Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap)

Roam says you have to talk about an idea and draw it in order to truly understand it.

Dan Roam’s SXSW Interactive talk on visual thinking was far and away a highlight of the conference for me. His book, “The Back of the Napkin,” has been on my reading list for awhile, and it just shot to the top after hearing him speak.

Roam’s central point: EVERYONE is a visual thinker. 75 percent of your brain is devoted to visual processing.

“We are going to save the world by drawing pictures,” Roam told the audience. He argues that drawing pictures can help us solve problems and give shape to new ideas.

What do leaders today do to clarify their ideas? They talk, talk, talk, talk. We’ve come to equate intelligence with our ability to speak. That’s a big mistake.

Standardized testing focuses on math, critical reading and writing. It ignores visual reasoning. But while our educational system may ignore visual thinking as soon as we leave kindergarten, some of the world’s greatest minds keep returning to it.

“I rarely think in words at all. My visual images have to be translated laboriously into conventional mathematical terms.”  –Albert Einstein.

Physicist Richard Feynman was so bold as to say Einstein failed at the unified theory because he stopped thinking in concrete physical images. Roam shared a collection of presidential doodles, including sketches from JFK, Reagan and Obama. Reagan’s were drawn during a cabinet meeting.

The Fox vs. The Hummingbird

Roam says you’re one of two kinds of people:

Fox: LINEAR, Clever, Analyzing, A little self-satisfied, Eyes on the prize
Hummingbird: SPATIAL, Spontaneous, Synthesizing, Flighty

Business is wary of having a hummingbird in the room instead of a fox.  BUT…

A fully formed idea emerges when you combine the fox and hummingbird (Linear and Spatial). Roam calls this hybrid approach ViVId Thinking:


The fundamental truths of Vivid Thinking:

1.  We haven’t really explored an idea until we’ve both talked about it and looked at it.
2. We can’t share an idea until we’ve done both.

Imagine if Obama had used a flip chart to explain his healthcare goals!

Roam downloaded the proposed healthcare bill last fall. After reading pages of dense text, he wondered: Where is the vision, the big picture—literally—in the 1,400-page healthcare bill?

Roam decided the bill needed to be interpreted, so he drew it out and posted it on SlideShare (below). As of mid-March, it has been downloaded 200,000 times. Most of the commenters say “Thank you for clarifying!”

View more presentations from Dan Roam.

Fox News saw his slides and gave him 7 minutes on prime time to use his drawings to explain the bill. The White House communications office saw the segment, called him and said “We need to talk.” His response? “How about we draw?” He’s now working with the White House in some super secret capacity.

“He who draws the best picture wins.” Roam is not a healthcare expert, but he drew the best picture.

What to Draw

Roam is a fan of the old standby, the 5 W’s (+ How). He says Who, What, Where, When and Why actually act as a coordinate system to help us understand our world. In his drawings, he uses a portrait to represent Who, a map to show Where, a timeline to show When, etc.

He adds that whenever a speaker starts to make a list, you should start to draw.

I can’t really draw very well, but I’m excited about exploring this new way of thinking. I’m sure my crayon-wielding kindergarten self would be proud.

P.S. – I heard a wonderful interview on NPR last year where an artist wondered why we stop drawing after childhood. I’m determined to find it and will share a link here when I do. Huge thanks to Austin Kleon, who found the segment for me! Take a listen – Mo Willems on Getting Adults to Draw.

8 Responses to “Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap)”

  1. marybeth Says:

    I attended this session – what a great recap!

  2. tracy Says:

    Thanks, Mary Beth!

  3. Visual Note-Taking 101 (SXSW Recap) Says:

    […] Tracy Mueller « Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap) […]

  4. kanokwalee Says:

    Great session. Thanks for sharing your awesome notes.

  5. StaceyHarmon Says:

    Tracy – This was also one of my FAVORITE sessions at SXSW. Dan Roam is amazing. Great recap!

  6. Dan Roam's presentation at SXSW | Speaking about Presenting: Presentation Tips from Olivia Mitchell Says:

    […] I’ve described just the first five minutes of Dan’s presentation. For more see Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap). […]

  7. Problem Solving: Visuals really Helps « Soft Side of IT Says:

    […] The current top author on visual thinking is Dan Roam. I meet him this year at SXSW at his session: Blah Blah Blah: What to do When Words Don’t Work He gave a great scenario to shows how much better to use visuals rather than words. Scenario: Ways […]

  8. Rev Says:

    Roam’s book is ironic in that it is pages and pages of dense text describing how to think visually.

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