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Blah Blah Blah

By Dan Roam

(Portfolio, 350 pages, $29.95)

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We live in a world of blah, blah, blah. And presentations specialist Dan Roam says it is killing our ability to think, learn, work and lead. Instead of clarity, we have fog – complexity, misunderstanding and boredom.

“Ever left a meeting more confused than when you entered? Ever watched two hours of cable news and knew that you knew less about the world? Ever stifled another yawn during another conference room bullet-point bonanza? You get the picture,” the San Francisco-based author writes in Blah Blah Blah.

We need ideas, and thinking. But he argues that our overuse and misuse of words is interfering with our ability to convey ideas and clear thinking.

He even offers a “blah-blahmeter” to help us recognize when words aren’t working:

– The conversation, meeting or presentation is a blah when the intent is to illuminate, the topic is complicated and the message ends up boring.

– It’s worse – blah-blah on his scale – when the intent is to obfuscate, the idea is missing and the message is foggy.

– It’s blah-blah-blah when the intent is to divert, the idea is rotten and the message is misleading.

What we want, of course, are situations where the intent is to clarify, the idea is simple and the message is clear. A blah-free zone, in other words.

Mr. Roam’s solution, which he calls vivid thinking, involves adding visuals. Words are linear, and have to be strung together in sequence.

Visuals can complement those words, allowing us to grasp things all at once. When we think, we use both components of our minds. But too often, in meetings and reports, we now rely solely on words.

“Vivid thinking means balanced thinking,” he writes. “The reason for all the blah-blah-blah is that we’ve simply forgotten how to use both our minds.

“For 30,000 years, humans have been making marks on walls (then on paper, and more recently on touch screens) to reflect our thoughts. For 25,000 of those years, we drew pictures. Only in the past 5,000 years did we begin the gradual shift to writing words. The problem is that now we have gone too far,” he says.

Because we live in a verbal world, too many of us have never properly developed our visual side. So the thought of drawing – which is essential to Mr. Roam’s approach – can be paralyzing.

But he stresses that the drawings can – and should – be simple. He offers a visual grammar to assist us in overcoming our fears. For example, to represent the who and what of your ideas, draw a simple portrait – a face, a box, or a sailboat. A simple action can become a stick figure running.

When dealing with quantitative matters, use a chart. When trying to present time frames, choose a simple timeline, again probably with arrows, showing what the sequence is. In each case, he is suggesting simply a sketch. Nothing fancy, just a representation of the idea you are developing or have developed.

Beyond this, he introduces seven essentials for an idea to be clear, which he has combined into the acronym FOREST:

Form: The idea must be viscerally graspable – concrete rather than abstract.

Only the essentials: Vivid ideas fit in a nutshell. You get someone’s attention with the basics, and then add the details.

Recognizable: It helps if the idea is familiar in some fashion. He notes that the late American psychologist Abraham Maslow never mentioned the word pyramid when writing about his “hierarchy of needs,” but that shape has helped us to understand – to literally see – the concept.

Evolve: To help people embrace your idea, you must leave it unfinished enough that they can add their own insights.

Span ideas: For any idea to be effective, it must compensate for its deficiencies. This means it needs – like the ancient yin-yang symbol – to include its opposite.

Targeted: The idea must be contoured and presented in a way that matters to your audience.

These are interesting ideas, but unfortunately Blah Blah Blah is flawed where it counts most, in presentation.

Mr. Roam has a tendency to blah-blah-blah, wandering and taking far too many words and metaphors to get across his ideas. I often found myself adrift, trying to figure out why I was reading what I was reading and, more basically, struggling with whether this is a book about drawing or about thinking since it flips between those elements.

But obviously he is tackling an important issue, as he did in his 2008 book, The Back Of the Napkin, and as consultant David Sibbet does in Visual Meetings. Mr. Roam’s ideas have evolved since his initial work, but I prefer those other books.

POSTSCRIPT

In Up, Down, or Sideways (Tyndale, 170 pages, $16.99) performance consultant and speaker Mark Sanborn looks at the ingredients of success that will help you whatever the economy or the current situation at your workplace. In short chapters he tackles how to keep score, so you know whether you are achieving what’s truly important; the importance of optimism; the value of relationships; the practice of showing gratitude; and the need for discipline. None of this is new, and his ideas aren’t exceptional, so any value will likely come through the reinforcement his passionate book provides.

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