3) visual modeler and 4) inspirer.

The 4 Key Roles & Responsibilities of Real-time Visual Storytelling © 2019 Griot's Eye Inc.

Graphic reporting’s 6 basic elements for translating data into real-time collective visual stories

I have found that there are 6 basic fundamentals to depicting collective stories and creating graphic reports in real-time. The first four, I have adapted from my former colleague at MG Taylor, Bryan Coffman. They are from Bryan’s, Elements of A Good Visual Model.

These 6 basic fundamentals are a meta-examination of what I believe is essential to depicting a collective visual story in real-time as a scribe. I think of them as the absolute foundational things you will need if you only had one marker and a piece of paper to write with while scribing a conversation. Within these fundamentals there can be graphic design, illustration, and stylistic practices such as handwriting proficiency, rapid visualization techniques, color theory, and synthesis skills like visual modeling, to help you interpret a presentation or dialogue graphically.

6 Storytelling Fundamentals of Graphic Reporting

The graphic report example you see below is from a session I captured on artificial intelligence and analytics for a meeting about the future of the healthcare industry. I chose it because, though it’s not my best work (honestly, I don’t know what is, as I am constantly “angry” at myself for the things I did not do during a session – it can be a problem, but I suppose will help give some therapist steady business one day) it is pretty straight forward in showcasing my 6 storytelling fundamentals of graphic reporting. Now, let’s take a look at my scribing example and explore the 6 fundamentals as I applied them during my work.

An example from a graphic report by Griot's Eye
Denotations for the 6 storytelling fundamentals of graphic reporting in use

Annotation

Annotation is the text you use to depict the collective story you are listening to. With annotation in graphic reporting, I believe you want to tell just enough to make your story clear. You want to strive for a complementary combination of brevity and clarity. Graphic reporting starts with annotation. Annotation of course is based on listening keenly and paying close attention to where ideas converge and diverge so you can write down the most significant aspects of what you are hearing.

Listen for the tone of the presentation to determine how humorous you should be

My graphic reports start with annotation because I work in real-time. This is where having the right listening mindset is critical to reporting a discussion. You have to make sure that you are at ease so that you can listen without bias to what it is you are hearing. When I first began I felt the need to immediately start writing down every bit of information I heard furiously because I did not want to “miss anything”. I had the mentality of a shark – keep swimming or die. And in that hurried state to write everything down I would sometimes capture a ton of information, and risk losing the point of what was said because I couldn’t see the forest from all the trees. Hence, you must make sure you calm yourself and be an open vessel, ready to receive input before you scribe. Now, rather than furiously trying to write everything down the second it is said, I often keep post-it notes next to me just to jot down information as I hear it so that I can then later decide how best to incorporate it in my scribing.

I feel the need to point out the reference to “caca” you see on my board in this post because I wrote a whole bit on when to use humor in your scribing. Humor is a powerful tool for engagement and reinforcing memory when it comes to storytelling, but you have to make sure you are judicious in its use when you are graphic reporting at a meeting. In this case, that line is nearly a direct quote from the speaker, except they actually used the word “shit” instead of “caca”.

With that opening joke, the speaker set the tone for how humorous I could be in my work, and therefore it seemed appropriate to draw the poop emoji – though I rarely write down curse words, even when they are said during a discussion. Instead I will use alternative words that are generally considered less offensive, like in this case, “caca”, or I will use “grawlixes”.

Actors

Actors in scribing are any drawing items, such as characters or inanimate objects (in scribing even inanimate things can become actors, i.e. “talking buildings” and whatnot), or even abstractions like symbols that help express things or actions in a simple manner. Actors are nouns (persons, places, or things) that can be sketched quickly and many times are shown doing some sort of action or process (people running or shaking hands, rockets flying, trees growing, cogs intermingling, etc.). Actors like the other elements, frames and relationships, are strengthened when they come with annotation.

