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March 13, 2008

News & Opinion: Excerpt from The Back of the Napkin

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 2:00 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The excerpt below is from the introduction to The excerpt below is from The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, by Dan Roam. The story begins when a coworker asked Dan to cover for him as a presenter at a conference in England. After an overnight flight, Dan was asked en route to the conference to run his PowerPoint by the British team leader. And there was the rub. He didn't have one. In fact, he wasn't quite sure yet what it was he'd be talking about. When he found out it was online education, he grabbed a pen and the nearest napkin and began drawing. The Back of the Napkin By Dan Roam
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"I don't know anything about online education, but I do know a lot about creating communications-oriented websites," I said, pen poised over napkin. "Can I show you something that your education experts might find interesting? I have an idea." Freddie was intrigued, and with a wave indicated that I should continue. Then again, he didn't have much choice--my pen was already moving. And this is what I drew: a circle with the word "brand" in the middle of it.
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"You see, Freddie," I said, "Lots of people these days are very worried and confused about how to create a useful website. But the way I think about it, there are really only three things that we need to define. The first is the brand itself. The other two are the content and the function." Then I drew in two more circles and labeled them appropriately, then continued, "If we can determine what to put in these three circles, then we can build any site to serve any audience."
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"The question is: how do we know what these three should contain. The answer is this." I drew a little smiley face next to each circle and wrote a caption for each. "What people want to DO (or what we want them to do) determines function; what people want to KNOW (or what we want them to know) determines content; and what we want them to REMEMBER determines the brand."
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"We can determine all these things through our client's business vision, market studies, and basic educational research. We don't have to know all these answers today, the point of this picture is that it gives us a good starting point for knowing who and what we should be looking for." Next I drew in three more smiley faces and captions, this time connecting the three circles together. "If our research tells us what to put in those three circles, then it's our own website team who will create it: our engineers build the functional components, our writers define, write and edit the content, and our designers create an experience that will be memorable.
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"Simple as it seems, that's pretty much it." I them summarized the napkin with a title and a key.
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"What do you think, Freddie? Could I walk our audience through something like that?" My napkin wasn't beautiful by any stretch, but it struck me as clear, comprehensive and comprehensible--and simple as it was, it gave me about a dozen starting places to talk in more detail about any aspect of creating a useful website. Freddie tore the napkin out of my hands: "That's brilliant! That's not part of our presentation--that's the whole bloody thing!" An uncertain look must have crossed my face. "Think about who we're talking to." Freddie explained. "Our audience is a group of highly educated government bureaucrats, all new to the Internet. A lot of public money is going to be spent on this project, and their necks are on the line. Their greatest concern is that there is a solid framework under their feet to give them the confidence to move forward. Your napkin provides the structure they're looking for. This is perfect... " Freddie leaned back and looked at me. " ... but do you think you can talk about it for forty-five minutes?" It turns out that the classic lecture halls of Sheffield University have the biggest blackboards I'd ever seen. As I redrew the napkin step-by-step before the fifty experts, walking them through it just as I had with Freddie over breakfast, we didn't end up talking about it for forty-five minutes; we ended up talking for nearly two hours. Freddie's team won the engagement, and thus began the longest-running project of the London office. And me? Sharing that simple napkin in that grand hall was my watershed moment in understanding the power of pictures as a business tool. I thought about all the problems that simple napkin sketch had helped solve: first, simply by drawing it I had clarified in my own mind a previously formless idea that had been spinning around for months. Second, I was able to create the picture almost instantly, without the need to rely on any technology other than paper and pen. Third, I was able to share the picture with my audiences--both with Freddie on the train and with the experts in the lecture hall--in an open way that invited and inspired discussion. Finally, speaking directly from the picture meant I could focus on any topic without having to rely on notes, bullet points, or a written script. The lesson for me was crystal clear: if we can find a way use the simplicity and immediacy of pictures to discover and clarify our own ideas, we can use those same pictures to clarify our ideas for other people--and help them discover something new for themselves along the way. After the eye-opening success of that English breakfast, I returned home inspired to learn all I could about the use of pictures as a problem-solving approach. Back in New York, I focused my attention on seeing how far I could push the use of images in discovering, developing and sharing business ideas. I read everything I could find on business visualization, I attended workshops lead by the gurus of information visualization, and searched for and collected all the visual explanations I could find in the business press. Two things surprised me very quickly. First, I was shocked at how few materials I could find on visual thinking as a problem-solving approach--and of those, how few offered practical advice for the day-to-day world of business--and second, what initially appeared to be a wildly divergent set of materials in fact masked a very small set of common themes. This last point struck me as particularly compelling: if visual thinking could usefully be broken down into a set of common themes and tools, perhaps it could become a recognized way of approaching all sorts of business challenges, from idea discovery to concept development to communications to sales. I realized that the best way to single out and test these common themes was to put them into practice on real-world business consulting and sales assignments. So from that point on, I decided that wherever I could use a picture in my job, I would. The rest of this book is about what happened next.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.