Facilitation Friday #27: The Value of the Visual

Effective facilitation involves creating valuable visuals to help record the conversation that occurs, reinforce key points discussed, track decisions made and future actions identified, provide additional informal content, and personalize the meeting or workshop environment.  Visuals are a critical tool as we work to help participants make connections and make meaning from what unfolds.

When facilitating any conversation an important question for you to answer is: What visuals will enhance the discussion as it occurs, make it easier to share output with non-participants, and facilitate follow-up and action?  When appropriate, I pose that question to the participants themselves and often involve them in creating the visuals they identify as valuable. For some individuals (particularly those who prefer introversion) it becomes a tangible way they contribute to the work of the meeting or workshop.  For others it allows them to try on a new way of engaging in discussions.

For me, it means I can focus most on facilitating the conversation, not capturing it's output.  My general practice is to not be the visual recorder of the meeting, but to ensure that a volunteer or staff member creates an appropriate visual record.  My reasoning is two-fold:  (1) every time I turn my back to write on the flipchart, I disengage from facilitating the conversation, (2) the participants need to own the visual record and put it in terms they will use, not me.  My contribution to the visual component of a workshop or meeting comes in the slides, handouts, and other meeting materials I create; the material posted in the room to enhance the nature of the experience; and the limited information and takeaways I do choose to capture and post in real-time.

Great resources for creating valuable visuals and effectively using them in facilitation abound, and we are living in a time when visual thinking, graphic facilitation, mindmapping, graphic animation videos, doodling, and infographics increasing receive mainstream attention and interest.  And let's not forget that too many presenters and facilitators still don't follow the high impact practices of slide design and suggested by the three leading gurus of presentation and slide development: Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds and Cliff Atkinson.  You should read their books and follow their blogs and Tweets.  The Grove Consultants International is my go to source for markers, guidebooks, and their wonderful graphic guides, visual templates you can complete during various stages of a meeting or workshop.  If you're looking to get grounded in effective flipcharting and graphic meeting facilitation, The Big Book of Flip Charts is a classic for those getting started and the newest addition to my bookshelves, The Graphic Facilitator's Guide, looks to be a great resource.

Finally, here are a few of those "things I know now that I didn't realize back then" tips and pointers I've gather about creating and using valuable visuals in facilitation.
  1. If you're working with a group with established norms or ground rules, post them around the room, each one on its own sheet, to provide a powerful visual reminder.
  2. If you're facilitating a meeting or process with pre-determined stages, you could do the same as described for the group norms.
  3. Invest in high quality markers that allow you to write with both a wide flat edge and a sharper point for fine writing.
  4. A mindmap can be a great one-page handout for a workshop or one-page representation of an organization's strategic framework.
  5. Welcome people to the session with an inviting visual at the door or a running slide deck of quotes, images, questions related to the meeting or workshop, etc.
  6. Props are often powerful, but are a generally underutilized visual.  Since they engage people's tactile sense as well, they are a two-fer item you should consider incorporating more regularly.  I find them easiest to use to illustrate a concept or key point that is difficult to understand only by listening to a description, as well as a physical manifestation of a metaphor I might be using to make a key point.
  7. Tweets are visuals increasingly being incorporated as visual records during a session (in Twitter wall form) or being curated and repurposed using a tool like Storify following a session to tell the story of what occurred
  8. Projecting ideas being brainstormed as a Word document that someone creates in real-time often is more effective than flipcharting that rapid-fire output so long as you go back and cursor through ideas as a review.
  9. Create roadmaps and timelines with key markers and use to customize a generic space, as well as provide a visual you can refer to throughout a planning or idea-generation session.
  10. If you want participants to contribute to the visual record of the conversations, they need their own stock of supplies (markets, paper, tape) at arm's length and an identified place to post their contributions.
  11. For a small group where slides might feel too formal, consider designing some posters in advance and layering them on an easel for you to use during the session.
  12. Covering tables with newsprint and providing fine point markers, colored pencils, or crayons enables doodling while discussing.
  13. When writing lists on flipcharts, alternate marker colors between items to make them more readable. If you for some reason must flipchart the key output of a session, create a color-coded system in your mind to distinguish different pieces of content (i.e., labeling all ideas related to the same goal with the same header in the same color).
  14. Design your meeting agenda or workshop schedule handout so that it facilitates the objectives for the session, helps participants record key outcomes, and distinguishes your efforts visually.
  15. Don't forget that pictures and video are visuals.  Use them whenever you can.
  16. Invest in quality clip art and illustrations as opposed to cheesy images that appear juvenile.
  17. Cartoons provide great visuals as well as offer a humorous reinforcement of a key point or takeaway.  Sites like Cartoon Bank and Cartoon Stock are affordable options.
  18. Inviting people to bring their own visuals is a great community-building exercise: "Bring a picture of your favorite place to vacation."  "Bring an image that represents what you associated with _______ (i.e. leadership, community, advocacy)."
  19. For some participants, creating collages is en enjoyable way to create a visual poster of the output of a meeting or planning process.  Old magazines, markers, glue, tape, crayons, and posterboard are all they need to do so.
  20. Creating visual "stations" around a room (similar to an art gallery or museum) creates an informal learning environment that people can peruse during breaks or that you can use for a segment during a workshop. A station might include a poster featuring key ideas or a model from a book, the book itself for people to browse through, and newsprint and markers with a provocative question posted, one for which participants post their own response.
How else do you create and use valuable visuals in meetings or workshops? What other resources would you recommend?

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

I'll be leading an open registration full-day course on The Art of Facilitation: How to Maximize Individuals' Contributions and Commitments on Tuesday, August 21, in Washington, DC, for the American Society of Association Executives.  Learn more/register here. 

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