How Graphic Recording Themes & Truths Disguised As Jokes Communicates Big Ideas & Inspires Creativity

"Author: Christopher Fuller"

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Industry Insight / Story

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November 21, 2019

Learn how graphic recording recurring themes, metaphors, and truths disguised as humorous remarks can help communicate big ideas and inspire creativity in workgroups.

The importance of recurring themes in graphic reporting

One of the first things I want to know from the potential client (besides,"what day is the event?") is what the theme is? And by "theme" I am not necessarily talking about the overall objectives of the session. When I ask them, "is there a theme for this event?" I mean what are the inspirational and thoughtful metaphors, stories, and archetypal ideas that groups want to communicate in the support of their goals and objectives. They might mention something vague, but universally understood, like going on a journey together. Or they will have a more specific idea in mind that they know will connect with their people, such as a movie or book. I have had to draw Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and Lord of the Rings characters (probably in that order) more times than I can count -- not surprising, if you factor in my basic counting and math skills sometimes requires me to need my smartphone to help me split the check when I'm with friends. This is what I get for being so frightened as a little kid and hiding under our coffee table whenever this guy showed up on the family TV.

If there is a predetermined theme, then I will work it organically into my real-time graphic reporting wherever possible in hopes that it will help inspire the participants in reaching their objectives. So If the theme is "going on a journey" then I might do something like add a river underneath each annotation to connect ideas and remind people of the journey they're on. Or if I am working for a company that is using Star Wars as a theme, I will use characters or iconography from the films to highlight their information, for instance, drawing Luke Skywalker for the good things they want to start doing; the Death Star to point out the bad or difficult things they want to stop doing or overcome; and Jar-Jar Binks, to highlight the awful things that should never have been done in the first place.

Businesses, don't make this mistake

These pop culture references will be dropped into conversation casually by attendees because almost everyone knows what they represent. Like when an administrative person at a health care organization used the classic film quote, "we need a bigger boat" to signify that what they were trying to do was much trickier and riskier than they had imagined (if you're going to be an illustrative graphic recorder it really does help if you've seen some classic movies ha-ha). I drew the shark from Jaws (fun fact: his name was "Bruce" -- after Steven Spielberg's lawyer, Bruce Ramer) in the iconic pose seen on the poster swimming up to threaten their goals. Here it was good to draw a visual to highlight the importance of what they were doing, communicate the risks, inspire them in times of difficulty, and also have a bit of "fun with the problem" because a participant had made the reference.

Maybe the most iconic theme music of all-time — it was literally a character in the movie

How visualizing collective cultural thematic markers can be so valuable to organizations

As you should know by now if you have been reading these insights, this craft is first and foremost about listening, not drawing. Listening and then sharing your visual interpretation of the "main plot line" to the collective story that is developing in your presence as people dialogue and brainstorm with each other. If there is an overall theme that is emblematic of something, like for instance, the Wizard of Oz, then finding ways to work it into your real-time graphic recording can help communicate the larger themes of the event and also impact the group memory of the key points. Whether that means literally drawing something like the characters of Dorothy and Toto, or something that is more transcendent (and maybe easier to draw), but equally representative, like perhaps just a rainbow, they both will resonate with participants because they instantly evoke a collective cultural understanding about a theme — in this case, "there's no place like home" when paired with content from the speakers.

The actual scribe from that health care strategy session report-out

I think of these types of things as collective cultural thematic markers, or if that description is a little too NYTimes for you, in NYPost terms, that just means, stuff that nearly everyone can relate to. That recollection was from a health care strategy and visioning session that was designing a home health care program, hence, "there's no place like home" from the Wizard of Oz. This is why I feel inserting drawings and vignettes such as this when these references are made by participants, is not just about injecting "eye candy", though it can add some playful interests, the real importance is that they strengthen and communicate the message when used carefully. Sometimes, themes are predetermined by the client such as in that previous case, and other times they will emerge over the course of the event more spontaneously. And many times when they do emerge, they spring from things that are taken from our world that everyone identifies with, such as places and environments (e.g., ancient Rome, Mount Everest), historical incidents (e.g., the American Revolution, the French Revolution, that time Fonzie jumped the shark), famous people (e.g, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, MLK, JFK, KimK), or internal "legends" from past deeds the organization achieved, like how its founders launched the company, "against all odds". My 27 years and counting experience (I ran out of fingers, but I believe that count is correct if you consider my first official scribing duty was back in 1992 for MG Taylor) has taught me that connecting these collective cultural themes, metaphors, and internal legends that everyone in the audience understands to real-time visuals has an enormous positive impact on communicating objectives and enhancing the morale and creativity of groups working towards collaborative goals. There have been numerous instances where I worked with a client on a follow-up meeting a year later and discovered that some part of the scribing from the previous event has taken on an extended life throughout the organization and has become a motivational symbol— whether that is as part of a presentation, poster, tee-shirt, etc.

