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An Interview With Dan Roam: Unlocking The Persuasive Power Of Drawing

Fri, Oct 28, 2016 @ 6:31 PM Add Comment

Dan Roam is on a mission to convince the business world that drawing is the most effective tool for communicating ideas and persuading others to take action.

His 2008 international bestseller The Back of the Napkin was recognized by Fast Company, The London Times, and Businessweek as the top creative and innovation book of the year.

Throughout the years, his work has received high praise from Guy Kawasaki, Simon Sinek, and Temple Grandin. He’s consulted everyone from Google to the US Senate and made appearances on CNN and NPR. He has, overall, become the go-to expert on how visual thinking can be used to solve complex problems.

Now, Roam is back with a brand new book entitled Draw to Win. Not too long after it was published, he hopped onto the phone with our Social Media Manager Joseph J. Sanchez to discuss simplicity, storytelling, and why being a “terrible artist” isn’t an excuse to avoid running to the whiteboard to pick up a marker.


From The Back of the Napkin to Draw to Win, the power of visuals remains a consistent theme in your work. How would you convince a skeptic that drawing’s an important skill to have?

I simply rely on data. The amount of your brain that’s dedicated to visual processing is about a third of the entire mass of your brain, and from a processing perspective, it’s estimated that probably two thirds of all your brain activity is dedicated toward helping you process vision.

Now, that’s a surprise to many people, but it shouldn’t be. Think about the incredible amount of cognitive processing that’s taking place to see. Our brains are turning light into meaning, they’re doing it thousands of times a second, and they’re doing it completely unconsciously. The bulk of our mental capacity is dedicated to vision, and that is true for all humans.

Data point number two is also about the brain. In most average adult Americans, your brain comes in at about two and a half percent of your total body weight. The brain is not a very big organ, yet at any given time, it’s consuming about twenty percent of your total calorie burn. So, of all the organs in your body, your brain is the one that’s burning vastly more energy than any other organ.

If you put those two things together – more of your body is dedicated to supporting your brain than any other organ, and more of your brain is dedicated to supporting vision than anything else it does – you come to the idea that vision is pretty important to us.

People must constantly tell you that they can’t draw.

Drawing is a very simple thing, if you get over the fear of it. Every one of us drew when we were kids. We started out drawing before we knew our ABCs, before we could string together words and sentences.

Then, right about the time we got into first or second grade, we started to become a little more competent with our verbal abilities. Teachers said, okay, you’ve used drawing to get you to the point where you can now read, so let’s stop the drawing. We don’t need that anymore. It has served its purpose. I can’t think of a worse thing we could possibly do, when it comes to really using the incredible capacity of our mind, than to give up the drawing.

The other thing that happens to probably 90% of people who say they can’t draw is, right around second or third grade, someone came up and said, “That is a terrible drawing of a dog. Dogs don’t look like that at all. You can’t draw.” And they were impressionable, they were struggling anyway, and they gave it up.

My goal in life is to share a very simple truth. You can draw a picture of anything if you can just draw six or seven very simple shapes – a circle, a triangle, a square, a line, a couple of dots, a little squiggle, maybe an arrow.

Dan Roam's 7 basic building blocks for persuasive drawings

Typically, when I’m in a business setting, a corporate training situation, or even a consulting project, I take a couple of minutes and have everyone draw some circles, boxes, and arrows. Everyone proves to themselves they’re perfectly capable of drawing. Then, we get past the biggest hurdle people have.

The type of drawing and visual processing I’m talking about in my books is not an artistic process at all. It’s a thinking process. I don’t care what your drawing looks like. Nobody in this room is going to care if that’s what a dog looks like or not. If we can look at it and imagine that it might be a dog, that’s good enough.

What we’re trying to do is simply capture and quantify visually the objects running around in our mind. If you can sketch them out – as rough as possible, as crude as possible – that’s all it takes.

There’s an interesting phenomenon where people believe that if they’re not creating something photorealistic, then it’s not “drawing”.

