A Napkin Can Make You a Better Communicator

Last week we took Olivia to a pediatrician. After the Doc had asked a bunch questions and done the basic check-up stuff, he proceeded give some suggestions for Olivia’s health. Often a doctor will rattle off a bunch of important info during an appointment, then you struggle to remember it a couple weeks down the road (“She said I would experience memory loss, but I can’t remember why…”). But this Doc did something different.

As he started to explain stuff he immediately pulled out a scrap piece of paper and drew a diagram as he talked. He didn’t say anything without writing it down.

I found that a couple things happened. We were able to track with him as he broke down what he was saying into diagrams (it probably also forced him to slow down, which helped too). Also, we remembered way more of what he was saying than if he had just talked to us. Not to mention, we were able to take the scraps of paper home to refer back to in the weeks to come. Genius!

He was using the “back of the napkin” approach to communication, which Dan Roam claims is the most effective way to communicate ideas.

“Nothing is more powerful when it comes to conveying an idea or seeing how something works than watching someone draw the picture at the same time that they talk.” – Dan Roam

Back of the Napkin

A couple years ago I first heard about Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin. In it he boldly claims that “pictures can help solve every business problem in the world.” Pictures, especially those drawn in front of our eyes with verbal explanation, have a unique way of simplifying problems, holding attention, and sticking in our memory. (Honestly, I didn’t actually read the book, but I watched his Authors@Google talk which you can watch at the bottom of this post. What can I say, everything I know I learned from youTube…. :)).

Pictures Force Simplicity.

I think one of the major advantages of using “back of the napkin” sketches is that it forces simplicity. If your idea can’t be conveyed with simple shapes, or it doesn’t fit on the napkin, then you’re forced to reconsider how to communicate it. In ReWork, the founders of 37signals explain that when they start designing something they use a big thick Sharpie. Why? It forces them to ignore the details for the early stages of design. Using “back of the napkin” sketches in your teaching or sharing ideas will force you to simplify your message, which will help your audience.

Don’t trade in your whiteboard markers for a PowerPoint remote.

Roam suggests that pictures can communicate some things better than PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets. As a teacher I’ve wavered between using slides and using the whiteboard. Slides can be a great communication aid, but aren’t always the best tool for the situation. Instead of building fancy diagram slides to explain a complex idea for your next session, why not try pulling out the whiteboard markers and drawing it out live? The low tech approach might feel a little elementary and unpolished (I don’t mean unpracticed), but your audience might stay more engaged and remember what you said longer. (Of course, there are an increasing number of ways to draw on a projector screen, if you must be high tech about it).

Little sidenote: If you’re doing a conference call or remote teaching session and need a whiteboard, check out DimDim.com. I’ve used it for some recent training sessions I’ve done via conference call. DimDim lets you can doodle on an online “whiteboard” that your meeting attendees can view in real time. They also have screen sharing, video chat and a bunch of other goodies for online meetings. A free account can do most of what you’d probably need.

Here’s Dan Roam’s Authors@Google talk where he explains what makes “back of the napkin” pictures so effective:

Next time you’re at a loss of words, pull out a napkin!

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