If you want to reach other people, learn to draw your ideas
A few years ago, I was invited to address a room full of graduate students studying agricultural sciences at the University of Kentucky. One of the students, a man studying seed breeding from Iraq, asked me a very simple question about reaching people that don’t study farming. “What is one skill we can develop to help people understand what we do?” I thought about it for a moment, and pointed to the dry erase board on the wall.
“The most important communication skill I have ever developed, is the ability to draw my ideas.”
All of us are vulnerable to thinking that the way we describe a complex idea in words are understood by others. We’ve all experienced frustration when co-workers, peers, friends or family just don’t get what we are saying. Our automatic response is to think that they were not listening, or they were not trying hard enough.
The problem, of course, is that the words that the speaker uses, the intonation used for emphasis, or the context that is brought to the conversation does not automatically align with another person’s mental model. We could discuss at length the reasons for this - culture, vocabularies, interest etc. but that does little to counter the sense of alarm we feel when you realize that ideas are being dismissed before they’ve even been fully explored.
As a communicator working on behalf of Monsanto, I speak to the work that our sciences and engineers use to address extraordinarily complex problems. I am not a scientist, but anyone asking me a question will expect that I understand and can translate entire domains of scientific study. I need to balance between learning enough of the details of a subject so that I can evaluate its integrity while simultaneously building accurate metaphors that help me understand and explain to others. Too much detail and people won’t listen and if the metaphor is too loose, no one learns anything.
I have learned over time, that everyone benefits when the teacher and then the student draw their ideas. What do I mean by drawing ideas? I mean build diagrams using words, stick figures, arrows, maps, anything that crystallizes your meaning into a physical form so that you and your audience can begin to build a shared meaning.
Visual representations offer you an additional dimension through which you can encode your ideas, but by drawing them in the moment, you get to control how much information is presented and in what order. Drawing puts you at the helm of what information others are paying attention to, and if you can learn to throttle your message to an optimum speed, you can keep the focused attention on what you think is most important. You are building a mental model in others’ minds and once you have a structure built, people want to react to it. When I am done I usually hand the marker to another person and give them the option to add to what I drew, or circle the parts they don’t understand.
If you have brought people along with you on your drawing explanation, you will now have an idea crystallized in front of everyone. Crystallized ideas are tangible and it is much more difficult to dismiss them without solid reasoning. While I am speaking with the public, I have found that even people that are suspicious of the messenger are much more open to building upon an idea that has been drawn. People are optimized to work together. If you learn to draw your ideas you will reach others who will want to work together to make your ideas better. The act of drawing is a powerful tool for harnessing the wisdom of others and giving them a new way to understand the world.
Most people start out feeling awkward when they draw their ideas, but it isn’t about how straight your lines are, or even how cleverly you shape the idea. The power comes from the experience you share with others. As you develop the skill of drawing, you will find yourself drawing your ideas all the time; on napkins, on glass, in meetings, and even while out with friends. The more the skill develops the more you will want to use it.
Looking for other ways to develop and communicate your ideas? Consider joining the Articulate Ventures Network.
We are a patchwork of thinkers that want to articulate ideas in a forum where they can be respectfully challenged, improved and celebrated so that we can explore complex subjects, learn from those we disagree with and achieve our personal & professional goals.