What I would like people to think about is stick figures. I’ve drawn hundreds of thousands of stick figures, and I like to think that over the last 25 years, I’ve learned how to draw badly really well.

I don’t have any fear anymore of being the person who runs to the front of the room, grabs a marker, and starts drawing really horrific stick figures, smiley faces, and circles. Because I have the confidence to know that’s not really what people are looking for in a problem-solving session.

Why, though, are we so drawn to stick figures?

A little bit more data and neuroscience. We’re born with our eyes open, and all of a sudden, we’re overwhelmed by this screaming amount of life that’s suddenly streaming into our eyes. We are genetically and instinctively encoded to start looking for a face, and the moment that light’s coming into our eyes, we’re looking for, hopefully, the face of our mother.

If you ask a child or even a grown up to draw a stick figure, they’re going to draw a really big head, a relatively small body, and these skinny little arms and legs. That’s because, as far as our brains are concerned, what a person looks like is all face.

If you go into a formal drawing academy, and they’re trying to teach you how to draw a person correctly, they will tell you that the average adult’s head is one-seventh the height of their entire body. Yet, stick figures look right to us. And often, if you were to draw a stick figure in the proper proportions, it would look absurd.

So, this all comes back to neuroscience and cognitive science. How does our brain perceive the world? And rather than hide from that and say our brains got it all wrong, let’s turn that around and say, “Nope, our brains do a pretty good job of keeping us alive for a really long period of time.”

Let’s look at the things our brains do well and try to take advantage of that, and that’s where the drawing comes in.

Visuals on social media drawing

In a world where the conversation is, indeed, visual – especially on social media – what makes drawing stand out versus other forms of visual communication?

If you really think about it, probably 90% of what’s driving the rise of social media is the image. It’s all about imagery and video. Early on, Twitter and Facebook were primarily about text, but the moment the technology started to support imagery, that’s what we all jumped to.

Maybe people say, “Oh, social media! This is new,” but I’d like to put it in a broader context. These simple drawings that we’re talking about, they are actually our second oldest technology, as well as our oldest mechanism for trying to capture, record and share our thoughts with other people. This predates written language by about 28,000 years.

As far as our visual engines are concerned, all images are good. They’re rich with information that we can process very quickly, and it’s pretty hard to mask the truth when you are drawing it out. There’s a great quote from Le Corbusier, the famous French architect renown in the 1930s, where he said, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

More importantly, of all the visual information types – photograph, graphic icon, or something hand-drawn – there is an undeniable magic to the hand-drawn picture. It is profoundly human. You don’t just see the figure represented. You also see the workmanship of the person who created it.

Even if a drawing looks terrible, we see that there is – I hate the word, but I’m going to use it – an authentic person trying to communicate something. Drawing is a very honest and open way to do it.

How is this honesty and openness beneficial in a business environment?

If you watch a person drawing, there’s a truly powerful moment when what they’re drawing starts to be clear. It lights up your mind, and for a brief moment, you and the person who’s drawing the picture have this kind of mind-meld that isn’t possible any other way. It’s about the act of creation and the openness that it entails.

Imagine that you’re in a very contentious business meeting or a high-pressure consultative sales meeting. There’s nothing that changes the temperature of the room than someone going up to the flip chart or the white board and saying, “This is all great, but let me try to capture this little picture. I’m seeing you say this, and I’m saying this over here, and here’s our client over here.”

And the fact that you’re drawing this, it’s like magic pixie dust in the room. Everything changes. Now you’re having a dialogue, where before you might have been having a fight.

Draw to Win by Dan Roam

What are a few ways that people complicate their drawings, thereby sacrificing cognitive fluency?

I think the simplest example is, if you have ever tried to create a complex diagram of a workflow, a system diagram or a project plan that has lots of pieces and interconnecting arrows, it always winds up looking like a plate of spaghetti by the end.

We’ve all created these pictures, and that is actually a great picture to draw. It helps you think through each line of the “spaghetti” to see where they start and where they connect.

