350,000 viewers. 7 minutes. Live TV. The ultimate “Napkin” challenge. (part 1)

Three weeks ago, I was asked by the Dylan Ratigan Show on MSNBC to come on-air and visually explain a “major political problem in America.” This would be a seven-minute live broadcast from the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller in New York. The live audience would be about 350,000 people around the world, the topic would be complex, and — oh, yes: the host is known for his rants. In other words, it would be the ultimate back of the napkin test. So, of course, I had to say yes.

I flew to New York the next day (reading every news source I could find during the 5-hour flight; thank heavens for inflight wireless) and waited in the hotel until Dylan’s producers called with the final topic. With less than 12 hours to prepare, I got the word: I would draw out the failure of the US Debt Super Committee. (Luckily, I’ve been following the debt debate in detail since summer, so this was a subject I know well.)

With an iPad in one hand, my PC on the hotel desk, the NYT and WSJ spread across the bed, and twelve sheets of poster board from the nearest Staples store propped against the wall, I got to work. Here is how I did it.

Although the pressure was higher than for most typical presentations, the visual approach I used in preparation and delivery of my message is  guaranteed to help anyone who has a high-stakes presentation ahead. Let me take you step-by-step through the pictures I created. (In a second post, let’s walk through the strategies of extreme high-pressure presenting.)

To begin, I picked up my Sharpies, dug into the research, and used my own 6X6 Rule as the starting point.

If you’ve had a chance to read my book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures, you know that this simple, six-slice pie provides the visual guidelines to describe the essentials of any idea. I started at the top (who and what = a portrait) and made my way around, answering each question with a simple image.

When I was done, I added a title card to the beginning of the visual story. This would give me and Dylan something to look at as we chatted before diving into the meat of the discussion (Lesson: always include a title. You’d be amazed how much insightful conversation can be generated just from how we describe our approach.)

The Big PictureNext, I added a visual introductory graphic. I anticipated this slide would be a quick one, a visual diving board from which to say ‘Ready?’ before the leap into the details. In the video, you’ll see how I used this slide to actively engage Dylan in my pictures. After this slide, I knew his active participation in the presentation was assured — after all, this is where I gave him the pen and asked him to draw on the board! (Lesson: a quick visual kicker to jump-start your story is always a powerful way to draw in your audience; one last chance for everyone to take a breath before the dive.)

Super CommitteeThen we get to the real pictures. Since anything that has to do with the debt is about big numbers, I decided to reorder my pictures so that we would start with the HOW MUCH charts. The first shows the total US Federal debt compared to the amount the Super Committee was supposed to shave off. As the first slide of substance, I made this one the simplest: a single idea (how much money do we owe) illustrated with the simplest possible, instantly-understandable graphic. (Lesson: get your audience engaged up-front with a single picture that makes a single point. We don’t want anyone getting distracted or confused in any way at this early point. We can save the elaboration for later…)

Federal debt amountI followed that up with another HOW MUCH chart, this one showing WHEN (that means a timeline) the debt had accumulated over the last five presidential administrations. Since this was the second picture, I knew I could afford more elaboration; that’s why I chose this slide to introduce the concept of TIME.

Debt accumulationNext I created a more detailed WHEN timeline illustrating the series of recent congressional crises that prompted the creation of the Super Committee in the first place, followed with the steps of what the Committee was supposed to do — and when they were supposed to do it. Since the Committee failed, this became the central picture. Where do we go now? Mandatory cuts, that’s where. (Lesson: when we want to engage our audience in a complex series of steps, nothing draws people in as well as a linear A-B-D-C progression. No looping back, no parallel paths; just a single path we walk along together.)

Super Committee timelineThus far, my pictures showed HOW MUCH, WHEN, and HOW, but we hadn’t yet seen WHY. To show WHY, I felt it best to actually show WHO (a portrait) since it was the very composition of the Committee that assured its failure from day one. By literally drawing them out, I could show viscerally the Democrats who would not budge on cutting retirement and healthcare without some increase in taxes, and the Republicans who would not budge on any increase in taxes, period. (Lesson: make it personal. Show the real people and their motivations shift from the abstract to the real.)

Who is who on the debt Super CommitteeThe last picture shows why those two groups were doomed from the start: there is an election coming up next year — and in this polarized time, no one who wanted to keep their job would be caught dead “compromising.” So welcome 2013, the year of mandatory cuts. (Lesson: end with a summary ‘what next’ takeaway. Since we’ve kept the audience with us this long, we want to leave them with a bit of a cliff-hanger. That’s what will motivate them to go back and review everything one more time.)

2012 = elections 2013 = cutsThanks for the challenge Dylan. I knew the pictures would clarify. They always do.

Thanks DylanTo see these images as a slideshow, here is the same thing embedded from slideshare.net:


Why Herman Cain’s 999 was the clearest idea in the campaign. (Until sex came along…)

There is no better example of the undeniable power of a “Vivid Idea” than the rapid rise of Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain. He came from the bottom of the pack and rose to the top position because of one wordless idea called 9-9-9.

