How A Songwriter's Spirit May Improve Your Graphic Recording (p1: Respect)
How a songwriter's spirit can improve your listening, focus, and real-time graphic recording/visual storytelling and why it's important to always respect your speakers and the content you're listening to.
Why someone might be hesitant to utilize a graphic recorder
I recently read a post on the Facebook Graphic Facilitation page that listed some reasons why people might push back on utilizing a graphic recorder at their events. One of my colleagues relayed a story there that a speaker once told him about why he did not want his session captured graphically. The speaker told my colleague about a previous incident he had where he heard the audience actually laughing during a serious part of his presentation and then being shocked to discover the reason why -- following the laughter, he looked over to see the scribe had drawn their own funny interpretation of his topic in a way that not only shifted the attention to the scribe but also misrepresented his ideas.
As a long-time practitioner, I was dismayed by this story, though I understand why it could have happened. I've been at this since the very beginning of the "third wave" as my friend and former colleague at MG Taylor, Kelvy Bird identifies that era of scribing in her book, "Generative Scribing: A Social Art of the 21st Century", a wonderful and philosophical exploration of this burgeoning field that I highly recommend. My experience has taught me many important things about this craft; and by experience I mean my early real-time mistakes (the technical term is "f@$!k-ups") that led me to discover the real purpose of what I do -- and that is as a scribe, the fact is, I am no "rock star" but more akin to a "songwriter." Not just any songwriter, but a songwriter in the Brill Building during the heyday of the 1960s pop charts. Brill Building songwriters were prolific muses that often wrote songs that "told a story" for some of the greatest stars of that generation. I think of myself and other graphic recorders as visual "songwriters" writing stories for our true "rock stars", in this case, the speakers and meeting participants whose discussions we have the responsibility of capturing.
The Brill Building songwriters of the 1960s
If you're not familiar with the Brill Building it was the location of many song publishing companies in New York City that started in the 1930s and dominated the charts along with the British Invasion, Motown Sound, and Surf music during the early to mid-60s. It housed some of the greatest songwriters of that time not named Lennon & McCartney, Robinson, Dylan, or Holland-Dozier-Holland. Songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin whose job it was to create melodies and lyrics for the major pop stars tailor made for each stars' distinctive style. These people in the background were not the "rock stars" but the muses that gave the stars their voice. They were gifted songwriters who were strictly attuned to each singer they were assigned to so that they could craft songs that truly represented and respected each act.
So why all this metaphorical discussion of graphic recording, songwriting, and rock stars? Because I have a suspicion that the speaker who had the unfortunate incident with the scribe that made light of his presentation ran into one of the newer and less experienced scribes, one of the few who may see themselves as a "rock star" giving a performance. Not the songwriter in the background, giving the real performers a voice and room to express themselves. These "rock star" scribes born indirectly from descendants of ASE DesignShops and other similar workshop sessions and conferences are called that because they are frequently the most memorable parts of those meetings due to the very nature of it being a visual job. Once the process grew to include more illustrators and cartoonists it was inevitable that some of the newer ones may have been tempted to throw in an unnecessary bit of humor as a "scribe challenge" to themselves. Now before I go any further I must state that I believe my experienced colleagues who utilize the "rock star" term in promoting their services do not mean it in that way. They are referring to the possible opportunities of traveling the world similar to a rock star gig-to-gig, city-to-city (on a "steel horse" we ride -- I've worked on 5 continents so far myself) rather than literally drawing attention to themselves away from the speakers with off topic or poorly timed whimsical choices that highlight their presence. For those experienced individuals who allude to the "rock star" term in that way I have nothing but the utmost respect.
As someone who graduated from college with a Visual Art degree and had lifelong aspirations of working for either Disney or Marvel (until rejection letters quashed those dreams and put me on a different path), I know what that temptation is like to be flashy to single yourself out with a "high note" when it was not necessary, when it might not serve the "song". It is a lure for many budding graphic recorders, especially because sometimes you might actually be on stage with spotlights on you and it might even come to feel like a performance. But I am here to tell you through my own experience that though it is all right to be whimsical and sometimes even needed (after all, one of MG Taylor's most quoted DesignShop axioms is "If you cannot have fun with the problem, you will never solve it" your prime directive is to always be in service to the dialogue, to tell the story, to write the song. Imagine yourself as the songwriter, the person in the background -- you are not the "performer." You are not the "rock star." And by "background" I do not mean literally in the background, as I have worked on many stages and up front in plenaries (honestly, you position yourself wherever the client deems best). I mean metaphorically in the "background" the same way a backup singer shares the main stage with the star.
An early lesson about R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the content and the craft
I was blessed to tutor under some ridiculously brilliant people during my time with MG Taylor and I took away a lot of valuable lessons from my colleagues, such as my early lesson about listening from founder Gail Taylor. Another one of my early f@$!k-ups (technical term) involves scribing with my mentor and fellow MG Taylor colleague during those pre-ASE days, Bryan Coffman. We were scribing side-by-side and because I was still learning and confident that Bryan would do the "real scribing" I remember I just started adding bug-eyed metaphorical animals to the board that looked "cute" but added no real substance and was also out of step with the tone of that particular conversation which was highly technical. Bryan just leaned into my ear and whispered, "you may want to think about concentrating more on the content."