But it’s a terrible picture to show to someone, because it is complicated. Our brain knows that we’ve only got the briefest amount of time to understand the things around us. We’ve got to move pretty quickly, and so our visual line tends to look away from things that are initially very, very complicated and tries to find simpler solutions.

That said? We need to create these complex pictures on our own. It is the act of creating them that gets us to the good insights. Out of this complex system or process that we’re mapping out, what are the pathways through it that are really critical?

But when you’re in a meeting, don’t show the complicated picture first. Work your way up to it by showing the simpler pictures, then adding layers on. Make sure that your audience is getting it at each step. Then you will end up at the most complex picture, and everyone will still be on board.

Research has shown that color images are more shareable, whereas black and white images cause people to focus on a product’s essential features. Do you have a preference toward one or the other?

My preference is to limit color radically. Typically, I create pictures with no more than two colors. I always start out drawing black lines on a white background to capture the essence of an idea. Then I might highlight it or indicate areas of importance by adding one other color. (That might be red, usually.)

Now, I’m not against color. It’s magnificent! However, it’s also very distracting. When you show someone a rainbow-colored drawing, their eyes might light up – they’re thinking, “Ooh, that’s fun!” – but they might not immediately notice the core part of the message.

Describe an instance where color might distract from the main message.

Let’s say we’ve made an analogy that the insurance industry is like a super tanker moving slowly across the ocean toward the horizon. It’s very hard to turn, it’s got a lot of inertia, and a lot of momentum. So we’ve created this analogy, and everybody can picture that.

If I was going to draw it out, I would draw a line horizontally. That’s the horizon. Then I’d draw a simple sketch of a boat on the horizon, and I would say that’s all you need to know to understand the metaphor.

Now, what if I took additional time to color the sky blue? I added some red clouds, ‘cause it’s in the sunset. Then I made the ocean shades of green and purple… Have I added anything to the idea? No, I’ve added a lot more visual information which isn’t core to the central idea.

Draw to Win by Dan Roam

What role does drawing play in storytelling?

It’s a dirty little secret among writers that one of the best ways to come up with a story is to draw it out. JK Rowling drew all of the characters from the Harry Potter books before she wrote them down. She drew maps of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and the home of the Dursley family.

The same is also true of JRR Tolkien, when he was writing his series of books. Jack Kerouac drew mandalas and charts to show the intersection of various pieces. Vladimir Nabokov drew to figure out what other authors were trying to write.

For anyone who’s a fan of Pixar, Disney, or pretty much any movie that’s made, one of the most critical parts of the filmmaking process is the storyboarding phase, where a written script is combined with a series of quickly drawn sketches.

From a marketing perspective, storytelling is the single most important thing that you can do, because we are so pre-programmed to appreciate story over just about any other type of narrative communication.

A bit of sketching with stick figures and flow maps can go a long way in making sure you have a story that’s coherent and interesting. That’s the way we map things out in my little company all the time.

Are there any types of drawings that, based in your experience, tend to be more persuasive?

The answer is “yes”. It’s not a simple yes, because the second part of the answer is, it depends on your audience and what you’re trying to persuade them to do.

If you are trying to persuade a very quantitatively oriented person, perhaps an actuary or an accountant, you would want to draw charts. A pie chart, a bar chart, a histogram, or a stock ticker chart. A picture with the purpose of making numbers clear.

However, if you’re trying to convince someone who’s a more qualitative person, a chart is probably not the motivation that they’re going to need. You’re going to want a more aspirational, visionary picture – almost a road map.

What’s the best way of figuring out what picture is most appropriate for which setting?

There is actually a whole chapter in Draw to Win about exactly that. It’s driven, again, by the underlying neuro-mechanics of vision and our sense of sight.

Sight is a process, and the process works the same in all of us. The sense of vision is pretty much entirely predictable. If you’re trying to convince someone of an idea, there is a very specific and prescriptive set of pictures that you should draw, and you should draw them in this particular order.

