My Interview on Techsmith’s “The Forge”

Last weekend I was invited to come and facilitate at the Visual Thinking and Literacy Conference in Birmingham, MI. This is the second year the conference has run – it’s a neat little event that draws a mix of people from the education & business worlds (as well as a hand full of students too).

In addition to my session (on brainstorming tools & techniques) I was also invited to participate in a live taping of The Forge, a monthly video show/podcast put together by Matt Pierce at Techsmith. The show was taped in two segments – the first a panel discussion/debate on paper vs. digital with my friends and visual thinking masters Jamie Nast, Karl Gude and Brandy Agerbeck. The second part was a one-on-one interview with me that ranged form “What do you do?” to my favorite tools, techniques and my thoughts on the paper vs. digital debate.

I’ve embedded the show below – the whole thing is worth watching. If you want to jump to my interview it starts around 16:05 in.

The Power of a Single Marker

Dave GrayWant to create a dictatorship in a workshop? Put one marker in the room.

I suppose I always knew this in the back of my head but learned it first hand this week while facilitating a 3-day long ‘think tank’ workshop at the bank I work at. As part of the process team I had helped design a self-facilitated process that teams would guide themselves through over the course of the day.

It was fairly standard vision-creation fare; ‘What’s our vision? What’s Stopping Us from getting There? How does our business model need to change? What do We Do First?” and exercises to help them think about do the thinking to answer those questions. To help them out we also had a team of roving facilitators (myself and the crew from The Moment) who would check on them periodically and either help them through parts they didn’t understand, or in the case of the teams who might be storming through, make sure they’re really working on expanding their thinking and not just trying to ‘Slam Dunk’ the idea.

A Room Full of Leaders
We expected there might be the odd challenge for teams as these were all high-performing individuals, each a leader (or potential leader) in their own respect – it didn’t take long for my first interesting scenario to pop-up.

I immediately knew one team was in for an interesting ride when I walked into their room 5 minutes into the morning and one team member (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was already laying out their ‘idea’ to them. My presence in the room received looks from other members of the team that clearly conveyed “help!” – their guide packages hadn’t even been opened yet. A quick pep-talk on trusting the process and the thinking that they needed to do before jumping to the ideas seemed to get them back on track and I wandered off to check on my other teams. However, when I returned a little while later I noticed that Bob was up once again, marker in hand and in control of the conversation.

The Invisible Hand
Now, when I do these types of sessions I try to insert myself into the team’s discussion as little as possible – I always picture those cars at amusement parks – the ones where you can steer a bit but there’s a rail to prevent you from getting too far off course. My job is to be that rail – if you’re steering nicely then most of the time you won’t even notice it’s there a little rub here and there to help make the corner but the passengers are probably completely unaware it’s happening – sometimes it takes a slightly rougher bounce to reinforce the path. The latter should be a rarity though if your process is designed right.

As a result, most of my time is spent listening to the teams trying to get a sense of how they’ve advanced since I last saw them as well as feeling out how ‘healthy’ the dialog is. Is everyone engaged & contributing? Has anyone checked out? What’s the body language in the room?

In the case of this room, Bob was the only one standing. The rest of the team were in their chairs. A couple of the team members looked to be on the verge of checking out, a few were actively listening and two were actively contributing to the dialog. Nothing surprising until I realized almost nothing was getting captured unless Bob either came up with the idea, or the idea supported his theory. The team wasn’t consciously aware of it but you could certainly see how it was playing out in the body language. As I scanned the room though, something clicked for me – I couldn’t see any other markers. There was only one visible, and it was firmly in Bob’s hand – the team hadn’t realized it but they had unwittingly granted him a dictatorship over their process.

Restoring Democracy
Four whiteboard pens and a highlighterSo how to restore democracy? Bob was a good guy and I don’t think he even realized what he was doing – I know when I’m capturing stuff in sessions there’s time where my mind really doesn’t want to add some other idea to the board but as a facilitator I’m conscious and aware of those types of thoughts/actions when I’m in the room. Had I stopped him and asked he probably would have told me he’d captured all the ideas that the team had come up with. I also risked alienating him and/or causing him to checkout from the process if I called him out on it in front of the team.

Instead I didn’t do anything, I left the room and asked the facility staff for some more markers. When I came back I placed them on the table (in front of the two who were actively trying to get in on the conversation) and simply said “I noticed your room didn’t get enough markers” then walked out. Ten minutes later I peeked in the window and there were a couple of people up at the boards, people were leaning forward in their chairs and the dialog was rolling along again. They never knew what happened, no one felt their car rub the rail.

