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Herb Kelleher, a lawyer from New Jersey, moved to his wife’s hometown of San Antonio with the intention of starting his own law firm. One afternoon in 1967, Mr. Kelleher was having lunch with one of his clients, Texas entrepreneur Rollin King, whose unsuccessful regional airline Mr. Kelleher had just helped to close.
But Mr. Rollin was not ready to give up just yet. He grabbed a napkin and jotted down three cities: San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, connecting them with a triangle. What if an airline simply offered nonstop flights between these spots? This simple picture stood in stark contrast to the complicated hub-and-spoke route maps of most major airlines. Maybe customers would find the simplicity and the ease of point-to-point travel appealing too. It was this simple but powerful picture that encapsulated the idea behind Southwest Airlines.
In my work coaching middle managers and aspiring leaders, I have found that many have difficulty conveying complex ideas. They rely too heavily on a single communication tool – talking – often aided by a powerful computerized crutch, the PowerPoint presentation.
Visual-thinking expert Dan Roam says in his book Blah Blah Blah: What to do When Words Don’t Work that we tend to assume that talking is the best and only way to share our ideas. Words can do all these wonderful things and they are what make us human. Words have the potential to powerfully convey an idea. But they are limited. Only using words runs the risk of misunderstanding due to inattention, biases and interpretations of the listener. And sometimes, when we are not certain how good our idea is, we use words – especially corporate speak or buzzwords – to jazz up a lame idea or muddle an average one.
One way to overcome this challenge is a simple, yet effective solution: Draw pictures. Pictures have the power to help us communicate and share ideas with others in a way that they “get.”
A former management consultant, Mr. Roam has helped executives at Google, Wal-Mart and General Electric to use their mind’s eye to convey their ideas more simply.
You may think “I can’t draw” but rest assured you do not need to be artistically trained to sketch the essence of an idea. According to Mr. Roam, if we can draw five shapes – a line, a square, a circle, a triangle and a blob – we can draw anything.
Drawing can help us to:
1. Clarify our own thinking
Early iterations of an idea are usually incomplete in our heads. And it is hard for us to figure out every single detail. Drawing pictures can help us flesh out and advance our idea, making it more concrete and tangible. Instead of leaping to PowerPoint, try to sketch out your idea on a piece of paper first.
2. Explore different possibilities
The late scientist and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling once said, “The best way to get to a good idea is to have lots of them.” Drawing pictures helps us explore different ideas because we can now see new solutions that may have not been obvious to us before. Images have the potential to spark our imagination in a way that words cannot – we are visual thinkers, after all. The next time you are brainstorming, try drawing simple sketches of your ideas as you capture them.
3. Share our ideas with others
How many times have you been met with a confused expression or “Huh?” from a colleague when you have explained your idea? Drawing pictures helps us share ideas more clearly. A drawing quickly conveys the essence of an idea in a way that would take many paragraphs of text. There is a reason why it is said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Since the sketch is rough, it often opens the door for others to offer ideas – new ones that we might have not come up with on our own. Try sharing your sketch with a colleague and see how the conversation and idea changes.
To learn how to draw pictures and become more visual, in addition to Blah Blah Blah, another book by Mr. Roam worth reading is: The Back of the Napkin.
Stefanie Schram (@StefanieSchram) is senior associate at Rotman DesignWorks (@RotmanDsgnWrks) at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.