This client presentation slide featuring the collective cultural marker of a superhero began as a scribe

Why fostering a culture of candidness during business transformation is critical to success — and how graphic reporting can help communicate hard truths that need to be addressed in strategy sessions

"Many a truth is said in jest" — Anonymous, but probably adapted from Geoffrey Chaucer's, The Canterbury Tales

I have worked with organizations whose cultures were one of candidness and I have also been called in to scribe for companies with the opposite type of culture. The ones that were candid are thriving organizations with the ability to adapt in the face of change, and the ones that were not were... well, Enron (I wish that was a joke, but yes, much to my chagrin, I did scribe for them once back in the day). That is why I believe that it is critical that when organizations do strategy and visioning together they ensure all voices in the room are allowed to speak and are heard, not just the "smartest guys in the room", and that they include all key stakeholders in the design process.

A graphic reporter listens and considers everyones input unbiasedly

Openness is a key ingredient in innovation cultures and allowing people to have their say in how things operate should be more than just lip service. Collaborative design meetings are a great opportunity to dialogue candidly with the people that actually do the work that makes up the corporate culture, do not waste that opportunity by stifling their voices. If there are difficult topics that are not up for discussion due to the fact they will be addressed at a future date, or there is not enough information or key people to tackle it in the session, then be frank about what is in scope and what is out of scope at the start of the meeting. Then allow people to speak freely, and just prepare yourself for when "hairballs" are coughed up during a heated discussion. I should note that the session I did for Enron was probably one of the smoothest meetings I have ever scribed for in terms of drama-free dialogue and geniality amongst the participants — that should have been my first warning sign something was up. Because that was due to a lack of candor in the room. Most of the thriving companies I have worked for have always had some level of drama and conflict during their strategy sessions and discussions. If companies really want to be innovative and think outside the box, then they should not try to hinder candidness because they fear the possibility of a "hairball" coming up during a discussion — remember, cats always feel better after they are coughed up. Good design meetings allow everyone to speak, not just the "smartest guys in the room" — and a good graphic reporter listens and considers everyones input unbiasedly when crafting their story.

Listening without bias is the first Griot's Eye mindset principle of scribing

When organizations go through transformation it is inherently a difficult process, and I have personally been graphic facilitating in more than a few high level strategy meetings where things became divisive around an issue. Then at that highest moment of contention, a participant will acknowledge the rough going ahead by remembering the theme, or dropping a pop culture analogy, or likening their situation to some shared cultural touchstone, like a really grim Grimm's fairy tale, and suddenly the tension in the room is immediately relieved. It is alleviated because by addressing the issue candidly, but through the prism of analogous humor or an illustrative story that everyone identifies with, the gravity of the situation is acknowledged -- and many times that is the first step towards insight. It never ceases to amaze me how someone finally voicing a concern indirectly using a metaphor (many times up until then, the most silent member of the group) can actually be the most direct way of reaching a breakthrough in a tense discussion without blowing up the entire dialogue.

The importance of tension in the design process — and why it is important for scribes to pay attention to shifts in mood and group atmosphere

As an experienced graphic reporter, my advice to someone learning the craft is this: when an unspoken concern is suddenly said out loud under the guise of a playful joke or mischievous pop culture reference, and you feel tension and the collective atmosphere in the room shift (whether that is through uneasy laughter, or abrupt silence, due to astonishment at what needs to be said being said) it is your responsibility as an "inspirer" to somehow visually capture that reference. Why? Because this is the group being their authentic selves, and unless you are given strict instructions by the client to avoid conflict and not write something down(*) (or they have called out another member of the organization by name), then it is your duty as a graphic reporter to document those thoughts. Highlighting the remark "we need a bigger boat" in the health care strategy session I scribed years ago became a rallying point for that team to open up their thinking and look to build alliances and partnerships beyond their traditional bounds (a "bigger boat"), something that was not on the agenda at the outset of their design meeting. If you are a new graphic recorder just be mindful of the difference between scribing witty things said by the speakers that garner a laugh, versus you intentionally adding editorial humor to your scribing in hopes of getting a laugh from the participants and at the speaker's expense. The former is part of the responsibility of graphic reporting and the latter is unwanted showboating trying to highlight your own presence. Always be cognizant of the fact that, you are a visual songwriter, not a rockstar. This is why I feel I am at my best as a graphic reporter when I am working for an organization that has a culture that allows people to speak freely and openly.

Want to learn more about my longtime experience as a graphic reorder and facilitator and how graphic reporting can benefit your next meeting where people are allowed to speak candidly? 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 or conference, to communicate recurring themes, bring illustrative life to metaphorical ideas, and capture candid conversations in a way that is illuminating and motivational, 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 to help win over the hearts and minds of your attendees and stakeholders!

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

* Once, while scribing for a Fortune100, one of its engineers blurted, "this is why our software is shit!" Then quickly added, "hey man, don't write that down!" before I could even lift my marker. Though honestly, when a statement like that is made use your common sense and do not try to capture it without approval from the client.

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