“I believe that any problem can be solved with a picture. And that anybody can draw it.”
Dan Roam is the author of two international bestsellers, The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures and Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures, both published by Portfolio Trade, a Penguin imprint. The former was selected as Business Week and Fast Company’s best innovation book of the year, and was Amazon’s #5 selling business book of 2008. The Back of the Napkin has been published in 25 languages and is a bestseller in Japan, South Korea, and China. Portfolio also published his latest book, Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work(November, 2011) Roam has helped leaders at Microsoft, eBay, Google, Wal-Mart, Boeing, Lucas Fims, Gap, Kraft, Stanford University, The MIT Sloan School of Management, the US Navy, and the United States Senate solve complex problems through visual thinking. Dan and his whiteboard have appeared on CBS, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, Fox News, and NPR. His visual explanation of American health care was selected by Business Week as “The World’s Best Presentation of 2009”. This inspired the White House Office of Communications to invite him in for a discussion on visual problem solving.
Morris: Before discussing Blah Blah Blah, a few general questions. First, for those who have not as yet read one or both of the “napkin” books, please explain why using relatively simple drawings can have great impact when we attempt to answer a question, solve a problem, persuade others to agree, or to express the essence of an important concept.
Roam: When we see an idea clearly illustrated right in front of us, much more of our mind lights up than if we were just talking about it. With simple and clear pictures, we see more, understand more, and share more than words alone ever could. As humans, we are essentially walking, talking “vision” machines. Three-quarters of all the sensory neurons in our brain are dedicated to processing vision, and in the first four months after we’re born almost all brain development in takes place in those areas that process vision and movement.
From the time we are infants, we know how important sight is to understanding the world around us and guiding us safely through it. What is a shame is how quickly we forget that once we enter school. We spend years perfecting the tools of spoken but we don’t spend two days learning to understand how we SEE. The essential point is this: if we really want someone to understand what we’re talking about, we should actually talk less – and draw more.
Morris: The hieroglyphics on cave walls pre-date the earliest attempts at a verbal language. So the insights you share in the two Napkin books have been common knowledge for at least several million years?
Roam: The oldest drawings ever found are located deep in the Chauvet Cave in south-central France. These paintings of horses, bison, and bulls date back 32,000 years. In the entire sweep of recorded human history, these beautiful images represent the beginning of the “whoosh.” We don’t know anything about the early humans that created these images, but we do know they could draw extremely well. These are the earliest markings ever made by humanity, and they are sketched more wonderfully than most of us could do today.
Morris: Relatively simple drawings can be a great resource for brain storming sessions because almost anyone can draw without possessing highly-developed drawing skills. However, what Tom Kelley characterizes as “ideation” [begin italics] does [end italics] require them. Don’t people have to have something worth communicating, first?
Roam: We all have ideas we believe are worth communicating, and we have them all the time – which is precisely why so many of us talk so much. Those ideas may not be fully developed, we may be uncertain of them, and they may be complex or controversial, but we typically have no shortage of them. And that is why drawing them out – even in the most crude circles-boxes-and-arrows manner – is such a great idea. Drawing out our thoughts forces us to clarify them, look at them from multiple perspectives, and think them through in a vibrant way.
Morris: Since the publication of the two Napkin books, presumably you have received a blizzard of feedback from those who read one or both of them. Of all that you have learned from what your readers have shared, what do you consider to be most valuable? Why?
Roam: I have received thousands of comments from readers over the past three years. The most frequent involve a reader sharing a moment of pictorial discovery, either in a meeting that was saved when someone went up to the whiteboard and drew the idea that clarified everything, or when they completed a difficult sale by drawing out the solution for all to see. Without a doubt, I have learned the most from readers who had never drawn and, thanks to my books, decided to give it a try. The sense of discovery and enthusiasm that permeates these notes illuminates visual possibilities that I had never considered myself. I always knew pictures made things clearer to me; it is electrifying to see how common that is even among people who never considered themselves “visual.”
Morris: From which sources did you learn the most about what the mind is and does, in general, and what the verbal and visual minds do, in particular?
