Two of the biggest difficulties in the work environment are a) being able to quickly understand and contextualise difficult concepts and then b) being able to convey these complex concepts to colleagues or managers. These skills are almost mandatory for uninterrupted career advancement.
There have been many studies on the way people assimilate knowledge and no one shoe fits all. Depending on who you are you will prefer written text, audio, or graphics. My view is that if you can’t draw it, you don’t fully understand it. A graphic forces you to summarise your thinking, to organize it tightly into a visual object. Both written and spoken words allow you to describe the same concept from a few different angles and to really elaborate on the idea. A picture is static. Everything you want to say has to be summarised in the graphic and you are limited by the size of the page.
To get a picture right means that you really have to understand the concept you are drawing and the interrelationships within it.
There is no right or wrong way to draw a picture. You can use blocks and lines, symbols or a mind map. Once you get the picture right, you will be able to talk to it for an extended period of time.
Sometime back I was wrestling with how strategy was related to a business. I drew the following picture.
I look at the picture today and while I still agree with it, there are parts of it I would change. But at the time I drew it, that was how I understood the world. It summarised a few hundred pages of text. Once I had the picture clear in my head I was confident that I could take any question on the topic and be able to answer it in detail and in the context of how it worked with the rest of the business.
There is no formal methodology for drawing a picture and you need to be patient with yourself. It may take a few days to get the picture to a point where you are comfortable with it.
The underlying assumption of this approach is that any message you receive, be it a written text, a verbal instruction or lecture, or even a visual event will only contain a half dozen important points. It is these points that you must include in your picture. The trick is identifying the points in the first place. My recommendation is: don’t try too hard. Use an A4 size piece of paper and draw your understanding of what you have just read or heard or seen. Make the picture rich in detail. The more detail, the better. Once you believe you have all the concepts on the page and you have related them to each other, take a new A4 and fold it in half. Now draw the same picture in half the space. It will force you to summarise your first picture. If you can, repeat the exercise with a one-quarter size piece of paper.
Then reverse the process. When you can draw the summarised picture from memory, then draw the next level of expanded picture and when you have that right, draw the very detailed picture again. When you can do that, then you will find you really have internalised the concepts and you will be able to talk about them fluently. Then, depending on who your audience is, you can produce the appropriately summarised picture on the white board without notes and speak to it with confidence.
The following is another example of a picture I have used for years to describe the business architecture.
This picture conveys a significant amount of detail without being overly busy. It describes the elements of the business architecture and the context in which they exist. I now know this picture so well I can speak to it for over an hour if needed. I have also prepared pictures for each of the nine points (shown as blocks). This allows me to drill down into additional detail if necessary.
I have mentored a number of entrepreneurs who have come to me with an idea and the passion to start a business. They will all have prepared detailed business plans, but when asked to describe their idea they invariably battle. My recommendation is always: write up a brochure of one page only with a picture. The potential client must be able to look at the picture and understand your business. The text is supporting detail only. When you can do that, you understand what you are selling.
It is said, a picture speaks a thousand words. This is true and when you have your picture, you will have a thousand words at your fingertips.