Struggling to get on the same page with someone at work? Trying to survive a group discussion seemingly out of control as participants debate and argue but fail to move forward? Try changing the medium from words to pictures, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the communication clarity you achieve.

I use the drawing technique to great effect in high-stakes and emotionally charged situations and challenging conversations. In spite of my limited artistic abilities, the results are always positive. However, it took some effort for me to develop the confidence to pick-up the marker mid-stream and change the communication dynamics. This article includes examples and ideas to help you turn drawing in real time into a game-changing communication technique.

Words, Not Pictures Have Been My Best Friends for A Long Time:

By nature, I’m a word person and pictures don’t come easily to me. Art and music classes during my school years were to me what gym class is like to many others—sheer torture on a good day. English and speech, on the other hand, were joyful experiences filled with minimal mockery and great success. Moral suasion, structured argumentation and persuasive speaking and writing became my tools in trade.

The idea of having to pick up a dry erase marker and head to the whiteboard to draw a picture for a long time was the closest I’ve been to feeling post-traumatic high-school stress. However, learning to create images from words in a public setting changed my career for the better.

With a bit of practice, this powerful, simple technique can do the same for you in challenging conversation settings.

Recognize the Signs that Call for Less Talking and More Drawing:

When conversations swirl and confusion reigns, or, when it feels as if you are arguing with someone over the same idea, it’s time to shift the medium.

I first observed this in a board meeting as confusion erupted over the team’s proposed strategy. Once one of the senior managers grabbed the dry erase marker and started to sketch out the marketplace and segments, the tone shifted from argumentative to interested and ultimately engaged. Eventually, the whiteboard was covered in pictures of user personas, the marketplace ecosystem, competitor positioning, the technology stack, and our proposed marketing strategy. The entire tenor of the meeting shifted to one of constructive, collaborative planning.

Drawing in Real Time Creates a Powerful Parallel Processing on Ideas:

In the example above, the work of drawing and striving to comprehend the visual representation of the strategy brought everyone in the room together and achieved a form of parallel processing and talking. Individuals asked clarifying questions, suggested additions to the diagram(s) and ultimately internalized the thinking behind the strategy. Priceless.

A Management Team Gets the Picture and Strengthens CEO Communication

Some years ago, I coached a brilliant top executive who had a cryptic style of verbal communication. I recognized that everyone around her struggled to grasp her critical points on strategy, and it was debilitating to the team’s effectiveness. You had the sense there was something great hiding between some mangled words, but could never quite get there.

In one particularly stressful session, I asked one of the executives to draw what he thought the CEO was saying. She smiled as the picture emerged, and said, “Yes, but you’re missing a few key items,” and she amended the diagram. Clarity emerged, and the team adopted this technique as a standard part of their meeting process. Whiteboards appeared all over the office and flip-chart expenses skyrocketed—both small prices to pay for clarity with the CEO.

Dealing with a Difficult Coworker? Try Drawing Out Your Differences

OK, there’s a bad pun in the section header, however, getting to the whiteboard or flip-chart when communicating with a difficult coworker takes pressure off both parties. Instead of focusing on each other, you are focused on representing your ideas, opening up opportunities for collaboration. I’ve used this technique to great effect with workplace adversaries, and for a few minutes, it’s a great cease fire!

Images On Slides Aren’t a Substitute for an Image Drawn in Real Time

I’ve had clients suggest they can achieve the same effect with fewer words and more pictures on their slides. I disagree.

While I’m a fan of fewer words and more pictures on slides, these are static diagrams requiring the viewer to engage in a complicated process attempting to discerning meaning or intent. Few of us look at a picture and perceive the same thing.

Alternatively, the images created with everyone observing and participating generate a group learning experience. It’s as if the idea is being architected jointly by the participants in real time. While unqualified to describe the brain science in play here, there’s a difference in cognitive processing between viewing an image and being present as one is created.

7 Tips for Creating Communication Clarity Through Drawing:

I’m likely the least qualified person on the planet to offer drawing advice, however, here’s some guidance for getting to the whiteboard or flip-chart and changing the communication dynamics, no matter your artistic skills.

1. Arm your office with the tools of creativity

Flip-charts and whiteboards are raw materials for creativity and clarity—put them everywhere and don’t go cheap on the markers.

2. Recognize the signs when it’s time to make the move to the whiteboard

When your audience is agitated, and ideas and arguments are flying in all directions, it’s time to pick up the marker. The shift to a different medium takes the energy out of the verbal fisticuffs and gets the group focused on the same track.

3. If drawing isn’t your thing, keep it simple

Because of my limited capacity for drawing anything, I use boxes, circles, and arrows liberally. Admittedly, some of my diagrams end up looking like explosions of dry erase ink on a whiteboard, the process is still useful. Your kindergarten child might snicker at my weak attempts; however, the audience focuses on the efforts, not the quality.

4. Draw multiple versions of the same idea from different perspectives

It’s much easier to achieve alignment around a drawing than it is fleeting words. Instead of arguing over words that are easily misinterpreted, two competing ideas represented in images are much easier to reconcile.

5. Use drawing to create a communication cease fire with adversaries

If you’re navigating a difference of opinion with a coworker, try drawing what you perceive the desired outcome is for both parties and build solutions from there. Drawing is a powerful tool to help you move beyond positions and focus on mutual interests.

6. Get people involved in designing the drawings

Share the markers and invite colleagues to contribute to the effort in real time. Our CEO friend described earlier would stand at the whiteboard with her team members and add to or draw her version in an attempt to clarify critical points. Remember to use different colors to represent different perspectives and contributions.

7. Take pictures of the finished pictures

The output of these creative sessions provides a tangible reminder of the creative process and outcomes. When you share or show the picture at the next meeting, you’ll find a room full of advocates who feel ownership in the image and outcome.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I love the communication clarifying power inherent in the simplicity of drawing versus talking. The image becomes the focus, and the most heated of arguments become constructive design sessions. Practice with your team or in one-on-one settings. You never know—someday, you might use this technique to win the day in a high-stakes board or strategy meeting!

Art's Signature