Roam: I have read, studied, participated in, and discussed with experts three different approaches to understanding the mind. First, I took an academic approach to understanding the mind: in university I studied biology and I was fascinated with the evolutionary development of the human brain, and more recently I consulted with vision scientists and neurobiologists at leading universities. Second, I took an applied approach: I studied meditation for four weeks in a Thai monastery (including spending one week in silent isolation), I participated in cognitive behavioral therapy sessions to see how my mind reacted to various situations and I participated in extensive psychodynamic therapy sessions to try to see why. Third, I took an intuitive approach: I simply monitored myself in hundreds of business meetings and noted when I and other people seemed to be understanding each other and when we did not – and then noted what we were talking about and how we approached it.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “vivid thinking”?
Roam: “Vivid Thinking” is a mnemonic. Vi-V-id stands for Visual-Verbal-Interdependent thinking. It is a simple idea that says we haven’t really thought through an idea until we have both talked about it and looked at it, and that we can’t really explain an idea until we can both write about it and draw it. Vivid thinking does not accept that an either/or verbal-vs-visual approach ever fully illuminates an idea; on the contrary Vivid Thinking demands that we must exercise both our verbal and visual minds in concert if we really wish to understand an idea. Talk + look; write +draw = Vivid.
Morris: By what process can vivid thinking be strengthened?
Roam: Like anything we do, Vivid Thinking becomes strengthened through practice. For all its successes, our educational system has in fact allowed us to become lazy thinkers. By relying almost entirely on our verbal mind, we have taught ourselves to shut our visual mind down and to denigrate its importance. My goal in “Blah-Blah-Blah” is to introduce a set of simple tools and rules that reawaken our visual mind and kick it back into gear.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Blah Blah Blah. When and why did you decide to write it?
Roam: Blah Blah Blah began to formulate in my mind in the year following the publication of The Back of the Napkin. In writing that first book, I wanted to explore why so few people in business drew. As I toured around the country talking about the book, I realized that the deeper problem was that we actively and intentionally negate our visual abilities. As I explored why, it gradually dawned on me that we’ve allowed ourselves – in fact encouraged ourselves – to effectively cripple half our mind. I thought that was truly crazy and wanted to find a way to get both our verbal and visual minds back in sync.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations along the way while writing it?
Roam: Almost every day writing (and drawing) Blah Blah Blah brought another revelation. Some of the biggest were:
• We talk so much that we are forgetting how to think.
• We are so enamored of our verbal abilities that we have neglected half our mind.
• Our love affair with words has deluded us into thinking that we understand things better than we do.
And most important:
• It is not hard to get our verbal and visual minds working together again; we just need to provide our visual mind with a set of simple tools that give us the confidence to draw while we talk.
Morris: Here’s a two-part question: To what extent (if any) is it a continuation of the “Napkin” books, and, to what extent (if any) does it depart significantly from them?
Roam: In the sense that Blah Blah Blah came from the same mind as The Back of the Napkin, it is a continuation – yet at the same time it is a very different book with a very different intent. My first book was about solving problems with pictures; my latest book is about how to have clear ideas by combining words and pictures.
Morris: Chip and Dan Heath as well as Frank Luntz are among those who have shared their opinions about why some words “stick” and others don’t. What are your own thoughts about this fascinating subject?
Roam: The central concept behind Blah-Blah-Blah is that vivid ideas – ideas that stand out in their clarity and stick through their simplicity – all share a basic set of common elements. Vivid ideas have form, show only their essentials, are recognizable, evolve, span differences, and are targeted. To achieve each of these criteria, Vivid ideas must be approach from both the verbal and visual perspectives. Vivid ideas and ideas that stick are the same thing – I just hotwire the approach by adding words and pictures.
Morris: Why did you adopt for the narrative the nomenclature of a dramatic production? What does that help to achieve that would probably not otherwise be possible?
