Thank you Amsterdam!

I’m just back from delivering my first public Napkin Training in Amsterdam.

Thank you all who attended! It was fun, a great success, and I believe a wonderful learning experience for all — especially me.

For just over eight hours, seventy-five of us from thirteen countries shared visual-thinking lessons, stories, examples, and more pictures than we could count.

My top three lessons:

1) While local details are critical, business challenges are universal.

All participants, from small consultancies to medium-size businesses to major corporations, brought their own “problems” with them. While each problem was unique, we saw through our pictures that each is composed of the same essential visual elements: the who, what, how much, where, when, and how. By drawing these out, we found that we could clearly understand each others’ businesses quickly and clearly.

2) Europe needs — and is ready for — more visual thinking.

To an even greater degree than in the USA, visual thinking appears not to be actively encouraged in European education and business. I sensed a greater hesitation among participants to leap into drawing — with a correspondingly high sense of satisfaction and collective amazement when our pictures “worked.” Certainly there are countless historic and cultural issues at work, which will make for great thought exercises. Yet given the communication, innovation, competition, and growth challenges ahead for Europe, I strongly believe more visual thinking will become an asset.

3) Amsterdam is a great center for visual thinking.

Amsterdam is such a great city to begin with. Add in the intense visual and design culture, the openness of the city and its people, and the willingness among businesspeople to try new things, and you have a powerful mix. I can easily see Amsterdam becoming a true center of visual literacy for Europe. I can’t wait to come back and draw again.

Thanks again to all who joined me. If you weren’t able to make it, I promise to do it again.

Until then, keep drawing!


Draw with me in Amsterdam Nov. 20, 2012!

Europe: Let's get visual!

Please join me on Nov. 20 in Amsterdam as I offer my only full-day European Back of the Napkin seminar of 2012. Register now!

Drawings and smiles

Become a master visual-thinker!

  • Think faster.
  • Communicate more clearly.
  • Solve complex problems.
  • See the invisible.

I’ve trained thousands of businesspeople in the USA and Asia to become master visual-thinkers. Now I’d like to share the visual magic with you in Europe. Join me at Amsterdam’s magnificent Mövenpick Hotel City Centre for a full day of drawing, thinking, sharing, and inspiration.

Movenpick Amsterdam Hotel

The cost for the full day is €795. (Early bird special: Register before Sept 21 and save €100! Only €695 for this limited time.) Your fee includes:

  • 8 hours of intense, hands-on visual training.
  • The Back of the Napkin Expanded Edition book.
  • Personal whiteboard, pen, & erasure.
  • Excellent lunch.
  • True insight, useful tools, & real-world exercises.

(Please note that 21% Dutch VAT must be collected on all registrations.)

Your fee includes: a full day of training, my book, your own whiteboard, lunch.

In this fun, engaging, and inspiring seminar, we’ll cover:

  1. The essentials of visual-thinking.
  2. How to leverage visual cognition in business.
  3. Use the visual-thinking toolkit for discovery & decision-making.
  4. How to clarify and persuade with pictures.

This is what my last seminar looked like: total visual action!

This is the full-day version of the seminar I have delivered at Microsoft, Boeing, Google, Gap, Kraft, Philips, Siemens, Intel, the United States Senate, and the White House.

Seminar clients

This will be my only trip to Europe this year, so I’d love to see you there! Register now.

Coming to Amsterdam!



Honoring Neil and the Moon; From Russia with Love.

I’m not surprised how moved I am by the passing last week of Neil Armstrong. I was 5 years old when he and Buzz landed on the moon. My father was in the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force. We lived across the street from SAC HQ. We lived airplanes. To us, going to the moon was a really long airplane flight we could watch. And we watched every minute.

My parents bought me the special edition of Life magazine dedicated entirely to the Apollo 11 flight. I must have read every word and gazed at every picture one hundred times.

Many years later, I lived in Moscow, Russia, where I worked as a designer at an advertising agency. One day in 1993 I walked across the street to one of my favorite stores, the huge “Moscow Book Store” on Kalinin Prospekt. (I am happy that Google Street view shows me the store is still there — thank you, Sacha Arnoud and team Google.)

This is the Moscow Book Store where my adventure took place.

I went to the front desk behind which were kept the big color books and posters. A friend had told me he’d seen a copy of an original El Lissitzky “Red Wedge” poster there, and I was beside myself with the excitement of finding such a historic treasure.

The poster I was looking for: an original copy of El Lissitzky’s “Red Wedge” from 1919.

But as I gazed past the shopkeeper towards the shelf, I saw something even more surprising. There was a huge book with huge title MOON written in English. I was taken aback; what was that doing here?

In my third-grade Russian, I asked the shopkeeper if I might take a look. She put on gloves, gently pulled the book out of its place, and rested it on the glass counter. It was massive.

This is the book I saw on the shelf. When the shopkeeper handed it to me, I couldn’t believe the size — and the heft. (And what the hell was it doing in a Moscow bookstore?)

As I reverently opened the book, I was captivated: there were the same images I’d seen so long before in Life. “How much do you want for this?” I asked.

There were the same photos that had been seared into my visual memory as a kid 25 years before.

The shopkeeper took a look at the book then a look at me. Then another look at the book. “That’s one hundred thousand Rubles.” She said. At the official exchange rate that was just over $100 US. An enormous amount of money in those days, but then it was an enormous book. (And I was doing everything I could to keep the shopkeeper from seeing that my head was about to explode from the adrenaline rush of having found such a thing in such a place.)

“Can you hold it for me? I can get the money and be back in 10 minutes.”

“Can you pay one hundred twenty thousand?


“I can hold it for you.”

I ran to my apartment two blocks way, grabbed a stack of Rubles and Dollars, and ran back.

She was still there. The book was gone.

“Where is the book?”

“Where is the money?”

I counted out seventy thousand Rubles and fifty Dollars. She took the Rubles but held up a hand against the dollars. She thought twice. She took the dollars.

She pulled an enormous brown paper package out from under the counter. “I hope you enjoy this. It came from one of our own cosmonauts. It was a gift from one of yours.”

I thanked her. I ran back home. I tore open the paper to examine my prize. Imagine my surprise when I opened to the title page. It was signed.

It was signed by all three Apollo 11 astronauts. Oh, my.

Neil, Buzz, and Michael: I have no idea to whom you gave this incredible gift, and I am heartbroken that whoever it was felt compelled to hock it. That I could bring this gift back home and share it with my friends and family is a wonder.

That it still moves me to tears is the real gift.

Godspeed, Neil.



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




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.