Letting Other Ideas Bloom
I also made a mental note to come back to these guys at a critical moment in the conversation where they would flesh out their future vision. Time was tight and I didn’t want to chance them getting stuck in a similar cycle again if Bob really tried to drive his idea home.  It was a part of the process that had been deliberately left open, in that there were no instructions other than “You’ve got an hour, and this is what you need to have by the end of it” – the roving facilitators all knew to visit their teams early in this step and help the teams get off to the right start. So with this team I suggested they break into two groups and do some brainstorming & bodystorming to get some ideas, then regroup and discuss later in the hour.

I didn’t want to squash Bob’s idea but it’s important to ensure other ideas have the opportunity to grow and the team has a crop of ideas to choose from. By splitting the team I ensured that even if Bob convinced half of the team his idea was the way to go other ideas would have the chance to bloom with the other group.

In the end, the team came up with their own idea that incorporated bits and pieces of their individual ideas (including Bob’s) and I think they came up with an interesting concept. This was another case where the team didn’t realize what was happening but they had gently been guided around another corner.

All-in-all if you asked this team how much facilitating I actually did they’d probably say not much, that’d I’d just answered some questions for them and helpfully got them some markers.

Photo Credits: Marker Tray – massdistraction | Guy at Whiteboard – Bill Keaggy | Markers – Tim Green aka atoach

Sidenote: The guy at the Whiteboard is not Bob but a guy named Dave. Dave’s pretty much the anti-Bob

Visual Thinking & The Writing Process

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ conference “Innovate News” – I had been asked to come and give a topic on Visual Thinking and how it could be used by journalists of all types.

I deliberately focused on how visual thinking can be used early on in the process for activities like brainstorming, information gathering & organization and story development. It was a brief session (~30 minutes) so my goal was really to present enough information to get people interested in the idea of visual thinking and give them some ideas for directions where they could dig deeper.

The Presentation

I’ve uploaded the deck and included it here below:

Dig Deeper with VizThinkU

Of course, if you want to dig deeper into some of the techniques mentioned here (and more!), I highly recommend you check out the VizThinkU library – especially; Visual Note-taking 101, Drawing Out Your Ideas & Visual Thinking for Writers.

All three are excellent resources for people who are looking to start incorporating more visual techniques in their creative process.

I’ve posted the deck and links to other resouces in the speaking section of my site too, you’ll find that page here.

– Ryan

Visually Exploring the Personal Brand – Part 2: Taking Inventory

As a follow-up to my original post I’ve been working on other ideas around the notion of personal brand. I’ve got a few other visuals & ideas I’m working on and will publish them as I think they’re at a point that they’re ready to share. This next visual is, I think, a bit of a no-brainer, but I thought i’d throw it out there. I’ll admit there’s currently one catch: I’m still working out how best to fill this chart out, I’ve included a section about that at the bottom of this post but just a caveat that there’s no “magic bullet” solution here :) – that said I’ve outlined what I think is an effective process for using this chart to help you start authentically correcting and refining how you’re perceived by others.

Taking Inventory

Part of defining and refining your personal brand is stepping back and considering what your baseline is – how are you currently perceived out there “in the wild”? I wanted a quick and easy way to map out these impressions and perceptions and pretty quickly turned to a 2×2 format chart :


The intention is to create a chart when you can map out your traits, adjectives that would describe you, experiences, and other qualities to help create your baseline.

The Axes

If you recall my previous graphic, Facts & Fictions formed the foundation of what helps make up peoples impressions and perceptions of you. I think the idea of authenticity is single-handedly the key element when it comes to presenting yourself to the outside world and wanted to make that a key part of the inventory map so the X-axis is based on a spectrum Fictional & Factual.

In a perfect world, Fact & Fiction would be as clear as night & day but it’s the real world and admittedly it can be a bit of a murky area and part of this process should be about taking a good hard look at what your true baseline is. At the furthest extremes you’re either flat out lying (I invented fire) or it’s something completely objective and unquestionably true (I’m 32) everything else is somewhere in between.

On the Y-Axis I’ve included the spectrum of Positive & Negative. Are these facts or fictions good things or bad things?  This starts to bring in the reputation factor – have you burned bridges in the past? Do people consider you trustworthy?  Rating your facts and fictions on this scale really starts to help you get a sense of just how solid your reputation is out there, and how authentic you’re being day-to-day.

Another angle for the Positive vs. Negative is to consider whether an item positively contributes to presenting the image, or ‘brand’ that you want people to see. Maybe you have a dominating experience or past career that people still think of being an integral part of who you are and what you’re trying to achieve. You may want to place that in the negative range even though the outside world perceives it as a positive as it may be hurting your overall goals.

The Quadrants

Obviously, what you really want to present and embrace are your positive, factual traits. As I’ve indicated in the image the other three quadrants all bear their own risks:

Positive Fictional – Congratulations, you’re been a great bullshitter so far. It’s not going to last, if someone corrects these before you can  they’ve only got one place to go, the bottom right corner and then you’re done.

