Original drawing for BusinessNewsDaily by Dan Roam
Is your small business being smothered by wordy "blah, blah, blah" that buries your message under tons of complexity, misunderstanding and boredom?
Business today is awash in a sea of blah, blah, blah because we've become surrounded by words—too many words, the wrong words, unintelligible words, misleading words, says author/ace drawer Dan Roam. That blah-blah-blah is a roadmap for confusion, not clarity, Roam says. All those "blahs" add up to complexity, which kills our ability to think, misunderstanding, which kills our ability to lead, and boredom, which kills our ability to care.
Doubt it? Have you ever read a business plan from cover to cover? Nodded off during a business meeting? Immediately flipped to the budget at the end of a proposal and tuned out the speaker? Have your eyes glazed over after the 50th slide in a text-heavy PowerPoint presentation? Welcome to blah-blah-blah.
The answer, Roam believes, could be as simple as just adding pictures. And they don’t have to be pretty.
Roam showed the world how using pictures instead of words can transform brainstorming and communications in his 2008 best-selling book, "The Back of the Napkin." In his new book, "Blah, Blah, Blah: What to Do When Words Don't Work" (2011, Portfolio), he shows how the visual can steer our words clear of the curse of complexity.
"We've lost our ability to look at problems from the bigger picture perspective ," he told BusinessNewsDaily. "We what we're seeing is not a lot of clarity. We hear a lot of words. Washington D.C., is a prime example but not the only one. We talk so much we're forgetting how to think."
The problem is that when words don't work, thinking doesn't work either. Wonderful as words are, says Roam, they can't detect, describe and defuse the legion of complex problems business and governments, large and small, face today. Words, unfortunately, have become our default thinking tools and, for many of us, our only thinking tool.
"We've lost pictures," Road said.
And sometimes, even well-wrought words could benefit from pictorial clarification. The U.S. Constitution is a case in point, said Roam.
"If those words were so vivid that there was no question what they meant, we wouldn't need a Supreme Court," he said.
We need a new tool, he says. He calls that tool "vivid thinking," a kind of thinking that calls on both the visual and the verbal to get to the heart of meaning and move from buried insights to exposed insights that fully frame what we mean and want to say.
At its center is a vivid grammar that correlates elemental pictures—portraits, charts, maps, timelines, flowcharts and multivariable plots—with verbal elements of grammar—nouns and pronouns, adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions, complex verbs and complex subjects. It's a grammar for telling a story in pictures.
Roam is quick to say that he's talking about simple pictures, not works of art meant to be mounted at the Louvre. It's more like doodling.
"There's a distinction between art and visuals," he said.
For most people, grade school teaches you everything you need to know to draw the way that Roam is talking about.
Vivid thinking, he said, means balanced thinking—what Roam calls "double vision"—that is able to see the world both piece-by-piece in a linear fashion and all at once in a visual fashion. The goal is to improve delivery, explore the idea and expose the intent of communications in all forms.
Pictures don't have to be in the final document or presentation, but their presence in the process of creation should be apparent in both vividness and clarity.
"Let's add some pictures to bring the words to life," he said. "And words improve the clarity of pictures. Vivid thinking is the act of firing ideas back and forth between the visual and the verbal. It distills ideas down to the core. Then we can have a longer conversation."
The rules of vivid thinking are simple, Roam said. When we say a word, we should draw a picture (and vice versa). If we don't know which picture to draw, we should look to vivid grammar to show us the way. And we should learn to visually identify the essentials of an idea.
So why is the visual element so important? For openers, said Roam, the visual came before the verbal in the evolution of languages.
"The first written languages were pictorial," he said. "The ability to draw was considered magical. More of the mind is dedicated to visual processing. Yet we've lost the magnetic connection of the visual."
We've developed a belief that pictures are kid's stuff, he said. Serious documents must be long, dry and verbose. The sentiment is that serious documents or messages must be purged of the visual.
The antidote, Roam said, is vivid thinking that gives equal weight to the visual and the verbal, even if actual pictures aren't included the final product. If you can't draw what you mean, the chances are good that you don't know what you mean.
Roam doesn't cut any slack for non-artists who suffer from a fear of drawing and claim, "But I can't draw."
"It's not an answer," said Roam. "What we're trying to prove is that we have the ability to think, not the ability to draw. Saying I can't draw is a non-starter in my world."
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Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.