Visual Meetings – How To Bring Meetings To Life

Several years ago I was at a conference on systems thinking (essentially, understanding how things connect) and during the plenary sessions I noticed that tucked away to one side was a woman busily working on capturing the meeting proceedings in images. I was mesmerized. As the session progressed I kept looking from her to the presenters and I was charmed by the images that emerged.  Her blend of colourful figures and words captured beautifully the vibrancy of the conversation in the room. The “Ah ha” moments were carefully displayed with a burst of yellow and orange marker that had a more lasting impression on me than any of the words I’d carefully jotted down in my notebook.

As the conference progressed I’d catch glimpses of the artist as she made her way through all of the plenary sessions and occasionally, the smaller concurrent sessions.  I approached her at one point and asked her how I could get copies of her illustrations. She asked me for my card and I happily handed it over. Although months passed I did not hear from her and I kicked myself for not asking her for her card. Then one day a package arrived. It was from the conference organizers and they were inviting me to attend the next year’s conference. Amongst the conference details was a poster of all of the images from the last conference captured by the graphic artist. I was hooked. Although I had fond memories of the event, they had mostly faded, her images brought them all roaring back to life.

Cover of "Visual Meetings: How Graphics, ...

Cover via Amazon

After that experience, I wondered how I could capture some of that vibrancy in my regular day to day meetings. As it happens, I got my answer several years later while attending the same conference. The presenter was a fellow named David Sibbet.  David talked about the power of images, he brought us back to those days long ago when we huddled around fires in caves and drew on walls, but he also brought us back to our childhood. Those wonderful colourful books that kept us engaged and made us want to read. Even today some of my favourite life lessons come in the form of blog posts from Susan Cooper, who uses her colourful illustrations to tell important life stories.

We have a very natural affinity for visuals. People love to see their ideas captured in an interesting and interactive way. This is why writing things out on boards is a standing practice of meeting facilitators. Big thoughts are also more likely to be developed because visualization allows you to see natural and unnatural links between ideas. Patterns become more visible and this gives the group an opportunity to get those big picture ideas that help create group momentum. Our memories benefits from using visuals too. By putting things up on a shared board the group can keep track and recall ideas more easily.

So why do we eliminate visuals from our regular meetings? Well the most common response is, “I can’t draw”.  David would argue other wise and as I know from attending many art classes over the years, everyone can draw; we just need to be taught how. That’s precisely what David Sibbett does in his two books, Visual Teams and Visual Meetings.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s see what you can learn in just a few minutes.

Start with a simple circle. Thinking of mixing something in a bowl—maybe egg whites. Before putting the pencil to paper, try out the motion. Use your arm in the process; it will make a better circle. Got it? Great, you now have a circle.

  1. Add a few brackets and you have a bouncy ball.
  2. Throw some lines beside the circle and it’s moving fast.
  3. Add two dots and a smile and you have a head.
  4. Point an arrow at your circle and you’ve made your point.
  5. Place larger circles around it and you have a bull’s-eye or a central idea.

Getting visual doesn’t require rocket science or a degree in art. We are all natural drawers…stick figures can express ideas too. Introducing colour markers on a white board or giant note pad will easily do the trick of making meetings more engaging. Sticky notes are also a useful tool and can bring colour and shape to visual story telling. When doing a process mapping exercise one organization I worked with used sticky notes to represent each step in a process.  As participants added sticky notes, the visual image grew. The ensuing image of multiple sticky notes spread across a wall was a more powerful illustration of the need to cut steps than any conversation.

I have had great success with strategic planning by putting markers and sticky notes into the hands of colleagues. The challenge is not about the ability to draw, it’s the willingness to try. Go ahead, let your inner artist out, you’ll be surprised by what shows up.

Have you ever had to draw to make a point? Have you ever used the back of a napkin to illustrate what you meant?  Do you do better when visuals are used?

Related Articles: 
Enhanced by Zemanta

50 responses to “Visual Meetings – How To Bring Meetings To Life

  • I am a business analyst, and sometimes need to do demonstrations or presentations. I used to use drawings etc, now I started using a program where I make my own movies. It is very realistic (imaging the video game commercials on tv) and easy to create. So this has helped me a lot, and made me the most popular presenter in my group.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      March 17, 2018 @ 11:15 am

      That sounds like a lot of fun and I bet you’re popular. There are some great tools out there for making movies now, I use Adobe Spark myself since its free and so user-friendly. The idea here is more focused on bringing visuals to less formal meetings, no reason why they have to be boring. 🙂

  • I love words, but to sit through a presentation without any visuals would bring me to tears. The idea of the artist creating them as it continued is pretty interesting.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      March 17, 2018 @ 11:18 am

      I hear you on the love of words, but there are definitely limits. We often complain about meetings because they seem to just drone on, but I think that we can help to make them less tedious by applying the same principles we use when presenting, a little visual support goes a long way.

