Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

When I was in business school, one of the best courses I took was taught by a statistics professor, Dr. Elizabeth Murff, on how to present quantitative information effectively in visual formats.  Every class brought new, applicable knowledge and understanding as to how best to get my data-supported point across.  Dr. Murff was especially good at finding real world examples to illuminate her points, such as when she showed us the data on the Challenger explosion, how NASA should have known not to launch, and how the data could have been presented better to make that fact abundantly clear.

Dan Roam's The Back of the Napkin is along the same lines as Dr. Murff's eye-opening class, but with an even broader scope.  Rather than just showing quantitative data, Mr. Roam presents a method that can be used to present pretty much anything visually in a convincing way that assists with problem-solving. I'm sure you've heard the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words."  Well, Mr. Roam has a different take on the phrase: "These pictures serve as launching platforms from which ideas can grow, which is the whole point of problem solving.  We don't show an insight-inspiring picture because it saves a thousand words; we show it because it elicits the thousand words that make the greatest difference."  These pictures should start a conversation that will result in finding solutions.

I appreciate that he starts out with the "why" to present information visually, instead of jumping straight to the "how".  Visual presentation is effective for several reasons, he says, recounting a specific experience he'd had:
"First, simply by drawing it, I had clarified in my own mind a previously vague idea.  Second, I was able to create the picture almost instantly, without the need to rely on any technology other than paper and pen.  Third, I was able to share the picture with my audiences in an open way that invited comments and inspired discussion.  Finally, speaking directly from the picture meant I could focus on any topic without having to rely on notes, bullet points, or a written script.
"The lesson for me was clear.  We can use the simplicity and immediacy of pictures to discover and clarify our own ideas, and use those same pictures to clarify our ideas for other people, helping them discover something new for themselves along the way."
Mr. Roam describes the process of visual thinking in four steps: 1) look, 2) see, 3) imagine, and 4) show.  He then breaks it down further by explaining how each step brings us closer to an understanding of the topic being presented and how to most effectively utilize the brain's natural processes in communicating the necessary information.  

Of course, in keeping with this thesis, he presents a great deal of the information in this book visually and uses multiple concrete examples to walk the reader through the process of developing effective pictures.  Even complicated issues can be approached with this method, without the worry of over-simplification. "The real goal of visual thinking is to make the complex understandable by making it visible--not by making it simple."

Ultimately, he codifies all the different ways to present information into a single chart: The Visual Thinking Codex.  The Visual Thinking Codex is a framework that will get the reader started on drawing any problem that needs to be solved.  A few simple questions will guide you to the right type of picture and then show you options on how to proceed.  

(I had to smile when I read the sidebar entitled "The Great Pie Chart Fight," outlining the ongoing debate about whether or not pie charts are effective for conveying data.  Mr. Roam comes down on the side of those who think they have their place.  Dr. Murff is one of those who eschewed pie charts in favor of other, more easily discernible forms of data presentation.  Different strokes, I guess!)

And don't worry if you "can't draw"; Mr. Roam insists that these simple pictures are within anyone's abilities.  Besides, he assures the reader, "the spontaneity and roughness of hand-drawn pictures make them less intimidating and more inviting--and nothing makes an image (even a complex image) clearer than seeing it drawn out step-by-step."

In this short book, Mr. Roam teaches a new and powerful approach to both communication and problem-solving, well worth your time to look it over and try it out.

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
by Dan Roam
ISBN: 9781591841999
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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