Negative Fictional – Unlike above, no one deliberately creates these types of items (I hope) but they can emerge. Maybe someone is spreading rumours, or there’s been a misunderstanding -there’s many ways these can get created. The important thing is to identify them early and get on correcting them because even though you know they’re fiction, someone else considers them facts.

Negative Factual – Have you considered a career change? Sure, with enough time and effort you could probably remedy these but if anything ends up down here and it’s a key item or trait you need to succeed the deck is most certainly stacked against you.

Positive Factual – The holy grail. Get all your dots up here and you’ve got a good baseline to work from.

Fixing Your Map

Invariably, we’re all going to have a dots in all of the quadrants – none of us are perfect. So how do we start correcting it?

Moving Fictions to Facts

Don’t worry about the positives/negatives at first. What you really want to do is get yourself to a factual baseline as quickly as possible. Fictions are ticking time bombs, whether you’ve created them or now. Get them off your plate first, then you can worry about the true picture is positive or not.


1. Cut the Bullshit – Take a good look at what you’re putting out there – Look at each of the fictions, determine where the truth lies and reevaluate how you speak about it – If it’s a flat out lie just cut it, now. If it’s something fuzzier (i.e. adding an extra few years experience as a professional web designer because you once built a one-page ‘website’ in high school) then you need to step back and ask yourself “What would happen if someone asked me to elaborate on this?” bring your presentation in line with how you’d truthfully answer that question. It’s okay to reach but make sure you can always truthfully back it up.

2. Clean up the Messes – This may be a bit trickier, but if you’ve got negative things out there about you that are just plain wrong (or at least, not entirely truthful) you need to find the source and solve the problem. Maybe it was a misunderstanding and a simple conversation will correct things. Be careful here though, you don’t want to take some tiny little misconception that few people have noticed and blow it up to a big problem by pointing it out to everyone (i.e. publicly renouncing it on your blog).  Choose your ‘battles’, when cleaning up these messes do it as discreetly as possible.

Moving to the Positive

Now you can turn your focus to cleaning up your image – hopefully this is not a big undertaking for most people


1. Make Things Right – Alright you really screwed something up, we all do it at one point or another. You may never be able to correct it, but you can make an effort to show that you’ve learned from the experience. Apologize, talk it out, make it right as best you can – nothing will change until you make the first step. Again, the key here is to be authentic – you can’t just declare this to be in your past and have everyone shrug and say “okay”. The only way anything is getting off the bottom of this chart is if other people move it.

2. Spin It – Now, when I say spin I don’t mean take your major cock-up from above and try and put some rosy paint on it. This is more in reference to those items that are in your past, are considered positive by many people but are getting in your way of advancing your current goals. Step back and look for the positive angles that you can take from that experience and apply to your current goals – i.e. how does that experience give you a unique edge in your current space?  If you can’t find something (and I’d be surprised if you don’t), move to step 3. Hell, move to step 3 anyways.

3. Be Explicit – Sometimes we just need to say it out loud and make it very clear – we all carry baggage with us from the past, afraid to let it go lest we offend or disappoint someone . Write a blog post, send an email out to your network, get the message out that explicitly states “This is what I’m doing now. I loved doing xxxx, but it’s no longer what I do”. If there are individuals you’re worried about offending or disappointing then reach out to them 1-on-1 BEFORE you send out any mass communication efforts or else you risk just piling new stuff in the negative areas.

Now the Question: How to fill out this chart?

So here’s the catch, and the part I’m struggling with – How best to fill this chart out.

Certainly there’s a lot of work to be done just personally reflecting and putting in anything you can think of, but the point is to gauge what others think of you. I’ve got a couple of ideas but I’ve love in any of you metric minded people out there had other suggestions.

My two outside influence ideas:

1. Twitter lists – on twitter? Check out what lists you’ve been added to. How people name the lists can be quite telling (what they’re not named can be a big clue) – also go to accounts of the people who have put you on lists and look at what other lists they’ve made. Are you on the “funny people” list but not on the “industryexperts” list?

2. Ask People – Use a service like Rypple, or a Google Doc form and ask people what they think

My concern with both of these is they’ll skew to the positive – I’d be open to other people’s ideas and suggestions on how to collect this information so you can get the truest picture possible.

Feedback Welcome

Am I on to something? Off my rocker? I’d love your feedback and thought in the comments below.

– Ryan

VIDEO – Designing for Visual Efficiency

As you may recall, last month I spoke at Ignite Toronto 2. I’m happy to report that the video is finally up and I’ve embedded it below:

(those reading in feedreaders may need to click through to the post to see video)

Unfortunately the move from my PC to the presenting Mac’s software garbled a couple of slides, but it’s not the end of the world.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments – You can also check out my original post about this evening to see the slide deck in it’s non-mutilated form as well as the full deck from my FITC talk, which this ignite was based on.

For more videos of the IgniteTO talks check out their Vimeo account.