3 Things You Need to Make Visual Activities Work

It’s really easy to give you reasons you should include more visuals in your work. From the simple effectiveness of a well-crafted icon to the clarity of good data visualization to the holy grail of a viral meme, we are finally realizing that it doesn’t have to be a binary choice between text or images. The two reinforce each other brilliantly.

The most powerful visuals, the ones that are truly visceral, are the ones that are created by, not given to, the people you’re communicating with. That’s where visual facilitation comes into play, and where people like me love to create experiences that reinforce the message to the point of unforgettability. It’s more than just handing out paper and crayons—even if that’s all it looks like on the surface.

There are three aspects of planning a visual activity — whether at an event, during a presentation, or just in a meeting — that are essential to making it effective.

”What is it you want this to do?”

That’s how I started the conversation with Johanna Oosterwyk, the University of Wisconsin instructor who had asked me to help her plan out a visual activity for an upcoming lecture. She answered by describing her vision of the students drawing plants with paper and crayons, and I realized I hadn’t phrased the question correctly:

“Sorry, what I meant to say is: what is it that you want this visual exercise to do for your students that a lecture, a video, or a handout won’t do?”

This time she came back with an entirely different answer: “I want them to reflect and realize that they all have their own stories about plants.” That was what we needed to get started, and then we got into all the stuff about process.

The old maxim of “start with the why” applies even more to visual exercises, because it’s really easy to get caught up in the details of paper and markers and other materials. While I personally believe there’s always a benefit to pulling out a piece of paper and just starting to draw, when you’re using this tool intentionally you have to ask yourself first: what is the purpose of this?

In some cases the purpose will be the same as the entire lecture. What is the effect you’re hoping the visual activity will have? In some cases, the answer might be “nothing much”, in which case, don’t go through the trouble of a visual activity (in other cases, you might realize that it’s the lecture part that is unnecessary, because a robust visual exercise will accomplish everything you need).

But before you start thinking about what kind of pens and the size of the whiteboard, start by defining the purpose of the activity at all.

Don’t make it too complicated, or too easy

This may seem like a contradiction, but these are two separate qualities that often get conflated.

By “complicated”, I mean that for a lot of people the blank page terrifies them. For every person who eagerly grabs a pencil and starts drawing, there are ten who not only hesitate, but often will outright refuse to participate simply because they are comparing themselves to their more eager (and, in their minds, more talented) peers.

Remove that barrier to entry by demonstrating how simple it can be. Ms. Oosterwyk, in the exercise above, told her own plant story to the students while using a document camera to show her drawing tulips and little stick figures.

Much like an anchor price, this became the anchor image. By creating a picture that anyone can draw, she made it easy for everyone to draw.

More than that, she showed how the picture was simply to illustrate and highlight the story she was telling, so there was not pressure to make the images too expressive. Thanks to that lack of pressure, some pictures were lush and detailed, some were not, but everyone had something to put up on the wall.

And that’s where that second part comes in, and where I made a mistake. In planning the exercise, I broke one of my cardinal rules as a facilitator: thou shalt not do for the participants what they can do for themselves. When everyone was done with their drawings, I gathered them together and put them up on the wall, creating a “garden of stories.”

The intention was that while I was doing that, the students would talk about what they’d drawn, perhaps sharing each others’ stories with the entire class. What actually happened was an awkward silence while they all watched me tape things to the wall — not the most thrilling or engaging thing, though there is some value for them to see their own story put up along with everyone else’s.

What we should have done was have them put up their own pictures, even though that would have created a lot of traffic and getting out of chairs and such. Would it be chaotic? Yes, and it would also put them up close and personal with each other and with the drawings. Likely they would have commented on each other’s drawings, or asked questions, which would have served the prime goal: to have the students reflect on their stories.

Instead, we broke the flow of the exercise while I taped things up (thank goodness for TA’s who helped out — there were a lot of pages!).

Don’t be attached to the material results

In planning the exercise, Ms. Oosterwyk and I had some hopes that the students would have enjoyed the process enough that they’d want to take their drawings home with them after the class. We invited them to come up and do so.

Not one did.

As both a visual practitioner and a storyteller, I was shocked and disappointed. What had I done wrong? I looked at Ms. Oosterwyk and the professor whose class had just left, leaving the wall full of these drawings…and they were smiling and talking about how well it had all gone.

What I had done wrong was lose sight of that first thing: the purpose of the exercise. The entire class — which before this exercise had been about other plant stories — had suddenly realized that it was a class about them as much as the rest of the world. They had taken the time to reflect on their own personal attachment to this subject in a deeper way.

To paraphrase Marie Kondo, the papers themselves had done their job and it was time to thank them and let them go. We took some pictures of the finished board, and saved the rest for kindling and “draw on the back” paper.

The proof came the following day, when Ms. Oosterwyk did the exercise again with another group. This time they put up their own pictures, which made things much more engaging, and again, no one took their pictures with them — but at the same time, she could see that they had reflected on their own stories, so the exercise was an effective one that she could use again and again— because we always have new stories to tell.

Can your message benefit from adding visual activities? Let’s talk about it!

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