That was it. It was a quick quietly spoken aside, but coming from whom it was coming from, a man I recognize not only as a friend, but also as a mentor and honest-to-goodness true genius, it felt like being taken to the woodshed. He recognized what I was doing and saw that I was not tuned into the conversation, but rather looking for opportunities to amuse myself and maybe the participants. To put it another way, I was trying to hit some high notes with my graphics like a marker wielding Mick Jagger, but out of step with his band. I was not writing the participants' song, I was singing my own song and I was not attuned to the dialogue and therefore that meant I was out of tune. A horrible misread of the situation for any graphic recorder.
Three simple mindset principles for graphic recording
It's part of why I learned to follow three simple principles to put me in the right mindset with every graphic recording opportunity. And that is to scribe with: openness (listening without bias), creative exploration (synthesizing by listening for where ideas converge and diverge) and to be of service (sharing your special skills as a graphic recorder).
These three core principles of mine, connected by the grey lines and arrows on the graphic model (that represent being "attuned to feedback from the group"), help keep me focused on my real job, writing the best "song" I can that tells a visual story. I believe that if you follow these three core principles or something similar when you are trying to capture a conversation in real-time you will be dialed in to not just the words you are hearing, but how they are being said and responded to by the group, you will be attuned to the tone and tenor of the conversation. Like form follows function in design so too does it apply for graphic recording. Again, I do want to stress that it's okay to have fun with your work and add whimsy, but you have to listen for the tone of the delivery and not just the words. If the speaker or group is not treating the conversation lightly in any regard, then neither should you. Your job is not to add whimsy, your job is to tell a story, to write a song. Write a song in real-time that is uniquely tuned to the tone of the conversations you are listening to. Your graphic "song" should be a reflection of what the participants are saying ("singing") and if they are singing in the key of serious then you do not want to be writing a song/scribing in the key of silly.
The storytelling and real-time "songwriting" inspiration for Griot's Eye
The idea of graphic recording as a visual storyteller and real-time "songwriter" may have first come to me when I met the renowned modern day "storyteller", Brother Blue, through another colleague and friend, the former head of the ASE, Rob Evans. Blue has since passed away, but I will never forget the way he visited one of our internal DesignShop sessions in 1996 and just by observing, weaved a story (half spoken, half sung to Rob's rhythmic drumming) that fascinated everyone there and wondrously summed up the journey he had witnessed us on during that time. I remember Blue described himself as a "griot" and it was a word that I knew from my Black Studies course at Rutgers. Years later, after I had left MG Taylor in 1998 and was staying in New York City, I went uptown to the Schomburg Center looking for creative inspiration for the name of my new entrepreneurial venture. In the reading room, I re-discovered the idea of the West African griot and I decided then that was what I really aspired to be, a visual historian and storyteller -- hence, a graphical songwriter in real-time.
If you have viewed examples of my work on social media you will see that a lot of it showcases the "fun" parts of my graphic recording, but that is only because I cherry pick things that will appeal to a broader audience for promotional purposes. Bits that are only part of the song (usually for fiduciary reasons) that were included only after the speaker or participants had already made a joke or a light-hearted aside about their situation. Never are these flights of fancy done at the expense of the speaker.
So if you are a graphic recorder that is new and working in real-time that sees an opportunity to hit a high note simply because you know you can easily draw something that will bring attention to yourself, like a backup singer who suddenly decides to step unannounced from the shadows to steal the microphone from the real stars, stop and ask yourself first if you are being in service to the rest of the group. Think of all three core graphic recording principles to keep yourself in the right mindset: 1) openness 2) creative exploration and 3) service.
Pay special attention to the third circle: a mindset of service. Because your job is not to perform for them, it is to serve the group by sharing the special and unique talents you have acquired while being attuned to the feedback you are receiving as you work alongside them. If you are ignoring the tenor and tone of what you are listening to, looking for your rock star moment, then you are not only not writing the song but also doing the song you could have written a disservice.
You are not there to amuse... you are there to be a muse
If you have read this whole article and still need a further distillation of what your prime directive as a real-time graphic recorder is then just remember this: You are not there to amuse. You are there to be a muse. A muse is not the "rock star". A muse is in service to the "rock star". A muse gives the star their voice, and helps writes their songs. It is a role of service, but not mindless service. It is the highest form of service being a muse and one you should hold sacred and be proud of.
Read this if you want to learn more about my ideas regarding graphic recording as real-time visual storytelling, and metaphorical songwriting. I would also love to hear any feedback you might have! And if you are a speaker, event coordinator, or meeting facilitator who is interested in hiring a graphic recorder for your next event, but have reservations about someone treating your dialogue or presentation lightly and without the respect it deserves, then please know that I believe the case referenced in this post was a rare one, and that will never happen if you hire someone with experience who is truly attuned to your needs and the duties of being a graphic recorder. Good graphic recorders know when to "have fun with the problem" based on the atmosphere in the room, while also telling your story respectfully and with empathy. Please contact Griot's Eye if you're curious about having your "song" written by us!
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