Visually, here is what happened:

The rise of Cain and 999By creating a simple “Vivid” idea, Cain instantly drowned out all the blah-blah-blah.

The Rise

In August, Cain was languishing with 5% of the Republican vote. (Sources listed below.) During the Aug. 11 debate at Iowa State he said little of substance and was largely ignored in after-debate analyses.

At the September 7 debate held at the Reagan Library — the first debate in which Texas Governor Rick Perry participated — Cain promoted his idea of a “9-9-9 Tax Plan.” Although most post-debate analyses focused on the heated battles between leading candidate Mitt Romney and the pugnacious Perry, the shocking simplicity of Cain’s seemingly hair-brained 9-9-9 scheme stuck. By the end of the month, Cain had risen in the polls to 9%, putting him in position #3.

In October Cain hit it home. At the October 11 debate in Dartmouth, he hammered 9-9-9 hard, sucking all other air out of the room. By the October 18 debate in Las Vegas, Cain’s simple wordless plan had forced all other candidates to his turf — and the into the embarrassing position of desperately seeking equally simple number schemes. A week later, Cain hit 26% in the polls, taking the lead from Romney. Once prominent candidates Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and even Perry were left in the dust, scrambling to get attention again.

But there was no more attention to be had. The sheer audacity of a simple non-verbal image called 9-9-9 made everything else sound like so much blah-blah-blah.

The Point

Whether 9-9-9 makes any sense in the real world or could ever work as the actual tax code is irrelevant. Whether Herman Cain has what it takes to be President is beside the point. The issue is this: the guy is trying to get elected and he knows how to market an idea — and right now, in a political climate overwhelmed with meaningless blah-blah-blah, the clearest, most word-free idea gets heard the loudest. The Vivid idea wins.

The 6-point Vivid Analysis of 9-9-9

To me, a true Vivid Idea exhibits 6 clear attributes. I call them the Vivid FOREST:

The Vivid ForestF = Form. O = Only Essentials. R = Recognizable. E = Evolving. S = Spans Differences. T =Targeted. 

Let’s quickly run Cain’s 9-9-9 through the FOREST and see what makes it so powerful.

F = Form. A Vivid idea has shape.

9-9-9 has perfect visceral form. Its simplicity, symmetry, repetition, and visual nature give the concept an undeniable shape. That shape sticks in our mind in an unforgettable way. The lesson: If you can give your idea form, no one will be able to overlook it.

O = Only Essentials. A Vivid idea can be explained in a nutshell.

9-9-9 states an entire idea using only the essentials, the ultimate visual-verbal sound bite. We don’t have to know any more about it to know whether we are intrigued or not. The lesson: If you an state your entire idea with nothing more than the essentials, everyone will be drawn in for closer look.

R = Recognizable. A Vivid idea is one we have seen before.

We’ve all seen 9-9-9 before: it’s the price of a pizza. Every retailer knows that $9.99 may be only one cent less than a dollar, but it costs infinitely less in the mind of a stressed consumer. The lesson: If you can make your idea look like something we have seen before, we will know exactly how to think about it — even before we know exactly what it is.

E = Evolving. A Vivid idea is one that changes over time.

Here is where 9-9-9 gets shaky. 9-9-9 is so new that there hasn’t been time for it to sink in. We don’t know how it will stand up to economic scrutiny (although initial analyses indicate that in its regressive nature, 9-9-9 will actually cost most lower-and-middle-class taxpayers more) nor has Cain been effective in explaining how the plan replaces existing taxes. The lesson: If you can keep your idea flexible enough to account for ongoing changes without becoming undermined, we will come to believe in it more and more.

S = Spans Differences. A Vivid idea accounts for opposing perspectives.

9-9-9 fails in the spanning differences attribute. As a complete replacement for the existing tax code, 9-9-9 throws out the existing fiscal baby with the bathwater. Yes, everyone agrees that our tax code needs a serious rewrite, but until Cain shows how his plan would work with differing perspectives, it chokes on second bite.  The lesson: only if your idea can clearly illustrate how it accounts for opposing views — bypassing them, integrating them, or eviscerating them — does it become undeniable.

T =Targeted. A Vivid idea matters to me.

In targeting, 9-9-9 takes the cake. Cain recognizes better than any other Republican candidate the stress being felt by the average American and recognizes the people’s need to see action, not words. 9-9-9 is directly targeted to all who are fed up with the blah-blah-blah of candidates doing political business as usual. And for that reason alone, 9-9-9 feels like a winner. The lesson: know your audience.

The Vivid Score is…

On the Vivid FOREST scale, 9-9-9 scores a solid 4.5 out of 6. Probably good enough to get through the primaries. Not enough to win the Presidency.

If that is still even in the cards…

The Fall?

In late October, two separate allegations of sexual harassment surfaced from Cain’s past — and the conversation changed again. Since then, 9-9-9 has been forgotten as all focus has shifted to the unelectable issue of sexual misconduct and whether Cain can survive in the polls at all.

The Rise (and Fall?) of Herman Cain

Only one thing can trump the vivid power of a message like 9-9-9: sex. With allegations of sexual harassment arriving, even 9-9-9 is forgotten. Oops, Herman: not even the most vivid idea can beat our limbic brain.