A sampling of "actors" -- even inanimate objects can be actors in scribing

In the example I have shown, I have drawn lots of actors to help explain the story: the aforementioned, poop emoji, the star people (cowboy, doctor), various medical symbols, the little icons for “Analytic Maturity”, computer doodads, etc. Actors need not be overly complicated or illustrative to be effective. As a matter of fact, I personally, separate cartooning (the AI doctor robot) from my normal actors (the star people) because I believe an actor can also be a cartoon, but cartooning and traditional drawing prowess is not central to being part of a good graphic report. What I mean is that cartooning tends to be about drawing features and giving things personality (whether those things are people or objects) but in graphic reporting, actors should be almost featureless, so that they can not only be drawn quickly and easily, but also be more universally interpreted by an audience. In this case, I tend to shy away from too many distinguishing characteristics with my actors, other than simple costuming. All that said, that does not mean cartooning has no place in scribing, I draw a ton of them, but they also are not fundamental to scribing. Cartooning is eye candy as opposed to being part of the meal.

Relationships

The color and arrows denote a relationship

Showing the convergence and divergence of ideas is all about revealing relationships. To reveal those relationships you can use many tools and techniques depending on the circumstances. Lines, arrows, connectors (dashed, direct, bi-directional, etc.), size, shape, and color, are some various ways a scribe can show relationships. I have divided “placement and flow” which is a key aspect of relationships, into its own category, because now that I have transitioned to working mostly on permanent surfaces (as opposed to dry-erase work-walls in my MG Taylor days) I have found that the inability to just erase and move things around has heightened my awareness of placement and flow, therefore, I will call it out distinctly later.

I used many different techniques in this example to reveal relationships between ideas and concepts. Some of the main ones are color (for instance, the red for “AI Healthcare Benefits” and the greens for “potential”), arrows, and even a visual model. Visual modeling is an incredibly important way of not just showing relationships, but is a critical thinking skill with its own unique discipline that is important to scribing, collaborative designing and systems thinking. In this example I drew upon my familiarity with MG Taylor’s modeling language to utilize their Data-Information-Knowledge model to help illustrate in shorthand what learning from data really means. You can also create your own models to help explain concepts, depict processes, and communicate relationships between ideas in your scribing. If you would like to learn more about the MG Taylor modeling process then you should check out the Collaboration Code’s book on modeling by Rob Evans, Matt Taylor, and Kelvy Bird.

Frames

The frames in this case, are red circles, containing connected ideas

Frames are closely related to relationships. Frames are the containers you use to make your story more digestible. Sometimes I think of them as chapters in the collective visual story I am reporting. Think how much more difficult a story would be to read in a book if it did not have easily discernible chapters – you would have a hard time taking it all in because it would feel overwhelming if you just looked at it. Frames house related ideas, such as actors or processes and can take a variety of forms. I like to encircle my “chapters” with organic or blob-like shapes, or give them light colored backgrounds to help them standout.

I used the red not only to show a relationship, but to also frame the “AI Healthcare Benefits” because I felt it was important to call that bit of information out. A frame does not need to have a drawn border, because you can also use color to frame sections of content, like I did with the blues to frame the idea of “data wrangling” in my example.

Titles and sub-headers

You should always give your collective story a bold title/header that encapsulates the whole work. Main titles and their cousin, sub-headers distinguish themselves stylistically from normal annotation because they are usually bigger, bolder, and even colorful and can be shown graphically, like on banners. The title is sometimes very easy to figure out because it is the name of the presentation you are hearing (e.g. “AI & Analytics: What’s The Future In Healthcare?”), or it is the name of a significant component of a presentation or dialogue (e.g. “Clinical Pay-Off Potential”).

Don’t bury the lead! AKA The importance of sub-headers
The sub-header "Cleaning Data" helps call attention to and explain that section

There’s a saying in the news business that goes, “don’t bury the lead.” And I believe that saying is important to real-time graphic reporting too. Because sometimes you will find the need to create sub-headers in frames, based on major themes that deserve not to be buried in what can initially seem like a sea of information, to call out a section due to its importance. You may even have to come up with the subheadings on your own in the spur of the moment or after the conversation ends.

In this case, I added the “cleaning data” sub-header over “data wrangling” because I felt it was a clear description of what that concept was. Also, “data wrangling” transitioned in the conversation right after the notion of “digital caca” and I wanted to make sure that people got how the two ideas were connected to one another (like with a before and after vignette).

