What’s with all the words?

The other title I considered for this post is Only You Attend the Meeting in Your Head. This is about two related questions that I get from time to time. From prospective clients or people who are curious about visual practice, I hear: “How do you decide how to balance text and images in your work?” From fellow practitioners, I hear: “My client asked me to record using only pictures. Got any advice?” Advice? Maybe. Opinions? Always. Read on.

Graphic recorders, as you know, capture a presentation or a discussion in a visual way. To me, “a visual way” implies a few different things:


  1. The people having the discussion, or listening to the presentation, can see what is being captured. (Otherwise, I call it “visual notetaking” and not “graphic recording,” but YMMV.)


    David records

    David Sibbet recording reflections at IFVP 2008. The whole group can glance over and see the chart as he creates it.

  2. The graphic recorder organizes the information on the page or screen while she is recording it. The completed map is clear and easy to navigate. The information is presented in an engaging and maybe a beautiful way.*

    2a. For a discussion, this means that related ideas are grouped or linked visually, even if they are expressed at very different times in the conversation. Important or repeated ideas are highlighted somehow. Group agreements are clearly indicated. In other words, the graphic recorder helps organize and annotate the group’s thinking. At Elliott Masie’s Learning 2013, where I remotely captured a series of plenary interview sessions this week, this was described as ‘curating,’ a term I like.




    Color, shading, and placement indicates related concepts. Remotely digitally recorded for Elliott Masie’s Learning 2013.

    2b.For a presentation, the speaker’s key points are captured, usually in the sequence they are presented. This is because someone — the presenter — has already curated the subject matter. (One hopes.)

  3. Some key points, important concepts, evocative moments, or relationships between ideas are annotated or captured with images as well as, or instead of, words.


    Avril recording

    Avril Orloff blending words and images (beautifully) to capture a presentation at IFVP 2010 in Redwood City

Notice that the pictures part of ‘visual’ is way down in #3. I did that on purpose because in my practice, I emphasize #1 and #2.

Every now and then, when I’m scoping a project with a client, she will say something like this: “… and I want you to capture everything with pictures. I don’t want a lot of words, just pictures.”

So here’s the thing with that.

The first rule of graphic recording is this: Capture the speaker’s exact words. There are two reasons to do this. One is that the speaker will only understand he has been heard when he sees his own words written down on your chart. The second reason is that there are always two meetings going on: the one in the room, and the one in your head. The only experience that you can guarantee everyone is having is the one that is happening there in the room. The only person attending the meeting in your head is you. (Honest.) If you change the speaker’s words, even if you are interpreting or paraphrasing, you are recording the meeting in your head, which no one but you is attending.

If you use only pictures to capture the discussion, you are interpreting everything. Pictures can enhance understanding only if the context is clear. Without the shared context of the words, the meaning is apt to be lost, and when participants review the charts after the meeting they will not recall as much as they would if you had also captured some of the exact words they heard in the room. There are very, very few universally recognized images, and they generally communicate very simple concepts — not the complex ideas and relationships between them that are the substance of a facilitated working session or a really good presentation.

When a client asks me to record using only images, I try to get a little more information about what they want to do with the finished work — what their outcomes are. If they want the piece to remind people of the conversation and be a resource for future discussion, it’s critical for the words people actually heard to show up in the chart. If they are looking for a commemorative mural to frame and hang as a work of art, I happily direct them to other practitioners who will give them something much more in line with what they are after. It’s not wrong to want that as an outcome. I’m just not the best person to deliver it.

There are many, many flavors of visual practice, and many applications for the different approaches. Just like any other method or tool, some applications are a better fit with some approaches than with others. Match your tools and methods to your outcomes, and you’re golden.

* If I’m doing graphic facilitation — working directly with the group as opposed to working only with the chart while another facilitator handles the process and group dynamics — my charts are often not, strictly speaking, beautiful. I’m okay with this. The information is there, and it’s organized, and people can read it. When I’m doing straight graphic recording, I go in for beauty a bit more. I also know some wonderful practitioners who achieve beauty at very high levels no matter what their role.

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