  • Catarina says:
    March 13, 2018 @ 11:18 am

    Visuals definitely work. Just not sure if women making drawings the way you describe are still that popular. Maybe something else has become popular.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      March 13, 2018 @ 02:24 pm

      Hi Catarina, this is still happening here in Canada. I was at a conference in February that had someone capturing the discussion with drawings. I think that it will remain popular because it is so low tech that you do not need to know how a particular program works to engage. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of fun visual options out there.

  • Brilliant suggestions Debra – thank you! I will definitely arm myself with post it notes and coloured markers and try to incorporate some of these ideas next time I’m in a brainstorming session. It definitely links in with my post about how being playful can result in creative solutions…

  • Hi Debra. I am so very much a visual learner. Without visuals, presentations just don’t hook me, or get centred in my brain. I’m lucky I’m a travel writer, as all of my writing and presentations carry a very heavy visual component.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      March 13, 2018 @ 06:33 pm

      It’s so true, your photos of chocolate have made my mouth water. The expression, a picture is worth a thousand words exists for a reason. 🙂

  • The swift rise of Instagram is proof that visuals work. People prefer to connect with visuals rather than text. Visuals can impart more emotion and help to clarify complex topics.

  • Visuals are important when trying to engage an audience. My preferred presentations involved visuals of some kind and I felt more involved and that the presenter wanted to capture my attention.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      March 13, 2018 @ 06:35 pm

      I’ve have been bored to sleep by presentations and its often because there are not enough visual elements to to keep me engaged.

  • I am a visual learner as is half the world. Wouldn’t you think it would dawn on more people to utilise the power of the visual to get your point across?
    I remember being in school and always told to take notes, there was never a time, except maybe pre-school or Kindy (sorry don’t know the name of your equivalent) where i was told to draw what you are hearing. Might be a good strategy to start with my son.

  • Debra, illuminating as always ! Primitive art can actually be more eye-catching than something slick and sophisticated. At least I hope so. Hope this comment sticks. Just in case have shared on Twitter, Google + and following you . The Stick Figure. Hope you find the cats !

  • Aw, thank you for the shout out and mentioning my use of illustration to express a point. It has been something I have done for a very long time. Because of my dyslexia, I was much more able to demonstrate what it was I wanted to convey with images. So that said, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and experiences using images in meeting notes and presentations. 🙂

    • Your welcome Susan, I do think your stories (which are powerful in the first place) are made more effective by the images. It’s interesting, I find recipes without images completely unappealing and often what gets me to try a recipe that I wouldn’t normally consider is the picture.

  • I appreciate this good post, and the fact that many people are visual learners. My natural mode, though, is to learn kinesthetically. If we can involve my body in what I am to learn, I am really going to get it. When I was a young Girl Scout, we played “Simon Says” to learn north, south, east and west. (“Simon says face to the south. Simon says face to the east. Now, face to the north, Haha, gotcha!”) To this day, that body memory of west being on my left as I am facing north informs my whole understanding of the world.

    • In recent years I think more meeting planners have come to realize the importance of bringing movement into events. It’s rare these days for me to attend an all day meeting that doesn’t involve getting up and doing some stretches or simple exercise as part of the group.

      BTW: I start by pointing at the top of my head and moving clockwise and say, “Never Eat Shredded Wheat”. It’s how I taught kids directions when I worked in an after-school program and it’s how I remember directions now. 🙂

  • ballnchainz says:
    March 20, 2014 @ 08:46 am

    This is Jay

    you are correct and since im a visual leaner i understand more than most what you mean. For work i have to draw pictures or flow diagrams so that i completely understand. Words are good but a picture is so much better

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque) says:
    March 20, 2014 @ 07:29 am

    The idea of having an illustrator turning a lecture into visual images is not something I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to some truly deadly law conferences. I wonder if it would be more interesting if I tried to be my own visual illustrator while I was listening. It would force me to be an active listener—-and since the product would just be for me, it wouldn’t matter that I can’t draw!

  • Visuals to help back up information delivered orally in print always add another layer to hep ensure comprehension. I can’t draw to save my life, but thank goodness just about any type of image can be found online these days when we need it to help illustrate a point.

    • I have briefly, BRIEFLY toyed with the idea of drawing for my blog, but drawing in the heat of an in person exchange and drawing for prosperity are very different. I’d take weeks if not months for each post. 🙂

  • Visual Meetings is a great idea, especially for visual learners. I post daily quotes on facebook juxtaposed with images I find on the internet. If the image is strong and colorful, the post gets a lot of attention. If the quote is strong and meaningful but the image is weak, the post gets glossed over.

