JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE A detail of a white board drawn by Erin King.
I’m a big proponent of scribes for important meetings, such as pitch scrubs. It’s asking too much of a founder to present their pitch, absorb the input from the reviewing team, AND take notes on important points. So we will be recommending to MIT VMS founders that they bring another team member to their pitch scrubs to act as scribe – to take notes on all the feedback from the mentors. And I mean all. Scribes should not act as filters, they are basically stenographers and there is no harm or shame is using one of those apps that records speech and indexes it for you. The goal is a document that the presenter and their team can review after the pitch scrub to decide what, if any changes, they need to make in their pitch based on mentor feedback.
Scribes have been around for as long as there’s been writing and courts of law still use scribes, known as stenographers, though their days are probably numbered as it’s inevitable that they will be replaced by technology of one sort or another.
However, there’s a new trend in conducting meetings and it is both more powerful and more interactive than scribing. It’s known as graphic facilitation. As the name implies, unlike scribes who are passive recorders, these graphic artists actually facilitate the meeting by illustrating points and the connections among them in real time. And of course the white boards commonly used can easily be photographed by anyone’s smartphone to keep and share a record of the visual presentation.
I first came across use of live, real time illustration in a presentation done by a doctor on central nervous system pain, How to do a great presentation without a computer or any electronic devices. You may want to both read this post and watch the video of the doctor’s presentation, it is extremely well done.
Today graphic facilitation is now a business. Collective Next is one such company highlighted in The Boston Globe article by Andy Rosen, Quick on the draw: Companies use live illustrators to spice up presentations. The title is somewhat misleading as graphic facilitation does far more than simply spice up what could be a dull, bullet point filled PowerPoint presentation.
Graphic facilitation can be used to not only enhance presentations but also to improve panel discussions, conferences, and other meeting events. Visual presentations can help the audience make connections amongst disparate ideas and can also help everyone think more visually. Real time illustration can catalyze collaboration in a way just not possible with the traditional PowerPoint presentation.
As Sarah Dolny, the Abcam events manager quoted in The Globe article said, “We wanted it [the illustrations] to be something that people can actually experience and see, and walk around,” she added. “Words are really powerful, but we wanted to be able to bring it to life in a creative, unexpected way.”
Collective Next and other companies have also begun to offer live illustration remotely, using an Internet connection to make services available for meetings in far-flung locations, an increasingly common occurrence in today’s distributed companies.
However, there are some downsides to using a graphics facilitator. For one they probably don’t have the technical vocabulary to visually scribe a biotech or other highly technical discussion. And the audience won’t want to have to slow down the meeting to explain terms and concepts. The other issue is that old saw, “I gave a man a fish and he ate for a day. I gave a man a fishing reel and he ate for a lifetime.” If there is a member of the presenting group or the audience with passable graphic skills their acting as graphics facilitator will help them improve those skills as well as send the message that everyone needs to think and present visually. The other issue is somewhat more arcane. Marshall McLuhan, the noted media philosopher, distinguished between hot and cool media. Hot media do it all for you, like a film. Cool media, like books, require the active engagement of the audience, which often can be more powerful. Having a professional illustrator at your meeting may push things into a cooler mode where counter-intuitively the audience may be less engaged, as the hired professional does their visual thinking for them.
Irregardless of these two possible downsides I applaud this trend. The only significant impediment may be cost. Collective Next’s event services start at a few thousand dollars and can range into the hundreds of thousands for projects that can span weeks, or even months. So the value of the event must be commensurately high to justify such an expenditure.
But once you have seen live graphics facilitation I promise you that you’ll wish you had that service for every presentation and event. And if your audience will be primarily millennials graphic facilitation may be a must-have, not just a nice to have.
“We’ve got a millennial workforce that is much more visual,” said Ian R. Cross, director of the Center for Marketing Technology at Bentley University. “It’s less interested and comfortable with long, wordy strategy documents, and it’s much more interested in connecting graphically, connecting with pictures, short sentences, emojis.”