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Friday, 16 July 2021

Working visually in meetings

episode summary

Visual note-taking in meetings is nothing new. For decades, skilled people have used the language of shorthand to create a record of the things being discussed and agreed in meetings.

Today, while shorthand is still very valuable for many, there are more ways to work visually in meetings. The open conversation between Helen and Amy explores new and modern methods of taking notes and describes the compelling value in doing so.

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Working visually in meetings
Cool Stuff

Cool Stuff

•  David Sibbet - Four Flows Video (A,E,I,O,U) 

 TFP Recommended Materials for Digital Visualisation:

-  iPad

-  Procreate

-  Apple Pencil

-  Miro Online Whiteboard

-  Mural Digital Workspace

 TFP Recommended Materials for Analog Visualisation:

-  Neuland pens

-  Artist tape

-  Pinpoint paper

-  Sharpies

-  A5 Post-its

-  Tipex

-  Soft pastels


View all our episodes to dive into more insights into how to stop 'going to meetings'.

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Episode transcript

It’s time to Stop, ‘going to meetings’, we don't mean never go to another meeting, but it’s time to stop the routine, it’s time to stop having meetings for the sake of it, it's time to stop wasting time.

I'm Helen Chapman, and I'm Amy Webb, the rest is over to you let's get going.


Helen Chapman: Amy! years ago when I when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I used to go to meetings and somebody in the meeting room would be taking minutes and it was a specialist job ,often the people the people taking minutes would write in shorthand.

Amy Web: Yes I've seen but I have no idea how it works

Helen Chapman:  it’s a whole visual language people who were, and probably still are, able to write quickly, probably at the speed of other people speaking. This visual language was used and then the person would take their shorthand notes and go and type them up and it would turn into a formal document. So taking meeting minutes are as old as the dinosaurs (are as old as me!) and obviously, it goes without saying, that to have to have a record of what was discussed in the meeting is a very important thing to do because it then reminds people what the heck we talked about. Nowadays, I think there are still people who take meeting minutes in that way..


Amy Web: Yes, I know of people who still do

Helen Chapman: Right! So valuably so, and yet the meetings that we take part in together tend not to have meeting minutes taken in that way. We tend to do it differently, and we still work visually, so that person who was taking shorthand and working with the visual language and having that to themselves is now something that is shared in the group across the room whether it's in person or whether it's on a virtual call.  So what I'd love to kick around together today and just explore for our listeners is, how accessible actually is visual note taking in meetings for the majority? Is it something specialist that only really artistic and talented people can do? Or is this something that we can all get our hands on? And, why should we bother? What's the point?


Amy Web: Yes well, so my first thought is, on your note around being extremely artistic and talented, is that I am a visualiser working for TFP and I would not consider myself extremely artistic or talented. We have some visualisers on our team who are amazing visual artists and their skills are so valued by clients and by our team. But I fall a little bit further along the spectrum.  I can draw things, I can doodle, I can do a picture - not necessarily something they would ever be in art gallery, but that hasn't stopped me from working in this role or working with our clients and producing visual records of meetings that are really beneficial to them, that they use and reference after the meetings have taken place.  So I am living, walking proof that you don't have to be a stonking artist to visualise meetings (laughs)

Helen Chapman: Exactly! Here, Here! We could probably stop the podcast right there. What you said, and it's true, and it's absolutely liberating and also there's a spectrum, you know when you think about working visually or communicating visually, I mentioned dinosaurs earlier, truly back in the stone ages I mean the cave paintings…

Amy Web: Hmmmm, first form of communication

Helen Chapman: Some of the first and earliest form of communication. When you look at some of those sketches you can work out it's a dinosaur but was it beautifully crafted dinosaur? Maybe not, but you could work out what it was and it was enough and amazingly it transcends the years, it transcends the generations as well. So, working visually is not new.  The art of shorthand, you know that visual language, was a particular language, a bit like learning a foreign language. That had to be learnt, the squiggles, the lines, the dots and all of that so there is a particular shape and form to taking shorthand notes that is to be learned at an intrapersonal level.  But where we work it's much freer than that it's much looser than that it's much more accessible as you say, and to take the idea of working visually and spread it around as many people as we possibly can, (I know we've both got a passion to make that happen) but let's think for a second about the different the types of visual representation in meetings.


