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.


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.


The Bonus Battle (Or: How to make the world mad at you without really trying.)

A couple weeks ago I met with potential clients at an investment bank in New York. President Obama had just announced that he was going to levy a $120 billion fee on Wall Street Banks to recoup money lost in the initial $700 billion TARP bailout.

The bankers were understandably upset. After all, they'd already paid back their share of TARP, but now they were being told they'd have to pay back money that had been paid to OTHER organizations. Huh? I'll admit that angry as I was about the crazy Wall Street bonuses I was hearing about, that still didn't make a lot of sense.

I mean, I get that we taxpayers bailed out the banks, but the banks paid back everything they'd been loaned, plus interest. So why the lingering anger from DC?

Then I drew the pictures and (as always) when we stop talking and start looking, things have a tendency to become real clear real fast. See the full story in this clip I just recorded for BNET / CBS Interactive…

Anybody wondering about my sources? Read the Wall Street Journal, January 13 & 15, 2010.


March conference sold out: but more are coming!


My March 4-5 "Back of the Napkin" Training Conference in San Francisco has sold out. Thank you everyone who signed up; I'm looking forward to meeting you all in a couple weeks.

If you missed this conference, I will be holding similar two-day conferences in June in San Francisco and September in New York. Please register here if you'd like to receive early announcements on dates and registration.


- Dan


My first public “back of the napkin” training conference March 4-5 in San Francisco. 10 seats left.


Over the past two years, I've had the opportunity to share live my "back of the napkin" visual thinking approach with somewhere around 10,000 people in 20 states. (That's not including dozens of webinars reaching a dozen countries.)


Now for the first time, I'm offering my full two-day training conference to the public. This is the full version of the same workshop I've delivered to Microsoft, eBay, Boeing, Gap, Kraft, Frito-Lay, Cisco, the US Navy, and the United States Senate.

The conference will take place March 4-5, 2010 at the Kabuki Hotel here in San Francisco. The price for both days is $1,095. 

Register here.

To make sure that everyone attending is guaranteed meaningful individual attention and effective team exercises, I'm limiting attendance to this first session to 40 people. 30 seats filled up in the last two weeks, so 10 openings remain.

For more details on what we'll be covering, who should attend, and what materials I provide (copies of both my new books, a personal whiteboard, etc.), please check out this overview I posted on Slideshare.


Unfolding the Napkin is available!

After 18 months of effort on the part of many people (Adrian, Ted, Courtney, Will, Amanda, Mark, Tom, Les, Isabelle, Sophie, Celeste, and everyone who provided feedback along the way — you know who you are!) I am overjoyed to announce that as of today Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures is here and available!

If you enjoyed drawing on The Back of the Napkin, I think you'll really enjoy Unfolding it. It's not just the sequel, it's a remarkably different reading, seeing, and drawing experience; a complete do-it-yourself 4-day visual thinking seminar in a book.


With your help, we can make it another bestseller — and another rallying cry to solving problems with pictures!

Unfolding the Napkin is now available at all brick-and-mortar bookstores and online here:


and here:


(And don't forget: if you'd like to draw on napkins with me live, please join me March 4-5 in San Francisco.)