Monday, May 02, 2016

Review: Blah Blah Blah: What do when words don't work

So here's one version of hell, customized just for me:

That's me presenting an idea, standing in front of a whiteboard. Except, there are no (working) markers. Arggggh!! Anyone who's ever seen me stand in front of a whiteboard knows it's true: I can't help drawing on it. Over the years, I've wondered why this is and the best answer I can come up with is this: drawing on a whiteboard is the best only way I know to insure that what everyone in the group is in sync. Words can be so flitty; you say them, and poof, they are gone. Furthermore, words can often be ambiguous or depend on us to make assumptions that may not match up. A haphazardly draw diagram can often reveal what speech after speech leaves unclear.

Dan Roam's Blah Blah Blah: what to do when words don't work takes these half baked theories of mine, and polishes them to a high gloss. He makes a compelling case for why we need far more drawing in our day-to-day interactions and how words alone can do anything from confuse to outright mislead.

He then goes further and attempts to provide a strategy, if not outright recipe, for taking any word based concept and producing an accompanying drawing. Roam calls the ideal he's after: Vivid, it's one of a handful of key acronyms in the book, and it stands for VIsual Verbal Inter-Dependent. In other words, drawing (visual) is key, but so are words (verbal). The point isn't to prefer one over the other, but to leverage both means of communication. As Roam explains, we get extensive training in the verbal side of things and little, if any, in the visual side. His goal, therefore, isn't just to convince you to the power of the visual, but to define a method for constructing Vivid ideas.

I started off appreciating the value of visuals, yet as I stuck with the book, I became even more convinced of their power. It's scary to think how how many important discussions we'll have using words alone. Look no further than our own political process to see an area of discussion sorely in need of becoming more Vivid. How on Earth can we expect a candidate to discuss something like tax plans or health care without giving them a way to sketch out their concepts. And just as importantly, how can we expect to analyze these proposals if we can't put them on a level visual playing field.

Ultimately, we don't want to embrace the idea that *sounds* the best, we want to embrace the ideas that is the best.

When it comes to drawing, Roam pretty much dodges any dicussion of technique. First off, many drawings include things like charts or timelines that require little more than arrows. And nouns, which do require drawing, can be drawn as crudely as you want. If all else fails, he suggests you draw a circle and write in the noun you'd like to represent. I was a little surprised to see Ed Emberley had a quote on the outside of the book, yet no mention by Dan Roam. Emberly's drawing techniques look custom made for Blah, Blah, Blah type drawings, as they require so little effort to get started, yet visually work. In fact, I'd recommend Make A World as the perfect companion to Blah, Blah, Blah if you think you absolutely, positively, can not draw.

Within the Vivid process, I found quite a few additional tidbits that made the book more than worth my time. One idea that particularly struck me was in chapter 8, titled O is for Only The essentials: Vivid Ideas Fit in a Nutshell. Roam suggests the following sequence:

  1. Write down everything relating to your idea
  2. Draw a picture that the summarizes those words

He now suggests two iterative activities: First, write the words that summarize your picture. Now draw a picture that represents that summary. Repeat. And the second exercise, which I found just brilliant, repeat this iteration, but halve the paper each time. This forces you to make each iteration a more concise summary of the last one. The result is a high level picture and word-summary of your idea. It's at this level that you introduce people to your idea. If they're interested, you go up one level. This shows them, literally, more of the picture. And if they're really hooked, you'd show them even more.

If I had to level one critique against Blah, Blah, Blah, I would say it's almost too comprehensive. Even though Roam does an admirable job of taking you through his whole Vivid methodology, I still found my brain was hurting after trying to take it all in.

Still, it's a terrifically powerful book. If you're in the business of sharing ideas, then you owe it to yourself to try out these vivid techniques. As you can see from my crude drawings above, all you need are a few index cards, a couple of pens, and your cell phone camera, and you're in business.

Go forth and make yourself understood!

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