Adam Gartenberg's Blog

Business Analytics and Optimization, IBM and Social Marketing

Putting Pen to Paper


There's something I've been doing lately that I haven't done in a long time - putting pen to paper to work on new ideas and outline presentations and documents.

I've always taken notes on paper (with the exception of things like meeting minutes that I know I'll be sharing immediately), but for the most part I do all of my actual creative work on the PC itself.  As I'm kicking 2009 planning into high gear, I took a different approach last week, and found it incredibly refreshing and mind opening.  I walked away from my PC and sat down on the couch in my bonus room/office with a pen and pad of paper.

First of all, being away from the distraction of the PC, with the endless influx of e-mail, tweets, Facebook updates, and Sametime pings, did a world of good by itself.

But more than that, I found that the forced, linear structure of working in Word or PowerPoint was making me try to do too much at once.  I was trying to both come up with my thoughts and organize them at the same time.  ("Wait - this should be on that page.... Does this idea fit better under this bullet or that bullet?.... My bullets are running off the page; I must be done with this one....")  

Working with pen and paper, I didn't cut myself off when the font size shrunk too small for all the ideas to fit on a page, and I didn't find myself trying to convert raw thoughts into full sentences and paragraphs before I was ready to.  It was much easier to flip back and forth between 3 or 4 or 5 pages at once as I was taking down ideas on different topics than it would be to scroll up and down and find my place on a PC, and it was much easier just to let the ideas and tangents take me where they wanted to go.

A lot of this thinking was spurred by a book I just finished reading (and would recommend) called "The Back of the Napkin," by Dan Roam.  The subtitle of the book sums it up quite well - "Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures."  (Or even better - I should let you read the book cover yourself.)  

While not exactly what I was expecting - I was looking more for tips, models and examples on how to actually draw on the napkin, as drawing is far from a core skill - the read was definitely worthwhile.  The book begins by categorizing people into three groups, the Black Pens (the people who jump up in the meeting and say "Hand me the pen"), the Yellow Pens ("I can't draw, but...") and the Red Pens ("I'm not visual.")  The rest of the book is spent walking through a model that should help anyone, even the Red Pens, go from the typical death-by-powerpoint presentation style to a much more visual, concise way of laying out a story.

The framework isn't just about how to use more visuals in your presentations, but rather a thought process to help you evaluate the situation and boil down the 30 (or 60 or 90) slides you might have previously used into an illustration that gets at the key point you need to discuss in a meeting.  

I've had a chance to use some of the techniques over the past week, and found it very helpful in reframing a presentation that just wasn't getting across the point we wanted it to make.  Time will tell if I keep up with it or not, but it's always good to have another framework in the toolkit when it comes to selling your ideas.