The Back of the Napkin: A book review by Bob Morris

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

Dan Roam
Portfolio/Penguin (2009)

I read the original (published in 2008) and then this second edition with increasing admiration. As I began to work my way through Dan Roam’s lively narrative, I was reminded of an incident years ago when a prominent venture capitalist found himself trapped by a young entrepreneur at a cocktail party. “This is my lucky day! I have been trying to get to see you for months! I have a great investment for you!” The VC asked if the young man had a business card. “You bet!” and offered one. “No, please, here’s what I want you to do. Explain on the back of the card why I should be interested.” Astonished, the young man replied, “That’s impossible!” In response, the VC said, “Then I have no interest.”

In essence, this anecdote suggests Roam’s key insight: To answer a question, to solve a problem, to persuade others, or to achieve another goal, formulate it as a simple drawing. You may claim that you have no skills for drawing. That’s good news. Why?  Roam asserts that less-sophisticated drawings have greater impact because those who see them can more easily identify with stick figures, for example, and focus more readily on the relationships suggested, such as between and among options to be considered, implications and consequences, and cause-and-effect. Simple drawings accelerate both inductive and deductive reasoning.

There is another reason that, in my opinion, is more important than any other: If the objective of the drawing is to simplify a situation (e.g. question, problem, opportunity, peril) by focusing on what is most important, a simple drawing is most appropriate. Roam agrees with Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler.”

Throughout Roam’s lively narrative, he provides his reader with a full complement of “tools” and carefully explains how and when to use each. They include:

• The six problem “clumps” (i.e. who and what, how much, when, where, how, and why)
• Why “the hand is mightier than the mouse”
• Self-assessment exercises (e.g. Pages 26-27)
• A four-step guide to visual thinking
• “How to Look Better: Four Rules to Live By”
• “The Six Way of Seeing”
• “The Six Ways We See”
• What S-Q-V-I-D stands for and how to use it effectively
• The five S-Q-V-I-D questions “in action”
• “Whiteboard Workshop”

Roam provides all this (and much more) in the first six of 16 chapters, then in Appendix A he identifies and discusses what he characterizes as “The Ten (and a Half) Commandments of Visual Thinking.” Again as he has throughout the previous material, he stresses the importance of mastering the basic skills of visual thinking and then apply them effectively guided and informed by these core principles:

1. There is no more powerful way to discover a new idea than to draw a simple picture.
2. There is no faster way to develop and test an idea than to draw a simple picture.
3. There is no more effective way to share an idea with other people than to draw a simple picture.

In this book and in its sequel, Unfolding the Napkin, Dan Roam explains how to achieve these objectives by (you guessed it) drawing a series of simple pictures. Bravo!


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