Only the next few weeks will tell, but the lesson is clear: in the battle between blah-blah-blah and a Vivid idea, Vivid will always win. But in the battle between any idea and sex, sex will always win. Regardless of how smart we think we are, fighting off our limbic brain is never easy.


For more on Vivid Thinking, Vivid ideas, and the Vivid FOREST, see my new book, “Blah-Blah-Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work” at www.danroam.com






5 ways a stick figure will help you keep your job. (ABC News)

While I was in New York last week, ABC News asked me to stop by their studio and share how the act of making simple drawings helps us think through scary issues in a non-scary way. The scariest business issue for most people today? How to keep your job. So that’s what I drew.

Check out my job-saving stick figures in this clip.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player


He said / she said WHAT?! (Play the Blah-Match game and win a copy of Blah-Blah-Blah)

In celebration of the arrival of my new book, I thought we could all stand a refresher course on the good, the bad, and the ugly of communications.

Blah-Match title

Join me with a warm-up game of BLAH-MATCH. It’s a simple game; all you have to do is select who-said-what for 36 questionably-clear quotes. The first fifty of you who complete the game and then register for my email newsletter will receive a FREE copy of Blah Blah Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work.

(No purchase necessary blah blah blah blah. Winners are simply the first fifty people who sign up starting… right now!)


Blah-Blah-Blah in a nutshell

My new book is coming Nov. 1, 2011. It's got an epic cast of characters from business, science, politics, music, technology, books, and comedy. (See the full cast list here.)

Let me give you the quick, strictly no blah-blah-blah summary:

Ever been to so many meetings that you couldn’t get your work done? Ever fallen asleep during a bullet-point presentation? Ever watched the news and ended up knowing less? Welcome to the land of


The Problem: We talk so much that we don’t think very well.

Powerful as words are, we fool ourselves when we think our words alone can detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today. They can’t – and that’s bad, because words have become our default thinking tool.

The Solution: This book offers a way out of blah-blah-blah. It’s called “Vivid Thinking.”

In my first book, The Back of the Napkin, I showed readers how to solve problems and sell ideas by drawing simple pictures. Now I prove that “vivid thinking” is even more powerful. This technique combines our verbal and visual minds so that we can think and learn more quickly, teach and inspire our colleagues, and enjoy and share ideas in a whole new way.

The Destination: We never have to look at blah-blah-blah the same way.

Through Vivid Thinking, we can make the most complicated subjects suddenly crystal clear. Whether trying to understand a Harvard Business School class, or what went down in the Conan versus Leno battle for late night TV, or what Einstein thought about relativity, “Vivid Thinking” provides a way to clarify anything.

Through dozens of guided examples, I show that anyone can apply the systematic “Vivid” approach, from left-brained types who hate to draw to right-brainers who hate to write. This isn’t just a book about improving communications, presentations, and ideation; it’s about removing the blah-blah-blah from your life for good.


Blah Blah Blah is coming. It’s official.

As of today, it's official. My next book has just been formally announced by Penguin Portfolio.

Blah, Blah, Blah

What To Do When Words Don't Work

by Dan Roam

It will be published 11-1-11.

I completed the writing and drew the last of the book's 469 pictures two weeks ago. Now everything is in the good hands of the Portfolio editorial and production masters.

Until they finish, here is something to get started with… (click to enlarge/download)





Visual thinking essentials in black & white

There are two kinds of documentary films: those that show us something new, and those that show us new ways of looking at the old.

Ron Galloway creates films of the second type. Ron makes films that explore the more mundane realities of of modern life, like Wal-Mart, health care, and PowerPoint; things that are so familiar that we tend not to see them at all.

But we should. 1) Wal-Mart is big beyond comprehension. 2) Health care is (still) a mess. 3) Every single week TWO MILLION PowerPoints are presented.

I'm not sure which of those three is scarier, but I'm leaning towards the two million.

So is Ron. He recently asked me to appear in his newest film on that subject. Rethinking PowerPoint is a feature-length documentary exploring how to use the world's most pervasive business communications tool… better.

Here in black & white is an excerpt from my portion where I talk about:

  • Why vision is a good way to share.
  • Why talking and drawing is the best way to share.
  • Why lightbulbs over our heads are sexy.

Here's the link to watch directly in YouTube.


The entire history of humans and visual thinking in 5 min. (From my SXSW talk.)

Last week at SXSW in Austin I had the chance to debut my new book concepts. SXSW had been nice enough to invite me back for a third time in a row, so I thought I'd share all new material. (I know the comparison is a stretch, but I felt like a comedian testing out new jokes with a friendly audience.)

I called my talk "Blah Blah Blah: What to do When Words Don't Work" and I was really happy with the response: the audience Twittered like mad and it was all good as far as I could see.

Teehan+Lax shot this great clip of my concluding 5 minutes: my whirlwind tour through the entire 32,000 year history of humans and pictures. Check it out:

SXSW 2010: Dan Roam on Visual Thinking from Teehan+Lax on Vimeo.