The Magic of Real-Time Graphic Recording

This Insight is for new scribes who may be intimidated by the notion of "real-time" or do not understand its importance in the worldwide adoption of graphic recording. It will give you tips and tricks to get better at keeping pace and methods to help overcome your fears.

Christopher Fuller


Educational / How-To


January 26, 2024

The Magic of Real-Time Graphic Recording

Note: This blog focuses on analog graphic recording done on paper and boards instead of digital scribing.

What does real-time mean in graphic recording?

First, I want to address the notion of "real-time." Real-time does not mean you're capturing every word as it happens. Unless you're writing down a list of facts essential to the conversation, in most situations, the scenario will not require you to become a human dictation machine (that's for the next generation of AI replacement scribes — I wish I could confidently say that was a joke).

Robo-Scribe aka Scribe-Bot T-800 series.

Our role is to capture the overarching story of the conversation with words, images, icons, arrows, connectors, colors, models, etc. The way I tend to think about it is to organize those elements as annotation (words), actors (icons, images, cartooning), titles, and sub-headers (different from the regular annotation in that these call out sections like chapters in a book), relationships (arrows, connectors, color coding, etc.), and framing (using model archetypes to show processes and simplify concepts) to create a visual narrative that illustrates what happened engagingly and memorably (placement and flow — like a well-constructed pop song).

Collective Storytelling: 6 Fundamentals of Graphic Recording.

How to work in real-time — slowing down to speed up.

To do this, you must work fast, but like some ancient Zen wisdom, you must sometimes go slow to go fast.

Slow down, inhale, take a deep breath, and remember to ask yourself four critical questions to speed up.

When I started scribing, keeping pace with the conversation was challenging. Listening, writing, and drawing while being observed in front of participants can be a heady experience when you're new to the craft. As the conversation unfurls, graphic recorders with less experience may sometimes feel like they need to hit the pause button on the exchange. But over time, you will discover that when the discussion or presentation begins moving fast, you need to slow your thoughts, take a deep breath, and methodically ask yourself questions about what you are hearing. There are four critical questions to always keep in mind when scribing.

1) How does this relate to the overall purpose and objectives of the session?
2) How does this connect to previous statements?
3) Has this been said before, or is this a new idea?
4) Can a metaphor or visual concept sum up these thoughts captivatingly — in a way that I understand and resonates with the attendees?

This synthesis process is known as creative exploration, one of the Three Mindset Principles of Scribing.

Three Mind-Set Principles of Scribing.

This creative exploration is all about listening for when ideas converge and diverge. To do this quickly, here are some tips:

Creative exploration requires preparation, practice, and fun!

1) Prepare! I familiarize myself with every client's purpose and objectives. If you do a prep phone call (and I suggest you do this for solo gigs), ask the client what they want to come out of the event and how they see you adding value. Here are some other preparation suggestions:

• Some events may be highly technical and feature industry-specific terminology that may be new to you. During the introductory phone call, ask the client if they can guide you to material that may help you do your job better (like a list of company acronyms and their meaning).

• Have a copy of the agenda on you — preferably printed.

• If you capture a report-out where the design asks break-out teams to answer questions, read those assignments beforehand.

2) Practice! If you have read my other Insights, you know my 30+ years of experience as a scribe and reputation for quickly drawing many things—like a cartoon representation of Michelangelo's David.

1995: Scribing for Matt and Gail Taylor at MG Taylor's landmark event for Ernst & Young LLP.

But the truth is, there was a lot of luck involved there. I grew up with a book on Michelangelo I inherited from my oldest sister.

Who else had this series back in the day? It was like the World Book Encyclopedia of western art.

So, I had already attempted sketching the statue many times since childhood (though my sister had me draw him with a fig leaf). When it comes to new stuff, I am as clueless as anyone. That's why I often practice things I suspect will come up during a project. For instance, I purchased a book when front-office CRM (customer relationship management) and back-office ERP (enterprise resource planning) system reengineering were beginning to be the hot topics of business meetings and strategy sessions. I started sketching ideas from what I read to have a lexicon of icons to draw at a moment's notice and a basic understanding of these concepts.

These journal pages are from the year 2000. I was familiarizing myself with the day's hot topic, CRM and ERP.

Suppose you're a graphic recorder like me who leans into visual storytelling. In that case, I recommend practicing historical and current figures in your sketchbook so you can depict them with little trouble (remember, do them in your style and keep it simple — this job doesn't require professional caricature skills, just the ability to hint at a subject). If you're worried about whether they'll be recognizable, don't worry — write their name underneath the drawing. Who is that? It's Oprah Winfrey. Can't you read?

1999 journal page practice. The name "Barack Obama" was yet to be on most people's radar.

2) Don't get hung up on the drawing. Eye candy is alluring, but content is king. Draw in a comfortable manner for you—attempting things overly complicated may slow your pace and cause you to miss critical moments. Adding more detailed moments later that may require you to use your phone is okay, but you want to complete the bulk of your work in near real-time.

Pro tip: If you don't have much time, write only a fragment of the idea or part of a word — but remember to complete the thought!

Why is real-time so important to scribing?

