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.)


Napkin. Unfolded.

This holiday season has officially started at our house: I just received the first box of copies of my new book from Portfolio. Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures is here. (Well, almost. Although it's available for pre-order at all the online retailers, it won't be shipped until Dec. 29.)


I'm excited about this book. Thanks to you, feedback on The Back of the Napkin came in from around the world over this past year and a half, and the most common theme was a request for more do-it-yourself exercises. I created Unfolding the Napkin around that promise: this is the self-guided "how-to" book that will take us from saying:

"I can't draw"

to saying:

"Look at the picture I drew that will save the world!"

I structured Unfolding the Napkin as a 4-day working session, as if we were sitting together in front of a big whiteboard with pens in hand. Over those four days, we'll walk through all the tools and rules of back of the napkin visual thinking, including:

Altogether, we'll work through more than fifty simple exercises, each building on the previous and each building our confidence as excellent visual thinkers.

Here are a few samples from the book.

The introduction:


The "problem identification" exercise:


Portrait drawing drills:


"Active Looking" data visualization:


One of the things about Unfolding the Napkin that I'm most looking forward to is using it as a textbook in my own training conferences, the first of which will be held here in San Francisco this coming March 4-5. (I'll save details on that for another post, but here's a link to learn more and register.)

Whether you can attend a live conference or not, I know this book can help anyone become a great visual thinker. Don't worry if you think you can't draw. You can.

Let Unfolding the Napkin help prove it.


Mosquito on a napkin. The one that got away.


Last week I came *this* close to buying a 50-year-old airplane. A 1952 de Havilland Chipmunk became available at a very reasonable price (less than the price of a new Toyota, in case you're wondering what "reasonable" means for an airplane) at an airport just north of San Francisco.

Many people asked me why I would even contemplate buying a WWII-era airplane. (Luckily, my understanding wife was not one of them. She saw the plane. She understood.) The answer is simple. Love. 


And the back of a napkin.


The first movie I remember seeing as a kid was Guy Hamilton's now-classic "Battle of Britain". I was five years old, my father was in the United States Air Force, and I lost my heart to airplanes painted with British roundels saving the world. 


While some people claim the Spitfire is the most beautiful airplane ever created, those people are wrong. The most beautiful airplane ever to fly is the de Havilland Mosquito. Conceived on the back of a napkin by designer Geoffrey de Havilland in the late 1930's, the Mosquito became the fastest, most versatile, and safest aircraft in the British arsenal.


The Chipmunk was designed by de Havilland's Canadian division at the end of the war as a trainer. It went on to become the first airplane that tens of thousands of British, Canadian, Australian, Portuguese, and Swedish pilots flew. Looking at the design, you can see it is a direct descendant of the Mosquito. Look at the fuselage and tail on this red one; it's lifted straight from the Mosquito. (BTW, this red Chipmunk is the actual plane in which Prince Charles learned to fly during his time in the RAF.)


In other words, it is beautiful — sketched on the back-of-the-napkin beautiful, if you get my meaning. And to those who learned to fly in the Chipmunk, that beauty is much more than skin deep; pilots who know it claim the Chipmunk is the sweetest flying airplane ever made.


So how come I said no? Good question. I'm still torturing myself. The next day the plane was gone, purchased by a more dedicated Chipmunk fan from Reno. Now that bird has flown. But I keep my eyes open for the next to fly along.


“Drawing is how I think” – Milton Glaser

Whether you think you can draw or not, it's worth watching this short clip of award-wining designer Milton Glaser talking about the importance of drawing as a life skill. (While drawing, of course.)


Select quotes from Milton:

Drawing is how I think.

Accuracy is the least important part of drawing.

Art schools have abandoned drawing in order to make time for all the software they have to teach. We get what we need for our professional life but don't have an instrument for understanding the reality of life.