And why is that so? Because this is the way our brains actually perceive the world. These pictures, in this order, create meaning to our visual mind.

Draw to Win - Dan Roam discusses technology and visual communication

How has technology influenced the way we draw? What are the pros and cons of drawing on devices?

Technology allows us to draw faster. The tools make it easier to undo something you didn’t like, to go back to erase a line and redraw it. The other benefit, of course, is that the drawing is saved digitally, and that means you can share it around the world instantly.

The downside is, countless studies of cognitive science, memory, and learning have shown it’s very important to have a tactile aspect to our drawing. The fact that we hold a pen and put it to a piece of paper, and there’s actually tactile feedback there, it helps clarify what we’re drawing and what we’re thinking about.

I think the biggest mistake Steve Jobs ever made was not giving devices a pencil or stylus right away. We draw with a stick. It’s the act of holding that stick, touching it to a surface, and moving it that turns on the physical and kinesthetic part of learning. I do worry that if you immediately jump to a digital drawing surface, a little bit of that is lost.

What I really hope happens in the next generation of devices is that we get to this sense of haptic technology, which means that as we’re drawing on the screen, we actually get a little physical resistance back into our stylus. That will help our drawing and help lock things that we draw into our minds.

In terms of using drawing to achieve a business goal, is there a particular success story that you hold close to your heart?

I have my own stories, which I share in the book, so let me share someone else’s story, Angela Ahrendts. She’s an American woman, who some years ago was appointed to become CEO of Burberry. They brought her in, because the company was not doing particularly well.

Working with the British creative director over there, they really turned the brand around. It became a remarkable success story on how to use platforms like Pinterest to generate real communities of interest around fashion, how to get people really invested in participating in the growth of a brand.

Angela recognized that her marketing was becoming more and more about the technology that was enabling Burberry customers to connect online. She needed to learn more rapidly about the emerging technologies, and so someone said, “Oh, if you want to talk to someone who’s really saturated in these new technologies, go talk to Mark Benioff, who founded Salesforce out in San Francisco.”

Angela came out here, and sitting in a hotel lobby, Mark took a notebook and drew a picture showing his vision for Burberry’s potential. He wanted to show her that technology is important, he was inspired, and a lot of her goals could be driven by connecting Salesforce.

What was amazing to Angela was Mark’s ability to draw this picture live, which by the way, he had been rehearsing for a long time. He looked very smart, because it looked spontaneous. She was inspired, and of course, she bought a bunch of Salesforce solutions, went back, and was very successful.

The punchline of the story is that Angela was so taken by what she had seen in this crazy picture by Beniof, she left Burberry and was head-hunted into Apple. In many circles, she is regarded as potentially the next chief executive of Apple, and anecdotally, she attributes much of her interest in moving to a technology company from what she’d seen in that picture by Benioff.

Dan Roam - Draw to Win

What would you specifically draw to persuade someone to read this interview?

I would draw a stick figure with a big head, and I would put a frown on that person’s face. Above that person’s head, I would put a big squiggle like a plate of spaghetti – a “Pigpen” like swirl of misunderstanding.

Next to that, I would draw the same stick figure, but this time with a big smile on their face. Their eyes would be big, looking upward in happiness. Above their head would be maybe three simple shapes – a triangle, a square, and a circle.

What you would viscerally see is the cognitive difference between confusion and clarity. Confusion makes us unhappy, and clarity makes us happy. And the best way to get to clarity is to draw it out. That’s the picture I’d draw.


Draw to Win” is available now through AmazonBarnes & Noble, and other online retailers.

To learn more about Dan Roam’s work, visit his website, like his page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his channel on YouTube.

Looking for more interviews? Check out our previous chats with Affectiva CMO Gabi Zijderveld and “Inside Nudging” author Steve Shu.

cognitive fluency cognitive science Communication Dan Roam Draw To Win drawing Joseph J. Sanchez neuromarketing neuroscience persuasion Social Media storytelling technology visual thinking
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