Nowadays, more people often see your scribing after the event finishes through social media or distributed as part of external summaries than the participants who attended the meeting. What's the big deal about real-time when the photo will likely have a longer shelf life? I'm not dismissing the need to make sure your image is as good as it can be for its post-session digital photos—doing post is essential. But in-the-moment graphic recording can engage participants in a near-spell-binding way.

Into the Scriber-Verse

Scriber-man! Scriber-man! Friendly neighborhood Scriber-man!

When Ernst & Young LLP decided to license the MG Taylor methodology in 1995, that event planted the most significant seed that led to the globalization of graphic recording. I cannot access the multiverse, so I can't say with absolute certainty that if I had completed the scribing long after the dialogues ended (and the partners and directors had dispersed), it might have negatively affected the EY partners' decision to develop their Accelerated Solutions Environments. But in this "scriber-verse" reality we all share, and as the person in charge of the graphic recording duties during those landmark events, I can assure you the EY partners recognized the visual element as a key differentiator when they decided to license the MGT methodology and create their worldwide ASEs. That decision thereby increased the need for graphic recorders and began an explosion in the adoption of the craft. And that scribing was not done by me playing catch-up after every conversation ended. And no matter whether it was me or someone else, working in real-time was a prerequisite of the role at MGT — and every other professional organization back then, like graphic facilitation pioneers The Grove. It wasn't just because it was part of the "wow factor" but because we often had to erase the boards quickly (in those days, knowledge workers did most of the scribing on custom-built dry-erase walls as part of our modular environment system) to set up for the next activity. There usually wasn't time to return to your work to make it look "pretty."

To the participants, it's not a marker you are wielding; it's a magic wand!

Yes, the real magic happens in that room when you listen to the conversation and feed off the participant's energy as it's flowing. A shared vibe occurs wherein, even though you are no expert on the subject, you help educate the attendees by reflecting their ideas from a storyteller's perspective. This synergistic relationship between scribe and audience is one of graphic recording's Four Key Roles and Responsibilities of Visual Storytelling, known as co/mutual education.

Four Key Roles & Responsibilities of Real-Time Visual Storytelling.

When people participating in a discussion see their remarks and ideas visually captured in real-time before their eyes, it adds a spark to the conversation. As someone who has sat on the other end as a participant while some of the greatest scribes in our field have captured the dialogue, including Peter Durand, Liisa Sorsa, and Kelvy Bird, each in their dynamic way, I can say it is downright magical to behold!

And now the final list point number 3 — have fun!

3) Fun is creative exploration's most stand-out aspect. It is why you were most likely attracted to this work in the first place. You're goal as a real-time graphic recorder isn't drawing perfection; it's telling a visual story as it happens—this means it's okay if things get a little sloppy sometimes or you make a drawing mistake (like your cow ends up looking like a dog, or something in-between).

Some handy tools to have at your disposal in case of emergency:
• Keep a small notepad or something to write on nearby for jotting down quick responses.
• Fresh markers! It seems like a no-brainer but always go into a job with a loaded quiver of fresh inks. Including a fat black marker to cover up mistakes;
• A white paint marker to write over said errors—and white label tape for quick fixes.
• And old-school white-out. Our field helps keep that industry in business.

This work can often be challenging, but it is not rocket science.

Speaking of science, recently, I supported an event for a company involved in bioengineering, and I must admit, even for an old pro (damn, I should've used the word "seasoned" instead of "old"), there were some complex presentations I had to capture. During one speaker's talk about state-of-the-art DNA sequencing, I had to practice what I preach, take a moment for a deep breath, and run through the four questions I wrote about earlier:

1) How does this relate to the overall purpose and objectives of the session?
2) How does this connect to previous statements?
3) Has this been said before, or is this a new idea?
4) Can a metaphor or visual concept sum up these thoughts captivatingly — in a way that I understand and resonates with the attendees?

By doing this creative exploration on the fly, I quickly realized that the complicated device the speaker was talking about was the equivalent of doing biological detective work. Once I had that visual, I drew the sequencing machine in classic Sherlock Holmes garb: hat, scarf, pipe, and magnifying glass. Later, after the event, the speaker sought me out and asked me to take a picture with him by the board. He told me he loved how I made his scientific talk relatable in a way he had not thought of. He added, "I wish I could do what you do; it's like magic."


A dedication to a wonderful mentor.

Final thought: I want to dedicate this Griot's Eye Insight to my dear mentor and former boss at MG Taylor Corp., the organization that introduced me to this craft that has become a lifelong passion and career, Gail Taylor. Gail passed away recently, and this blog isn't long enough to tell you how much she meant to me. Without her guidance, encouragement, and belief in me, I would not be where I am today. Even though our paths diverged over the years, I am thankful that whenever I reached out to her for advice or to check out a new endeavor of mine, like The Black Music Project, she always wrote back to me with a thoughtful response and continued to encourage my work. It was Gail's idea to name the second role and responsibility of scribing as "mutual educator" when I shared with her an early draft of the model. Thank you, Gail Taylor, for showing me how to see the world differently, and that magic was at my fingertips.

That's Gail Taylor in the center, along with her colleague and loyal son, Todd Johnston — lifelong friends of mine. I will never forget Gail's impact on my life. RIP.

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