I’m standing in front of a conference room full of people, staring at a 4-foot by 8-foot piece of blank paper. I’m preparing to visually record the meeting—to listen to the conversation that unfolds, synthesize it in the moment, and capture it in words and pictures. My materials are ready. I’ve introduced myself to the group and explained the process. I know the topic. But when the conversation begins…I freeze.
To be fair, that’s part of the point of this exercise. I’m at a 3-day workshop put on by The Grove Consultants—the people who helped define the field of visual facilitation—called “Principles of Graphic Facilitation.” I and about 25 other consultants, leaders, managers, and facilitators, have come to develop our skills at using graphics to “engage team members and meeting participants, capture ideas, focus a group's work, and improve implementation.” Over the years, I’ve collected a small library on the subject from authors like David Sibbet (one of the Grove’s founders), Dan Roam, Sunni Brown and more. But intellectual understanding is no substitute for practice; an important part of learning this skill is managing your own anxiety and developing strategies to make that large, blank sheet of paper less intimidating. Who better to learn from than the recognized experts in the field.
As someone who regularly facilitates teams and meetings, I’ve long had an appreciation for the benefit visuals bring to conversations. “Put simply,” says neuroscientist and author Dr. John Medina, “the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized—and recalled. The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.” The effect is significant: “Text and oral presentations are not just less efficient than pictures for retaining certain types of information; they are way less efficient. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.” It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced in my own work facilitating teams over the past 25+ years.
Until recently, however, I hadn’t devoted much time or effort to the development of my graphic facilitation skills. I had a long-held assumption about my ability in this area: namely, that I wasn’t a very good artist. But, as I tell clients often, it’s important to challenge your mindsets. When I began to reflect on the notion I held, I realized I wasn’t sure when or how it had formed. Like many adults learning a new skill, I had an expectation of perfection right off the bat; I thought that I could just walk up to a flip chart and draw whatever came into my head. When my early efforts didn’t match that expectation, I chalked it up to innate ability, rather than lack of practice. The more I thought about it, though, the more it made sense. “Of course, I’m not very good at it,” I thought. “I’ve never made a real effort at learning it.” Armed with this realization, I made a commitment to learn from the best, to be disciplined about practicing, and to make the leap into uncomfortable territory by incorporating more visual facilitation into my work.
Which brings us back to the workshop and that 4-by-8 sheet of blank paper. After taking a deep breath, I dove into recording the conversation, and many more over the course of our three days together. Here are just a few of the things I learned:
- Adults learn best by doing – Not a new learning, but a helpful reminder. Reading about new skills, listening to lectures, and watching others are all useful, but if you really want to master a new skill, you need to get your hands dirty.
- Manage your expectations - An important part of the work is getting over the fear that you’re not going to do it right. Give yourself permission to be a beginner, and view your mistakes as opportunities to learn how to do things better.
- Learning takes time - I was both relieved and encouraged when our teacher said it had taken her 3 years to become as skilled as she was. I was relieved to hear that she hadn’t been perfect right off the bat: it had taken her a significant amount of time to build her skills. I was encouraged to know that with, sustained effort, I could move from being a novice to a skilled practitioner. It’s a simple equation: time invested equals results achieved.
- Practice, practice, practice - While a workshop or event can be a useful way to jump start or accelerate your learning, mastery comes from ongoing practice. Spend a few minutes each day drawing basic shapes and icons, practice for yourself as you’re taking notes on calls or in meetings, and begin incorporating a more visual approach into your work.
- Preparation is key – While participants in your meetings may see you starting with a blank piece of paper, they don’t see the time and effort that goes into preparation. As much as possible, try not to be making things up on the spot. Decide on a visual model or a plan for using the space before you begin. Know which icons and shapes you’re likely to need and practice them beforehand. Study the content and agenda. Before a session, many visual practitioners even sketch their work lightly on the paper so they’re not starting from scratch. Do whatever you can to remove obstacles, so you and your participants can focus on the conversation.
As I continue to hone my visual facilitation skills, I’m committed to sharing what I’m learning, both so others can benefit and to hold myself accountable for my progress. Next month, I’ll discuss how I’m doing in advancing my skills. In the meanwhile, I welcome your questions and the opportunity to hear about your experiences learning to facilitate more visually; please take a moment to connect below.