At its most artistic, if you imagine a scale, at one end of the scale the most extreme scale is where, and you've mentioned people on our team, and many people around the world who have this skill to be, for example, in the back of a meeting room listening, like eavesdropping into the into the group’s conversation, and creating these amazing murals of representing the conversation that's been hard.

Amy Web: Yes! Really stunning.

Helen Chapman: Beautiful, really stunning, and we know for ourselves the clients who have taken that as a piece of artwork, had it framed and these things are big that their metres long sometimes, but have put them in their entrance reception halls or in their meeting rooms, because it really is a thing of beauty and as well as being a fantastic representation of a conversation.


Amy Web: And, from my perception the real value of those beautiful pieces of art is reminder of the conversation and is also something to gather around. Something to appreciate together to see, to look at. Because without the team’s conversations, without that meeting there would be no art so, it's like seeing themselves on the page represented in this amazing, beautiful, inspiring way.

Helen Chapman: Agreed. And so to be able to gather around it, as you say, and to look in the moment or on the day itself, is a reminder of “Ahhh, at 8:00 o'clock this morning we were talking about that, but look how far we've come!” So letting them remember the conversation. Very often it will call out decision points, where we made a decision, or where we might have had a bit of a tussle with each other, or where something funny happened and all of those things are captured like a giant snapshot, a beautifully crafted giant snapshot. And then, they're also fantastic for people who weren't in that meeting.

Let's imagine you were there and I wasn't you can say, “Helen let me take you to this gorgeous mural and let me walk you through the meeting that we had” So it's brilliant for onward communication.


The other thing about these murals is that they become an artefact or a piece of collateral that is part of the history of the organisation often. So in 10 years time it becomes an archive piece and beautiful, a bit like us painting on a cave wall of moment in our history, they serve so many purposes…


Amy Web: It must by amazing for teams to look back, all 5 - 10 years ago we were talking about this is an idea and now it's a reality and it's really flourishing and look how much we've done! It's like looking back through old photo albums.


Helen Chapman: Absolutely, and it’s incredible.

The downside, I think from working in this way, and I mean this is what we offer this is part of our offer so I'm a massive fan, but there are downsides to it as well and it's not the case that this sort of working serves all purposes. Because the artist or the graphic recorder is doing the work off to the side or at the back of the room they're not really connected particularly with the group themselves. So what they're giving is an interpretation of what they're hearing not necessarily capturing exactly what that person meant at the time. So it's a representation of the conversation and that works sometimes. However when a group needs to really get at some tricky or complex topic or conversation, to have a representation of what an artist thought they were meaning can miss the mark a bit sometimes. So, where we're meeting needs to be much more nitty gritty in the detail that sort of mural might not hit the spot and therefore we do some indifferent.


Amy Web: It’s not either this or nothing, there is, as you say, there’s a spectrum and there’s visualisation available across the spectrum.

Helen Chapman: That's right and so if the one end of the spectrum is full-on beautiful graphics and artwork then sliding along the scale is the ability to work visually in real time with the group capturing conversations for a particular purpose, a particular reason because there needs to be in depth exploration about a topic, or there needs to be some particular idea generation happening. We need to move a group sometimes from knowing nothing about a subject into understanding a subject, into together pulling that subject apart and looking at what works and what doesn't work or what are the opportunities, into thinking what plan do we want to now make and what outcome and for what purpose. And so working with the group visually to support group process an group thinking, and that's called graphic facilitation, and we know that's part of what we offer and we do this in-person as well as virtually as well. So our visualizers, you being one of them, are students of and practitioners of group process, as well as having the magic in your fingers to be able to capture things well. What are your thoughts Amy, about the ability of a group to work in this way without having one of us there? Do you think is possible for people to do this well?


Amy Web: I think there’s benefit in having someone who's not in the team fulfilling this role because it allows everyone to fully participate, and not worry about note taking or minute keeping.  So, I think these skills are applicable to teams all over the world in all contexts but I just think that there is real value in being able to know that your ideas are being recorded and represented and you can just focus on the conversation that needs to take place.