    • Isn’t it amazing what strong visual creatures we are? It seems a shame that we don’t see more recognition of that nature in most work settings. It’s such a critical part of knowledge transfer.

  • Loved your post. I learn better when something is illustrated. I spent a number of years as head of training and development at my former bank and facilitated a lot of classes that required me to draw. I have absolute no talent for creating fine art but anyone can draw a simple picture, even if it’s stick figures. People tend to “get it” when they can see a new learning in visual format.

    • Thanks Jeanette, I get engaged simply by introducing colour to note taking. When I walk into a facilitated meeting and there are markers or colour pencils on the table, I smile. It seems a shame not to do that all the time. 🙂

  • jbutler1914 says:
    March 19, 2014 @ 01:15 pm

    Visuals usually help me. Unfortunately I can’t draw at all.

  • I, like most people am more of a visual learner and receive easier when I can see it. Audio tapes, mp3s, and the like are wasted on me. When I was in college listening to all those lectures, I was writing feverishly so I’d remember what was said. I only go As in the classes where there were workbook and/or the exams included a lot for the textbooks. The idea of visual art to go along with lectures ‘sounds’ fantastic to me. (a little pun there)

    • Heeeeeheheheehe…I used to bring a tape recorder to my more tedious classes in university to augment my feverish note taking, especially if they were core courses that I couldn’t just doze off in. When I taught, I always did slides to go with my lectures, it used to take 6 hours to prepare for a 2 hour course every week, but it was worth it because it would keep me and my students engaged. Sometimes I wonder if they were more for me than my students. 🙂

  • The possibity of me making stick figures means changing my focus entirely to that task. Now if someone has a presentation with visuals I tend to focus better. With how my mind works I need at least two things going on to maintain focus.

    • I hear you Jon, when I first saw the movie “Up”, I thought they had fashioned Dug after me…squirrel. It’s why I like visuals, they keep me grounded in the moment whether I’m watching them or making them. 🙂

  • Also love the women busily working on capturing the meeting proceedings in images. Have come across them several times and love the way they capture everything. There are classes to learn how to draw like that. Once we have the skill we could skip powerpoints and just keep on drawing in front of our audiences. But it depends on what subject the meeting or seminar is about:-)

    • Agree, it would be nice to just bypass pre-conceived formats and create organic visuals that reflect the mood and focus of the audience…and yes, definitely depends on subject. 🙂

  • Guilty as charged, Debra – i am one of those people who say i cannot draw, duh?! I LOVED your exercise – it really turned into a fast moving ball, alright! I am giving this a try…

    I sure am better with visuals… and yes, sometimes i need to draw it on a sheet of paper to make a point – but more often than not, my drawings turn out to be more like a chart – ha! You’ve given me some homework – how to incorporate now drawings into my blog posts…

    Thanks for a great read, Debra – i am sure i will revisit this post soon 🙂

    • I was thinking about how many meetings you might be in, presenting on Meliway (, and I think if you can bring some fun, colour and unexpected engagement to those meetings you could get folks really excited about what is a beautiful product. It would go a long way to translating the fun that Meliway represents.

      • Hah, thanks for mentioning and linking to Meliway, Debra 🙂 However, being an online business combined with my lifestyle of constantly traveling for fun and exploring, no – i am not presenting Meliway to any meetings 🙂 But you are right, bringing some fun, color and unexpected engagement in to the mix would help get people excited. Thanks! 😀

        • Unfortunately I haven’t been doing much travelling for fun lately but I’m planning on taking a leisurely vacation in June with my family. We’ll be driving to a cottage on the ocean in Nova Scotia. We try to treat the travel to and from Nova Scotia as a part of the vacation. I’ve been thinking about incorporating some photos and drawings to mark the trip, it would be great if that also included Meliway. 🙂

  • Using graphics to get your point across is a wonderful idea. Not only does it make it easier to explain your point in some cases, it also just makes a meeting more engaging than just listening to someone speak the entire time.

    • I always remember the meetings that were great and the ones that were terrible. Not surprisingly, the great ones typically involved many voices and quite often, markers and the terrible ones were always about sitting passively while stuff (dressed like information) rolled by. 🙂

  • What a terrific idea! Sort of off topic….a favorite game of mine way back when was Pictionary! I think people gravitate to images. We are such a visual society, and for most of us, almost all of our memories are tied into visualization…connecting the image to the thought. You’ve brought it home beautifully even for the artistically challenged like me 🙂

    • I remember Pictionary, I haven’t played that in ages, but thought it was a riot. One thing that game taught me, you didn’t need to know how to draw to convey a message with images. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.