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Visual boost to dull meetings
Published on Thursday, 24 Mar 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

For many people, meetings are a necessary pain where participants are forced to go over dull and lengthy documents and show at most a lukewarm interest in the discussion.

Yet, David Sibbet, author of Visual Meetings: How graphics, sticky notes & idea mapping can transform group productivity, has found a way to engage people and help unleash creativity and improve results - through working visually. An authority in graphic aids and visual thinking, Sibbet runs a San Francisco-based consulting firm that has worked with organisations such as HP, Nike, Visa and the United States Department of Education.

Sibbet says working visually enables participants of a meeting to pay full attention and listen deeply because people enjoy being listened to and acknowledged by having what they say recorded in an interactive, graphic way.

The book presents an array of real-life cases to show how this can be done, whether by creating a seating chart on a large sheet of paper as an ice breaker (in the form of a bird's eye picture of the table with circles drawn where people might be sitting that include information such as their name, their job and whatever they share), or working together on a large diagram with boxes and arrows to show the roles and relationships of the departments of a company in order to help with the understanding among colleagues.

"People are more engaged by things that are suggestive than by things that are crystal clear," Sibbet writes. "When patterns are only partly clear, or emerging in the act of drawing, everyone is riveted on trying to predict what will come next."

Visualisation is also an effective way to "resolve confusions in groups that arise from inadequate or conflicting mental models," according to Sibbet.

"This is crucial when those models involve our ideas of how work gets done, how teams co-operate, how to make decisions, how to organise, and how to learn. A huge amount of time in meetings is spent working out these differences."

The book is a treasure trove of visual tools that include simple tips like how to use task lists, grids, brainstorming bubbles, sticker notes and graphic images that symbolise a concept but do not look like the things they represent.

More sophisticated techniques include maps, or visuals showing the key streams of activity a person or an organisation needs to complete to achieve objectives, and graphic recording, a tried and true strategy documenting a group's conversation and key ideas in real time on flip charts, large poster paper or other visual media. 

Sibbet details how we can work visually in different situations, such as in giving better presentation without resorting to PowerPoint, consulting on a one-on-one basis, selling an idea to a potential client, and participating in and hosting meetings.

In addition, Sibbet shows how visual meetings can go beyond paper and whiteboards to tablets, iPads and other new media platforms.

The book is suitable for anyone who wants to tap into the power of visuals and be more productive, and will especially benefit professionals and executives who often work in groups, such as team leaders, human resources generalists, line managers, salespeople, teachers, trainers and volunteers.