Helen Chapman: Yes, I agree with you. And I think that when we work with a group, we take care of the group so that they can just fall into the conversation and get the best out of it. And so for us to be there capturing onto big charts and templates and for the group to be able to follow along and call out, “actually that's not what I meant, this is what I meant or would like the phrasing to be slightly different” for us to work with them in that way is a good thing.  Then one of the things that I love is to be able to pass on the ability to capture, while we’re in conversation, to the group. You know we both know that one of the things that we value most about our work is helping a group or a team to be independent from us…

Amy Web: Yes, to do ourselves out of a job (laughing)

Helen Chapman: ….yes, do ourselves out of a job and leave the team or group equipped with the tools in the skills to be able to work well visually and have the conversation without us. And so for that reason encouraging full participation. You know oftentimes at the beginning of a meeting we’ll talk about ‘the rules’ of the meeting or how we're going to engage well to get the best out of each other and we often talk about be present, fully participate, be prepared to be here and nowhere else (that sort of thing) and while we're discussing and that full participation often ends up being on big post-it notes – A5 - we like to use A5 because when you work with a marker pen and a marker pen on an A5 post-it, in practical terms means that people write bigger which means when the post-it note goes up on to the chart more people in the room can read at a distance, and so on, but to pass those skills into a group so that they can fully participate and our experience is that when people are actively and very practically engaged in creating in their own meeting minutes the chances are the very act of them writing on a post it and getting onto a wall is an act of engagement, it's an act of ‘I see my words on the wall’ ‘I feel part of this conversation’ ‘I feel invested’ ‘I want to be part of the decision and of the outcome list’


So if we were going to list, for our listeners, the benefits of working visually, and if we were to say come on, like you said at the beginning, you don't have to be an artist to do this well. What are the compelling reasons do you think to get groups to have the courage to work in this way?


Amy Web:  I think you just pointed out the main one which is increased engagement, especially in longer meetings, but really in any meeting, people’s concentration levels just for being talked at and even just for having a conversation without some kind of other sensory stimulus, their concentration levels are quite low. So just in terms of extending participation and concentration, just practically having something to look at and to add to means that the engagement that you'll get is so much more. I think making sure that everyone feels heard, as you say, which relates to our previous conversations in the last episode about the lone voice and there are sometimes people in meetings who might feel shy about vocalising their ideas but will very happily write something down, stick on a post it note, either you know online or in in person, so having a variety of tools at your disposal, to make sure that everyone's voice gets into the room, can only be a good thing and can only help you make sure that you're hearing the whole range of views. And making sure that nothings missed.


Going back to that concentration level, people only have so much capacity in their brain for remembering a conversation and they will, because of their filters and we've spoken about unstable entities if they're tired if their mind’s wandering they will miss things. They will miss what being said, so having a purposeful visual representation of the whole conversation means that if, at the end of the day, someone can go “Oh, I was day-dreaming earlier, I missed that”, without that visual it would have been gone for that person so having that ability to make sure not only in the moment is everyone's voice heard but actually for reflection the whole conversation is there, and visually showing what was agreed to, what are the next steps, so that it's very clear, this is what we spoke about in this meeting this is where we're moving and it's on paper there's a reason people like things on paper because it feels solid.

Helen Chapman: Love it, love it! I’m scribbling down all sorts of notes as I'm listening to you. That all inspires a whole lot of thinking for me. I love that last one, it’s solid in its there. It makes me think as well about PowerPoint slides, they’re visual but unlike a template that’s on a wall, one click and that slide’s gone. And you sit and watch people taking photographs of a slide, which is fine, so they've got an actual photograph of something, but the photograph of a PowerPoint slide doesn't give you always the richness of the conversation that went with the essence of what was on that slide. Whereas working visually means that you can explore the central point and capture people's thinking around it in a way that stays.


Amy Web:  So an example of this is in online meetings that I've been in recently, we have had teams working in breakouts between the meetings, they've come onto the Zoom call they've shared a PowerPoint slide that they've worked on together, a PowerPoint presentation, and it's full of so much hard work and rich information, and then there's gone to be a conversation about it. So the way that we've captured this visually is I've taken a screenshot of the PowerPoint slide dropped into the Miro board and then as people are talking I'm adding post-it notes, and they’re adding post-it around this PowerPoint slide which is the focal point and this really rich conversation is happening around it. The conversation would have taken place anyway but the value in seeing it then and then moving on you're moving on from that conversation it puts so much more context and texture around rather than just a PowerPoint slide.


Helen Chapman: I couldn't agree more and I think it's a fantastic example of how to use PowerPoint well and how to capture especially now virtual working at the minute how to add and capture the richness in something like Miro, so that the conversation moves and you get the texture from all of that and then you can move on.


The other thing that you triggered for me is: you and I might step into a meeting room in person or in a virtual world and begin capturing visually for the group just from a blank canvas. An artist will often say the hardest thing to do is to make a start when you’ve got this blank canvas – you’ve got to make a mark….

Amy Web:  Very intimidating!

Helen Chapman:  Very intimidating all of that white space. And you and I have got practice, as have our team, at making a mark on the white space and getting the conversation started in a visual sense. If you’re a team or a group working together don't have that skill the way to get around it is to have a template, a pre-printed template that is already laid out, the marks are already there and it's a way of guiding a conversation. And templates can be so different in nature, some of them can be quite straight forward, so for example if you want to explore the good the bad the ugly of a particular situation you could have a very large SWOT analysis - four boxes that are on the wall and the conversation then the group can see that there are four areas to complete, the conversation can happen, the group can add post-its to each of the area, so it's quite straight forward in that way. Sometimes templates can take on a more metaphorical look. So it might look like a journey towards the horizon, a journey towards a big goal, a journey towards a vision: that sort of thing. So lots of different things that you can get in template form and that's something that we offer and is accessible for our listeners but it's also something that our listeners can even create for themselves ahead of time so they're not just facing the white space.

Amy Web: It is really helpful using those templates isn't it. I think sometimes the people participating in the meeting to kind of come in and see, OK this is this is what we're working with, especially I'm a huge fan of the more metaphorical templates that we use because I think it helps people step into another level of thinking. We've joked about it before that we use analogies and metaphors a lot and there's a reason - and visually as well using the metaphors of a journey or a horizon helps people tap into their creativity a lot more. One of my pet peeves is hearing people say that they're not creative which I think is just a load of rubbish. We are all create if you only have to spend time with a young child to realise that human beings are creative and we lose it because we are told that we're not being created in the right way as we journey into adulthood, but the reality is everyone has that creativity and being able to use visuals as a way to help people, although obviously the conversation still is rooted in practicalities as a lot of the time but, seeing those kind of higher level thinking things sometimes just you know metaphor represented visually is enough to help people tap into that.

Helen Chapman: Yes, and if that metaphor is there on a pre-created template they're not having to dream up the metaphor but they can dive into aspects of the metaphor so if it's a journey guess the pathway typically will be what's our plan to get there, at the end of the pathways and what will be there when we reached there, you know what's our Holy Grail or our vision and so on. What's interesting is that overtime people have evolved got smarter about how to orientate thinking on those templates. If you can imagine a template being along wall chart, landscape in nature, maybe a metre high, and three metres long, don't quote me on the dimensions, but you sort of get the shape that I'm explaining. Typically with metaphor templates, for example with the journey, the way to organise thinking, so let's imagine this as a rush of thinking that comes from the group - where do you put stuff on the charts it just doesn't look like a jumbled mess of post-it notes or writing, how do you make sense of it such that the intention behind what was being shared? Typically, the rule of thumb, is that time moves on a template from left to right as you see it, so either the left hand side is today then you go right and right and right towards the future, or the left hand side is sometime in history, a year ago maybe, and as you go right in right you come more up to the present time so the template in its orientation in a way becomes a timeline and if you think about it in that way you can sequence your thinking in that way. Similarly if you think about the bottom part of the template being for thinking that is grounded, that is concrete that is tangible if you think about your feet on the ground connection with the earth, something tangible something that is making an impression, those sorts of ideas tend to work well when they put towards the bottom of the chart and then as you move higher up the chart, if you think about moving up the human body search for examples if your feet are on the ground in a tangible way, as you move up towards the head so you might start to be you know creating or dreaming or ideating or imagining, and so in the same way you would use going up towards the top of the template in a way to capture more unformed thoughts that are not as concrete but that you don't want to lose. So in that way the orientation around even a blank piece of paper without a template on you can think about it in that way to be helpful.


Amy Web: And I think that's something that feels natural and obviously that's why people do it, then when it’s is explained to you I think it's one of those things you realise that you would you do naturally anyway. And then you see the logic behind it you’re like ‘ohh it's interesting’ and of course it is coz we read left to right and all of that and I'd be fascinated to know how this work happens in other cultures where here they read right to left or bottom up.

Helen Chapman: Yes!

And then the other top tip I suppose, is thinking about you said colour and how it works best to use the darker colours for the main ideas that are coming or the main thinking so use the brown, the purple, the black, the dark green, to capture thinking and then use the brighter colours, I'm sure there's some technical artistic term for these, but the brighter colours like the reds, and the oranges to highlight, to underline, to circle, to really make things pop out. I don't often appreciate the use of yellow marker pens although they can be useful for highlighting very often it is still hard to see them. So just be careful. And the other thing as well is for people with colour blindness, think about how use of colour might be accessible to people.

Amy Web: And Dyslexia is another condition where colours can play massive role.

Helen Chapman: Exactly – yeah – and just on that point then is handwriting and very often I know myself because I spend a lot of time typing into a keyboard, if I ever have to write something but you sort of think I can't write anymore lost the art of writing. But the truth is our script handwriting is more difficult to read than if we write in block capitals. And then titles give some very clear titles and make your titles a particular colour with a particular underline make them a bit bolder, make them a bit clearer more stand out. You know, sometimes titles are often best to be added after the work itself, sometimes you don't know what's coming so if you give yourself a bunch of titles on a chart it can be a bit, what's the word I want, it can be a bit restricting. So sometimes it's OK to add titles later.


Amy Web:  So we were coming up on time Helen, but I would like to leave our listeners with some really accessible, basic visualizer tips. I'm thinking about the standard kind of office or meeting room where people might just have like standard sized whiteboard or flip chart or if they're having online meetings what can we leave our listeners with as a great starting point to try and introduce more visuals?

Helen Chapman:  Thank you, yes…. So I think what we can do is into the show notes of this podcast we can drop in the sorts of equipment and materials that we use to help us; the pens that we like and why, and the tape that we use in the paper and you know the online meeting spaces and so and so we can put all of that into the show notes. I think the handiest thing to leave our listeners with is a easy way to remember why working visually works and this comes from a stable of work from David Sibbet over with the Grove consulting in in California, and it’s dead easy to remember because you're a member on the five fingers of a hand and using the vowels from our alphabet which is AEIOU. Right, so why work visually?

A: because it manages the Attention of the group, and by attention it isn't just like in school right everybody attention, is not like that it's about managing the focus of the group as to why we're here and what the topic is that we need to explore, a really compelling WHY to manage attention.

The second, we’ve spoken about already, which is easy for E for Energy. To really work visually helps to manage the energy of the group in terms of understanding. So by energy I don't mean high in low energy although getting up and working visually moving post its and capturing visually can manage the physical energy, but in this instance Sibbet means the trust and respect between a group. Members can be really helped by each person really understanding what each other means and working visually, like we said earlier, can capture points, salient point, points that can be remembered and brought back in later so that's good.

I is Information. So what we're doing working visually is managing information in front of and the group are doing it for themselves for themselves. So, unlike that person in a meeting from years ago, although I do know there are people who are still taking shorthand, but the person who takes minutes in their notebook for their own purpose, for their own eyes, to be typed up later - what we're doing here is managing information. The group are doing it for themselves communally, and from an overall understanding point of view, managing information in this way really works.

The O stands for Operations, so making sure that you've got even a flip chart and at its minimum and your marker pens that work, but equally operationally if you take a meeting room and you've got some good wall space, to sequence the charts that you're using from one side of the room to the other so that you're creating a landscape throughout the day of what the topics were, rather than dotting a flip chart here and dotting one behind you,

Amy Web: So even in case all if all you've got is flip chart paper, ripping a bit off and sticking it on the wall, and creating sequence….

Helen Chapman: ….doing it in a sequence creating the panorama creates a very good operation for the for the meeting but making sure also that operationally all you've got all the kit you need.

And then the U, which is my favourite bit, which is where you first started in this in conversation, is be you, do you at all times, do you and no-judgement on your artistic skills, be you in service of the group, know that even if the cat that you've just drawn looks more like a hedgehog or that the writing that you created might have a spelling mistake in it doesn't matter, what we're doing is helping the group to move through a conversation to get the best out of that conversation to make something happen and move their business forward.

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