Miscommunication in personal and professional life costs time, energy and money. Despite that, business leaders are generally poor communicators. As a fact-finding tool, asking disputants to draw their perspectives can help achieve clarity.
It may sound odd, but even rudimentary stick figures help focus a speaker’s message. A bag of money can represent budgets, a happy face if goals are achieved, a meeting room if performance appraisals are the subject and so on. I find this tool especially helpful if my client or I do not understand the engineering or science behind an initiative. In discussing a new drug, for example, I don’t need to draw the molecules when the positive effect on the patient is more relevant. Drawing gives the discussion a concrete, audience focus. It is also positive and understandable to a general audience, such as patients or regulators.
In my discussions with senior executives about how to draw a concrete version of a message, we both start to graze on the facts, people, pictures, emotions and other aspects of the issue at hand. This variety is needed to arrive at an appropriate picture that represents the message. Variety is also required when an executive reaches an impasse in the discussion. We can encircle the issue from a variety of points of view. A little more is learned with each fresh perspective. And so the exercise goes—grazing on facts, charts, feelings, stick figures and so on, until the topic is understood.
The techniques used by painter Jackson Pollock are a metaphor for how speakers should prepare to make remarks. Known as “Jack the Dripper,” Pollock would put a large canvas on the floor. He would move around the canvas dripping, flinging and pouring paint. He would use unorthodox tools such as sticks and turkey basters to apply paint to canvas. The canvas would be hung on the wall and then laid out on the floor so he could stalk the work from every angle. Pollock would work up close, kneel down and then back up to view his work from farther away. He surrounded his work. The drips are said to be a record of his movements around the canvas, much like the record a choreographer would make using other media. Leaders, speakers and negotiators need this level of involvement with their work.
Mundane stick figures helped me achieve clarity in one session with an agricultural chemical producer. As they were being discussed, the issues seemed complex. The pictures I drew to represent his business processes began with dead dinosaurs under the ground, a pipe coming up with natural gas in it, a factory turning the gas into fertilizer, trucks taking the product to the farm store and farmers purchasing bags of the product to spread it on their fields. But the executive corrected one drawing. The farm store doesn’t carry fertilizer in bags any more. Big trucks deliver fertilizer directly to large farms. An important detail like this is the kind a business consultant would miss when relying on verbal descriptions like “and then the farmer buys and uses the product.” A bullet-point presentation might have featured tons sold, percentage increase in sales, market share and other such data, none of which would have transmitted this essential element in the marketing process. Pictures force a deeper, more detailed understanding than words. Pictures allow a speaker to see the concept of buying and using the product.
In this case, I erased the bags and substituted a big truck going directly to the farm. This then sparked a discussion about what the company would do in a few decades when family farms were obsolete and major customers were large, corporate farming interests. This drawing exercise and the questions it generated took the executive out of the standard discussion of this week’s problem and into a broader discussion of the company’s future.