Author Dan Roam discusses his new book on visual communication.
What do circles, squares and stick figures have do to with effective business communication? According to management consultant Dan Roam, doodles and drawings are the among the best ways to convey information because most people are visual learners. In his new book, Draw to Win: A Crash Course on How to Lead, Sell and Innovate with Your Visual Mind, Roam says anyone can use visual communication — no art degree needed. He recently appeared on the on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss why the brain excels at processing information when pictures are part of the message.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: What was the impetus for this book?
Dan Roam: I am a business guy who comes out of an art background. I have drawn all my life, starting as a little kid. If you think about it, most of us have drawn when we were very young. I just kept on doing it. That brought me into a managing consulting role, where I was the weirdo who would go up to the flip chart or the white board and draw a picture of whatever I heard people talking about. Now I want to be clear, the pictures I was drawing were exceedingly simple. They might be a couple of circles, a box, a triangle, an arrow connecting them. If I was feeling really artistic, I might even add a stick figure up there somewhere and then some labels.
The idea is that we’ve all been through business meetings a million times, but how different it is when someone takes the initiative and tries to visually capture what is being said? It kind of changes the temperature in the room. If it’s an aggressive sales meeting, it becomes a little bit more collaborative. If there’s a lot of politics, a lot of that washes away because people then pick up the pen and add to the drawing. It’s very powerful.
[email protected]: I would think the effectiveness and attention on a person who is drawing out a game plan or a sales idea is greater than when someone is just standing at a podium speaking.
“If we spent our lives tapping on a keyboard, we’re bypassing one of the most powerful mechanisms that our brain has to retrieve and capture information.”
Roam: Oh, it’s incredibly powerful. There are some very, very powerful cognitive and neuro-biological, neuro-mechanical reasons why that is so. Probably one-third of every neuron that you have in your brain is there to help you process vision. More of our brain is dedicated to vision than any other thing that we do. By orders of magnitude, more neurons are active in vision than anything else, including language and talking. The second data point that’s kind of cool is that the human brain is actually a pretty small organ in our body. It only counts for about 2% of our total body weight, yet our brain consumes 20% of our energy at any given moment. What we’re trying to do in a meeting is get and capture the attention of the other people in the room. There is nothing more powerful to do that than being the person who draws the picture, activating all of those neurons that want to process imagery, calling them to task and getting them into the meeting. When typically, that whole visual part is just lying dormant. That’s why it works so well.
[email protected]: You bring up this concept that drawing is thinking. We don’t write as much as we used to. Most of it’s done on computers. In some respects, drawing is a way to bring back a skill that has been lost.
Roam: It is. And I would amplify that by saying that the studies are now conclusive — done across the world and over the last couple of decades — that there is no better way to help you remember things than writing them down and drawing little icons or little sketches or little doodles that help you clarify. That’s point No. 1.
The second one is the tactile act of putting a pen or a pencil in our hand and sketching on a piece of paper. Although it does not seem like it, it turns out to have measurably improved impact on what we know and what we remember. It turns out that if we spent our lives tapping on a keyboard, we’re actually bypassing one of the most powerful mechanisms that our brain has to retrieve and capture information, which is the physical act, the kinesthetic act of trying to sketch it out on a piece of paper. A keyboard is an amazing tool for inputting a very linear set of symbols, which become linear words, which become a linear explanation of an idea. That’s awesome. But what they do not do is … to capture the more spatial, kinesthetic and visual side of ideas. That’s where the pictures come in.
[email protected]: Is efficiency the reason we’ve seen this shift away from writing and drawing, whether it be business or in school?
Roam: There are a thousand reasons for that, and we can go all the way back into the history of our educational system. It’s really an interesting little switch, isn’t it? Because if you think about the dominance of social media right now from a technological perspective, the image and photos are really the core of so much of social media. Whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram or even Facebook or Pinterest or any of these things where the image has really become central to the way that we communicate.
I think that we spend a lot more time looking at pictures than we do probably writing or had in the past. But the trouble is just because we’re looking at pictures does not mean that those pictures are helping our brain learn very many things. That’s why I like to step away often from the kind of eye candy imagery that’s associated trying to capture our attention by showing us an image that may be evocative at the deepest level of our brain. I would like to use that and replace it by saying, “Well, since we’ve got visual attention, what kind of images or pictures can we create that are useful, that move our mind ahead, that clarify problems and give us more information?” What I’ve found is that those pictures that work the best are the hand-drawn, simple images. Stick figures, circles and arrows. You draw those, you are going to get someone’s attention in a powerful way.
I want to be really clear, I am not talking about an artistic process. I am talking about a thinking process. In these meetings or these sales sessions or these planning reviews, nobody cares about the quality of your drawing. What people care about is, “Do I understand your idea? What are the three main pieces of your idea and how