Roam: Vivid ideas are both visible and readable. I’ve always loved that when we go to the theater, the first thing the playwright does is introduce all the characters by name right up front. Without giving away the story, our mind already knows who we are going to meet – preparing us by letting us imagine what roles all these characters are going to play. This is the perfect expression of a vivid idea: we are already involved before we know anything about what is going to happen. In Blah Blah Blah I mimic this approach by introducing all the many characters (real, historical, fictional, and metaphorical) pictorially before the book even begins. We know we are going to meet a lot of interesting folks along the way, and we already have them in mid before we’ve read a word.
Morris: You assert that “half of what we think about thinking is wrong.” Please explain.
Roam: We have come to associate someone’s ability to talk with his or her intelligence. From word problems in math to the SAT test, we teach, train, and test almost exclusively towards the verbal mind. While being fluidly verbal is certainly part of being intelligent, it is far less than half the picture. The greatest minds in business, politics, finance, and problem-solving are rarely the people who tested best in school. Our increasingly ingrained association of words to intelligence is strangling many of our most talented minds.
Morris: What is the “Blah-Blahmeter”? What does it measure and why is it desirable to obtain that information?
Roam: Not all blah-blah-blah is the same; not all unclear messages are unclear for the same reason – and with the same intent. The Blah-Blahmeter is a tool I created to help me better understand the full range of poor communications. A single “blah” indicates a message that is simply verbose and boring. “Blah-Blah” indicates a message that obscures a poor (or missing) idea. “Blah-Blah-Blah” indicates a message in which a truly rotten idea is hidden through verbal misdirection. The importance of distinguishing between them is that only by noting the nature of the “blah” can we try to deduce the intent of the messenger, whether benign but boring, obscuring and unsure, or intentionally misleading.
Morris: Please explain the symbolic significance of the fox and the hummingbird.
Roam: The fox represents our linear-verbal mind; the hummingbird represents our spatial-visual mind. I created this constantly sniping pair of characters (who accompany us through the entire book) because I wanted readers to viscerally grasp the differences between these two aspects of our mind. Calling them out only by name – verbal vs. visual, right vs. left, etc. – would only appeal to our verbal mind. By adding in the characters, our whole mind gets to go along for the whole ride.
Morris: What are the “forest” and the “tree” which the title of Chapter 3 refers?
Roam: The most important tool in the book is the “Vivid Forest.” F-O-R-E-S-T is another mnemonic that reminds us of the six common aspects of any vivid idea:
F = Vivid ideas have Form
O = Vivid ideas show Only the Essentials
R = Vivid ideas are Recognizable
E = Vivid ideas Evolve
S = Vivid ideas Span Differences
T = Vivid ideas are Targeted
When an idea meets all these criteria we can call it truly vivid: it stands on its own is memorable, and it sticks.
Morris: Looking back over the process by which you wrote Blah Blah Blah, what did you learn that you think will be most valuable to you during (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Why?
Roam: In writing Blah Blah Blah I wanted to put into practice every tool and rule in the book. In other words, I made sure that every idea I introduced itself met the FOREST criteria and was itself “vivid.” To a far greater degree than with my previous writing, I spent more time editing and deleting than I did writing. This is a lesson I will always carry with me: write everything, then draw it out, then write about that drawing, then draw a picture of that. This back-and-forth (in the book I call it the “vivid waddle”) guarantees that there will be no blah-blah-blah in your own work.
Morris: Let’s say that someone reads and then re-reads Blah Blah Blah, absorbing and digesting the material. This person really “get’s it.” What’s next? Where to begin to apply what has been learned?
Roam: I conclude the book with four simple tactics for putting vivid thinking to work right now and four simple strategies for applying vivid thinking to business and life. I won’t give them all away now, but I really tried to make sure that every lesson in the book has direct real-world applicability right now — and as far into the future as we need to have good ideas.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Roam: I’ve always wanted to be asked if I used these tools myself as a student and as I entered the world of business. The answer is yes, I did. Although I was a good student, there was a lot more that I didn’t understand than I did. To try to make sense of things, I drew ideas out all the time. I didn’t yet know the vivid approach, but I knew I thought a lot better when I thought with my whole mind.
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Dan Roam cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
I also urge you to check out these videos:
Here are the first two of a seven-part series of clips running through the highlights of Blah Blah Blah: