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How to build your muscles as a graphic recorder – a deeper workout

Today’s question comes from an online friend of mine, Mauro Toselli. He asked this question as a comment to another blog post I wrote on the stages of a World Cafe graphic recording, and I thought it deserved a post of its own!
Here is his eloquent comment:

Taking visual notes with the aim to truly and genuinely record concepts expressed by a group of people and succeeding require a special gene in DNA, I think.
Jokes apart, the main ability here is to be an “ideas enhancer channel” and to govern our involuntary mind’s filters. I’ve never been in the “recorder” position but I,ve been recorded both as a speaker and as part of a group as in the case of this post.
Based on these experiences I noticed sometimes that what is recorded is a recorder arbitrary version. The enhancements are put on what recorder find important which, in some cases is different from the group thinking.
Being able to visually express the power of concepts without impressing a personal influence and moreover stimulate feedback, instill ideas and do not get lost in translation are really super-powers!
Once again, Jeannel, I’m really impressed. I never ask you to disclose your “secrets of the art” but what about telling us about your-side experience? How do you do “channeling”?

Well, Mauro, first things first: it’s not so much about ones DNA as it is about building a muscle… or rather, a specific set of graphic recording muscles:

  • Ego Stilling
  • Deep Listening
  • Sense Making
  • Group Reflection
    Now go get yourself a refill on your beverage of choice and settle in, because it’s time for a little chat about a deeper workout for those graphic recorder muscles!
    Ready? Okay, let’s go!

    Discipline and Practice

    More than anything, it’s a discipline that requires practice. Much like body building, actually. Our DNA gives us the building blocks for us to work with… the physical body we start with and its aptitude to grow and develop. The practice allows us to build upon or improve where we started from. Discipline allows us to be consistent in our practice, which leads to mastery and more sustainable results.
    Another analogy would be learning a new language. We all have SOME level of aptitude to learn a new language. In my case, I learned German in high school. German was easy for me to learn: I studied it five days a week for over an hour at a time, plus I used it a lot with my friends. I got to the point where I was dreaming all the time in German.
    Then I graduated high school and stopped studying… and practicing. Guess what happened? I lost my fluency in German. Nowadays, the only phrase that readily comes to mind is “Haben sie kartoffelsalat? Ja, wir haben kartoffelsalat!” Not a phrase that comes in handy all that often.
    So. How do I build my muscles as an “idea enhancer channel?” (New favorite title, by the way!)

    Jeannel’s Deeper Workout for her Graphic Recorder Muscles


    I meditate.

    I was meditating for years before becoming a graphic facilitator, and I meditate to this day. This practice has helped me quiet my mind and – perhaps more importantly – quiet my ego. Part of my practice is mindfulness meditation, which allows me to be completely present to what’s going on in the room as I work. I’m not thinking about how I should have drawn something, or what I’d say back to the person who just shared a thought. I’m simply in the room with them, waiting to receive and process what happens. The quieter my mind is, the greater my ability is to receive what’s happening in the room. This is why I view the on-site setup process as a series of meditations… each one stripping away a layer of my busy mind until I am as blank and ready to receive as the white sheet before me. (I know… it sounds a bit “woo” but that’s what I do!)

    I sense-listen.

    That empty-mind place allows me to listen to what’s being said as well as reading the energy in the room in response to what’s being said… or not said, for that matter! I know, it’s another “woo” sounding process… but it’s really not. Think of all the times someone has said something they shouldn’t have, and the room turns decidedly unfriendly while the speaker is left wondering what they said wrong. If you’ve ever been able to pick up that shift in the room’s energy, then you’re doing what I’m talking about. I’m just talking about it at a deeper, more subtle level. It’s more like the wife who knows her husband so well that – even though to everyone else he seems to be just fine – she knows that something’s bothering him. That sort of thing. And how do you build this level of understanding with a group so quickly? See step one: empty your mind so you can be completely present… and PRACTICE! ;^)

    I trust.

    It’s funny that you used the word “channel” to describe this process, because that’s how I think of it myself: as a channel between the group and the page. When I’m blank, open, listening deeply and sensing into the content of the conversation, then I know what’s landing with the group as something important to capture and remember. Usually, the strength of an emotional reaction – said or unsaid by the group – is the key for me to visually translate content onto the page. But here’s the secret: there’s no second-guessing allowed in my brain. I trust that because I’ve done the first few things, I’m present enough to receive the content the group wants to remember. I also trust that if I am off in my understanding, the group will help to reshape it on the page into something that works really well for them. And that leads me to the next set…

    I reflect.

    This is why I don’t tend to work in exclusion of the group that created the content in the first place. In order for me to be able to reflect my understanding back to the group, I need to be able to work WITH the group in real-time. On the occasions where I need to create a summary map from a series of simultaneous conversations, I have representatives from each group in the room with me so that I may reflect with them. I set this collaborative, co-creative expectation up front, before the project even starts. That way, it’s simply expected that they’ll create content through their event, I’ll reflect it back to them as we go, and if anything needs to get tweaked we’ll do it right then and there to ensure consistent understanding all the way through.

    Lastly, I ask.

    If I am not sure about something… be it the accuracy of my capture, the spelling of an industry word, or even a double-check of my read of the room… I ask. I don’t assume. Assumption is the ego asserting itself: this is what I think is important, so I’m just going to do it. And don’t get me wrong on this one. In a way, the entire practice is an assumption, right? I’m listening, I’m putting marker to paper on behalf of the group, so there has to be an assumption that I know what I’m doing and I’m getting it right. Yes, I do that. The assumption I’m talking about here is the ego-based ones. Like the mystery practitioner I got to hear about the other day from an educator who was lamenting about how this graphic recorder decided to really play up a holiday party the district held back in 1996. The group was creating a timeline for the district, and now each time the man I was speaking with saw the resulting mural, he got pissed off because instead of emphasizing the district’s academic work or service to the community, they have a bunch of balloons for a party that was a blip in time, and really had nothing to do with the district’s legacy they wanted to document.

    Working It Out

    I get this. I can see that mystery graphic recorder now… listening in to the group, hearing someone say “we had this great party,”and thinking to himself “ooh! a party! I can do a lot of fun drawing around that one!”
    This sort of capture is not serving as a channel. It’s the ego saying “look how fun I can draw this party!”
    And that’s not being of service to the group.
    It’s also something that every graphic recorder probably does at some point in their practice. (Hopefully early-on in their practice!)
    BUT, it’s also something that can get trained out of a graphic recorder’s muscles with time and practice. We learn to wait just a moment to make sure what we heard was paper-worthy. We check in with the group in our own way to validate this. And we reflect just enough of that memory so that it can richly unpack when it’s viewed by participants.
    After all, it IS a practice!
    How do YOU practice? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below!

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    • Posted by Jeannel
    • 5 Tags
    Beautifully articulated, Jeannel! I have always found you to be a clear communicator...but this piece is exceptionally good! I have been enjoying not just the content of what you share in these posts, but watching the quality of your writing deepen and develop! I just finished teaching a two-day workshop, and reading this post I realize that I built in lots of time for my students to practice thinking and drawing, but not any time for just LISTENING and REFLECTING. My course outline is going to change based on this post. THANKS!
      Thank you, Eris! You touch on an important point for constructing trainings in our field: there needs to be actual time to develop listening and reflection skills within practitioners, not just going up to the wall and drawing big ideas. After all, it can be intimidating as heck to simply step up to the wall, let alone remember how to listen. When I do my "Playing With Big Paper" workshops, I like to start things off with cultivating those listening and reflection skills starting with the icebreaker activity. It's that important to me...and it's a gentler way to ease into the practice space. One of these days I'll get to be a fly on the wall for one of your wonderful workshops! :^D Big hug to you, Jeannel
    Well, I can now see the bottom of my very large mug of coffee. Beverage finished, I read twice, time to write! It is quite amazing how some of your words sound familiar to me. Meditation, empty-mind, energy flow, channels, as a Shiatsuka (it is not my job anyway) they are concepts very close to me. But, one phrase particularly caught me: The assumption I’m talking about here is the ego-based ones. . This is it! And this is my sin! I'm an IT guy and my brain work as a computer CPU: always asking "what's next? what's next? what's next?" and I wait for data, I grab it and process it. I'm not a channel, I'm a store-and-forward device and this cause me to imprint something of me in what I get before forwarding it on paper. Funny enough what I'm able to do practicing Shiatsu, not interfering, listening, sensing the energy it is hard to do while drawing. Well, as you well said it is about "building my muscle", however I would like to add that my ego-imprint is also insecurity driven. I'm not yet "good enough", I'm aware of this, thus my will to be good, to be appreciated, make me overreact and I correct what I listen instead of enhancing. It is not by chance that the visual notes I do are "one man brainstormings". They work well and I often use them during lectures instead of cold, impersonal powerpoints slides. About empty-mind, unfortunately the majority of us think it is a luxury we can't afford which, in fact, is not. We think we are multitasking when in reality we are distracted. Distraction consume energy even just to restore attention. If I feel the need to focus I've already failed, an empty-mind does not need to focus, it MAKE focus as magnifying lens. And once again I came back to you, it is matter of time and practice. Ok, even if I'll never be a professional graphic recorder it is clear I have a lot to do and I'm very happy with this: it is a wonderful occasion to learn, to inspect myself and to grow an ability that, hopefully, will be good enough to be shared with others. Thank you Jeannel for the time you spent writing this great post. Truly inspiring and eyes opening.
      It's funny, Mauro...I was thinking that you'd probably relate to what I was having written "The Tao of Sketchnotes" and all! ;^) ...and since you pulled out the "not yet Good Enough" card... Being aware of your own imprint on what you store-and-forward is a pretty high level of self-awareness in my book. Actually, that's pretty FANTASTIC in my book! (Because how easy is it to blissfully go along without realizing that our own biases are leaving a scent trail on everything we touch?) Actually, that "scent trail" comparison is pretty appropriate...because being aware of the mark you leave, it's tempting to swing to the opposite side and say "oh no, not good enough, therefore I must not touch anything so everything will be free of the scent I add to it!" And we both know that's not so helpful...disengagement doesn't add all that much to the world. And that's where mindful engagement comes into play. Which is what you're playing with right now. You do it with it's simply a matter of building the muscles to apply it to other areas as well. In whatever way and purpose you choose. ;^) p.s. regarding your statement about empty-mind mistakenly being viewed as a luxury we can't afford? A to the MEN, you are singing to the choir on that one, let me tell you! ;^D p.p.s. I so enjoy getting to chat with you! Thanks for asking the question. And oh my gosh, you just gave me the idea for my next blog post! ;^)
        So curious now!!! I completely agree with you about disengagement. I doubt a disengaged person can be a good graphic recorder: he glide on the life's energy instead of diving in. Words and ideas are universes of energy and they need a catalyst yes, the mindful engagement, to become living ink on paper able to instill and recall ideas and so forth. About my ebook, yes there are things I can relate to what you have written but it is still a small, young thing, it is a project I love to breed and I need an organic growth for it, moreover I'm a guest here. This is your home, is your blog and I'm not and I'll never be a "heavy marketing guy" who take advantage of each occasion to push hard. You are an exquisite host thus I truly need be correct and respectful. Not to mention I DO LOVE your ebook! I'm not yet a good enough in drawing but I want and strongly try to be a good enough person.
    The ego-based assumptions is a whole issue, jajaja. Actually sometimes it happens to me, because when you don't find at the moment the right icon or symbol you take the "easy way" and draw something that doesn't exactly depicts the idea, jajaja. Best regards!

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