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 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


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.