Titles can be good opportunities to use design choices that bolster the theme of the presentation or dialogue. In this case, stylistically, I wanted to utilize a look that had both a digital and human feel – which is why I chose a combination of block lettering (for “A.I. & Analytics…”) and cursive (“Healthcare”). I started the title before the presentation, and finished after it ended in the evening because it took a while. At the time when I did this, the only way I knew to fill in that much color with markers (the black background for the title) was stroke-by-stroke the width of a Neuland BigOne marker. Since that time, the always amazing, Liisa Sorsa (a singular talent and terrific person) introduced me to Neuland’s FatOne pump-valve markers that are a terrific tool for filling in large areas of color much quicker than the stroke-by-stroke method I was using. Thank you Liisa!

A mixture of block lettering and cursive helps convey a theme of the presentation: digital + human

Placement and flow

Notice the 0s and 1s on the path?

Where you write things down can be nearly as important as what you write down. Proximity, distance, and how one idea or topic flows into the next can greatly effect how your visual story is “read.” As I noted, when I started my career, I primarily was working on dry-erase walls at MG Taylor led DesignShops and I took full use of the ability to rearrange my work on the fly. But now that I work independently I do not have the luxury of moving things around on erasable surfaces, so I am more conscientious of the initial placement of things. I try to place things on the surface leaving room to add branching thoughts, and to also leave room for big ideas. Therefore, I do not start too close to an edge, and I also like to make room in the center (or top or bottom right) for main topics and/or summations. Often, I find it useful to draw a path of some kind, either literally, like a river or road, or just some abstract thick lines of light colors (usually cool gray, cloud blue, etc.) that guide the viewers’ eyes around the graphic report. This helps direct the flow of information so that the viewer can more easily follow the content.

In the example I show, I came up with a “digital road” to help direct viewers from one topic to the next and give the work some cohesion. The road was done in light gray and added immediately after the presentation ended. If you look closely, you will see that the bits of data that spill out of the oil drill (an actor) at the start of the graphic flow along the road throughout the rest of the work (those tiny dark gray marks on the road are made up of 0s and 1s). In this case the flow was a literal path, but you can also use abstractions like lines or swaths of color to help direct your story along a path too if you like.

Things I wish I would have done differently

A bullet list. I try to limit my use of them whenever possible. But sometimes, you are a victim of time and space

Remember how I wrote that I had a hard time choosing an old work to use as an example because I tend to get “angry” viewing my previous scribes? What I really mean is that I am always looking for ways to improve my boards, and I believe you should continually evaluate your work also to see how you can grow as a scribe. Though I do not recommend you spend your time getting upset over your old work and self-flagellating (I had an aunt that warned me it leads to blindness – oh wait, I might be thinking of something else). Anyway, yeah, looking back at this work I instantly see something I wish I had done differently, though I understand why I made that stylistic choice. Do you notice the “Financial Potential” list in the bottom right? I typically try and stay away from a bullet list like that, unless I am constrained by time and/or space. I do this because I like to arrange things in a way that leaves room for ideas to branch out or to be turned into some type of graphical representation or visual model if possible.

A tale of two lists: left, graphic; right, bullet format

That is the difference between my first attempt of writing the “potential” of “clinical payoffs”, which I was able to cohere together by drawing the medical symbol, caduceus aka “The Staff of Hermes”, and my latter capture of the “financial potential”. Because I had run out of room and time, I had to just write the financials down as a bullet list. Though, I did use the US dollar symbol instead of typical bullets in the list to identify each one and give it some character. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing a list, (sometimes it’s your best choice) and when any scribe first starts, you will probably rely a lot on list-making – but as you become more comfortable with your skills you will find that not simply reverting to bullet lists will give you much more creative freedom to explore and expand on ideas graphically.

If you want to learn more about my 6 fundamentals of graphic reporting and scribing and collective visual storytelling, then be sure to bookmark my insights page and look for new posts.

If you are an event coordinator, meeting facilitator, or executive that is interested in harnessing the power of live visual storytelling at your next meeting, conference, or strategy and visioning workshop, then please contact Griot’s Eye! Let us show you how we can elevate your next event and make it a truly memorable and engaging experience that can illuminate your story to help you win over the hearts and minds of your attendees and stakeholders!

Be sure to follow Griot's Eye on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube for more information, inspiration, and examples utilizing the power of graphic reporting (recording), graphic facilitation, and visual storytelling techniques.

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