How A Songwriter's Spirit May Improve Your Graphic Recording (p2: Empathy)

Part 2 of "How a songwriter's spirit can improve your listening & graphic recording." This article breaks down the Brill Building songwriter's approach and places a special emphasis on empathy.

Author: Christopher Fuller


Educational / How-To


May 12, 2021

How A Songwriter's Spirit May Improve Your Graphic Recording (p2: Empathy)

The makings of a Brill Building pop song

I think of graphic recording in many ways as being akin to both storytelling and songwriting. Specifically, I like to think of it as being similar to constructing a classic Brill Building pop song of the early to mid-60s. If you're unfamiliar with Brill Building songs there is a good chance you have already heard many of them because they have become a part of our pop culture fabric even if you do not realize what they are or who wrote them.

Brill Building songwriters: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil (center), and Carole King -- they would've made great scribes I bet!

It's difficult to distill the Brill Building method of songwriting simply since it touched so many different styles and musical acts, but for the purposes of graphic recording I think of it as typically having three main components: 1) formulaic construction 2) brevity and simplicity in communicating ideas and 3) empathetic storytelling.

Formulaic construction

By formulaic construction I am referring to consistency in stylistic design choices, not in how you listen and attune yourself to the dialogue. Brill Building songs like all pop songs follow a formula. The formula could vary between different songwriters each having their own distinctive styles, but each writer was consistent in their personal style. They had rules that they followed, but they knew when to break them to highlight a song's emotion. For real-time graphic recorders I think that following a formula means you must develop your own visual language that works for you and then be consistent in your style choices -- for example, be deliberate about what colors you use, think about what mood they represent. Along those lines, if you're depicting a phased process, then utilize standard arrows when drawing so that your formula is easy to follow for the viewer. Then after you have set up some consistent rules, just like a Brill Building songwriter breaks their verse-chorus-verse consistency by creating a song bridge that typically deviates in style from the rest of the song's formula (e.g. new chords, maybe a key change, etc.), as a graphic recorder, you can break with the rules you've established with different style choices, such as introducing bold colors to contrast a divergent idea or sum up a larger process.

Don't mistake "formulaic" for banal. Formulaic in this case is similar to how pop songs have a pattern (verse-chorus-verse, etc.) -- develop a visual pattern and style
Part of a "formulaic" scribe -- a model created in real-time during a group report-out. Notice the color code and the red and blue shared responsibility boxes

Brevity and simplicity

Make the complex simple so that the viewer can follow your story flow more easily
Another real-time model. This was from a dialogue for a regional VA that was discussing aspirational attributes for its holistic care plan. It was a 30 minute discussion distilled down to its essence

Brevity and simplicity is another hallmark of Brill Building songs. Pop songs are generally short, and the sixties were no different -- the average Brill Building pop song was no more than 3 minutes in length. But in that short amount of time, many of the songs could leave a memorable impression on the listener. The songs were short and simple and some of them more complex either musically or lyrically than you might realize on the surface. Brevity and simplicity is also one of the main missions of graphic recording in real-time. To do this, we can use visual iconography to tell stories simply and memorably or create graphical models that synthesize ideas and processes that might otherwise be too complex or wordy to simply document verbatim. A graphic record with brevity and simplicity is one that takes large amounts of information and makes it "chunkable" so that the viewer can follow the flow and digest the ideas more smoothly.

Empathy: The most important ingredient

The critical component for any good graphic recorder and songwriter!
Empathy. The red, white, and blue representing America -- but the veteran with the single tear reflects the gap between patriotic rhetoric and the sometimes inadequate addressing of veteran issue, like PTSD. In retrospect, a silhouette would have been equally, if not more powerful I believe

The most important aspect of a good Brill Building song was empathy. The best Brill Building songwriters wrote songs that were empathetic to their audience and also the singers they were intended for. One of the greatest songs of that era was "Natural Woman" written by the legendary duo of Carole King and Gerry Goffin. When I discovered who wrote it as a teenage fan learning about that era, I just assumed that Carole King wrote the lyrics and Gerry Goffin wrote the music. It was a stereotypical assumption I made believing that a man was incapable of writing such a soulful song from a feminine point-of-view. But it was Gerry Goffin that wrote the lyrics, while Carole wrote the music. He was able to do so because he wrote with great empathy for his subject and respect for his audience. That combination of empathy and respect is also critical if you want to be a good graphic recorder. To develop that level of empathy I believe that you cannot see yourself as being separate from the groups that you are working for. You should think of yourself as a member of their team, albeit a member who has developed some special graphic skills that you will share with them to assist them in their story -- to help them sing their song.

All three elements working in harmony

3 simple core mindset principles that help me focus and construct visual "songs" 

In addition to imagining yourself as writing a smart and concise song that is empathetic to your audience, like a seasoned Brill Building songwriter working in the background, I believe it is also important to have a set of core principles in which to follow to keep you focused. For me, I have developed three core graphic recording principles to put myself in the correct mindset for my real-time work: 1) openness 2) creative exploration and 3) service.

Develop a set of core principles to guide you -- here are mine

If you want to learn more about my ideas regarding graphic recording as real-time visual storytelling and metaphorical songwriting check out my previous post. Message me if you have any feedback because I would love to hear your ideas! And if you are a speaker, event coordinator, or meeting facilitator who is interested in hiring an experienced graphic recorder for your next event, then please contact Griot's Eye if you're curious about having your "song" written by us!

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

*coda: my big sis wore this album out! 

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