This explains a lot… and it isn’t good.

The incomparable Maria Popova (whom you must follow on twitter @brainpicker) recently posted a review of the incredible book “This Explains Everything” from John Brockman. The book presents 150+ brilliant thinkers’ answers to the question:

“What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”


A brilliant book with a fatal flaw.

With magnificent insights from Jared Diamond, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and Susan Blackmore, the book covers pretty much everything we know — or really should know — about the underlying order of the universe. (In other words, there is a lot to think about in this book.)

But there’s a big problem. A huge problem. A problem that makes me want to either cry or start shouting REALLY LOUD.

Out of 150 brilliant minds introducing their favorite theories, only one* used pictures.

WHAT?!This is crazy — especially since EVERY ONE of the entries I’ve read so far (just passed 50) would benefit enormously from the addition of a simple clarifying sketch.

And these pictures aren’t hard to draw. I got so mad while reading this book on the short flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I managed to draw the first three while sitting on the plane. Here they are:

1) Susan Blackmore on Evolution


2) Matt Ridley on DNA


3) Richard Dawkins on how we process patterns


The big takeaway: If we’re explaining a theory, why wouldn’t we use every means available to make that theory clear, memorable, and alive? If we’re going to use words to describe an image, why don’t we just draw the image we’re trying to describe?

It’s not that hard. I did these three in less that 30 minutes, using nothing but a pen and paper. Imagine what a true genius could do in a day.

When the smartest people we have reject the use of simple images to support their own theories, is it really any wonder that more people reject science?

This really upsets me. Come on, smart people: SHOW me what you’re talking about.

(*That one BTW, is Stewart Brand. My new hero.)


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 isĀ  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


Yes: I really do draw on napkins

I’ve received a bunch of notes asking if I actually draw on napkins, and if so, what kind.

Yes, I do draw on napkins. They’re not the best drawing
surface, but when I want to show someone how quickly a sketch can be
created, I like napkins. And since everyone knows that napkins are
intended to be thrown away (and recycled!!), many people are less
intimidated drawing on them than expensive paper.

I use "Vanity Fair Everyday" napkins.

They are available in all major grocery stores. I like them because
they are tough enough to make a good writing surface, have a flat
smooth finish, and have compressed enough paper that they limit ink
bleed. (Avoid paper towels: they will suck all the ink out of a pen in
a couple minutes.)

As for pens, any ballpoint works, since they minimize ink bleed. That
said, the best napkin-drawing pens that money can buy are Pilot
"Permanent Ink Markers"

Unfortunately, the very best are only available in Japan or stationery
stores that stock directly imported Japanese drawing materials. Here in
San Francisco we are lucky enough to have a major Japanese shopping
center where the Kinokuniya Bookstore chain has an amazing stationery

Photo from bettybl.

All this aside, the point is to find a surface that is not
intimidating. That may sound odd (how can a paper surface be
intimidating, right?) but it really does make a difference. If you want
people who might not be comfortable drawing, you have to given them
tools that feel spontaneous.

A pencil and a notebook work too.


Jazzed about napkin sketches

Sometimes when you sit down at a rubber chicken conference lunch, you get rubber chicken. Sometimes you get a real meal and nice chat with interesting people. And SOMETIMES you get a great lunch and a conversation with people so interesting that before you know it the waiters are setting up for dinner.

And so it was at VizThink last week. Late to lunch from closing out my own workshop, I sat down at the first available seat, and started talking with Scott and Rebecca from Maga Design in DC. Within minutes we were sharing stories about crazy clients, how to market a book, back-of-the-napkin sketches, the role of "design" in "business", and a whole slew of other topics that were fascinating, but that I — being in conference mode — promptly forgot.

But not Rebecca. When I logged on to email an hour later, she sent through her lunch napkin. Wow: it works.

The only question we didn’t all agree on was whether it’s ok to play Led Zeppelin on your iPhone loud in an airport — without the earbuds.


Death by Database

I’m not much of a database person myself. I bought a copy of FileMaker in the dark ages and managed to run a small business with it, but as I say, even that was pre-bubble one.

But when I ran across Kem Meyer’s diagram explaining why a single DB-guy is bad for ones’ health (especially the DB-guy), I got it immediately. Talk about a nice "napkin sketch".


See: this is why I’m not a database person.


First impressions don’t matter

At the end of my VizThink workshop on Monday, a bunch of people came up afterwards to talk about solving problems with pictures. The funniest was Richard Mulholland, the certifiable lunatic who runs the South African presentation consultancy Missing Link.

(Richard is the less photogenic one on the right. Managing Director Sam is on the left.)

Starting out with the obligatory, "I can’t draw, but…" (actually, it was more, "I draw like a $#@&-ing idiot, but…), Richard then proceeded to draw for me the best napkin sketch I’ve seen in months.

Richard, who as a presentation pro makes a living making first impressions, has come to the realization that first impressions don’t mean a %$@! thing. (And he takes himself — tattoos, silly hats, loud manner — as his test case.) What *does* matter is LAST impressions.

And here’s why (I’m channeling Richard now):

‘Imagine that two people are competing for a consulting gig at a bank. One is a certifiable lunatic with tattoos, the other a nice looking chap with a tie and a briefcase. When they first meet the client, the former makes a terrible first impression (the client actually laughed when I walked in), and the latter makes a great first impression.’ Like this:

Sail1 ‘By the end of the meeting, Mr. Tie has said all the right things and proven his competence in completing the job, leaving an even higher last impression. But Mr. Tattoos has also said all the right things and impressed the client with his energy and competence. He leaves behind a lower overall impression, but one so far above where he began that the client is truly impressed.’

‘So looking at the total impression — comparing the difference between first and last impressions, who do you think gets remembered and gets the gig?’

Richard calls this the "sailboat’ chart, for obvious reasons. He drew it on stage at TED Global, hoping to take Malcolm Gladwell out at the knees.

Malcolm apparently had made a pretty remarkable first impression.


Napkins all a-twitter

I’ve noticed a marked increase in the use of the "back of the napkin" phrase of late. (Of course I *should*, given that I’ve been saying it myself ten times a day for two years. It’s probably just my huge distaste for ‘the law of attraction’ hogwash coming around to bite me in the rear.)

Anyway, now even A-list blogger Nate Ritter is using a napkin sketch to illustrate how Twitter is helping to save the world.


View this photo

So take that, doubting Andy — I told you "back of the napkin" means something. At least in the US, anyway…


Last call

My weekly scour for all things "back of the napkin" coughed up this thoughtful form letter printed on equally appropriate material. Talk about handy for a ride home after one too many brainstorms at the pub.


I can’t find any info on the brilliant creator, but the lifesaving device can be purchased from a UK gift and gag shop.

Cabbies probably love it too. Especially when it says "look for my cash in my thong." Really.