September 16, 2020

What If You Could Think Out Loud in Pictures?

Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual.

Improve team communication with visual collaboration and guided methods

This is part two of our five-part Better Meetings series.

Effective communication is key to business success. So what happens when it’s not on point? Building off of our last post on the nine problems with meetings, we want to examine how we might improve communication across teams. Because when meetings suffer from poor communication, our work does too.

“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.”

💡 William H. Whyte


In order to tackle the problem of communication, we have to paint a picture.

A picture book is to imagination what MURAL is to visual collaboration.

Consider how, for kids, picture books tend to have more draw than chapter books. Why? Probably because visuals are more immersive and fun. The old cliche rings true: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

There’s a similar concept behind visual thinking in the business world. Rather than working together using just our words, we can think and communicate using visuals for greater success.

Proof? Look at PowerPoint. PowerPoint has been the go-to way to visualize ideas and create more engaging business presentations for decades now. While the presentation tool is visual in nature — probably the main reason it’s so popular — it’s also one-directional. If you’re not presenting, your job is to sit, look at the slides, and listen. The resulting experience feels more like a lecture and does nothing to encourage engagement or participation.

But what if we could use the power of visuals — that is, the good parts of PowerPoint — to strengthen how we communicate? What if we could make communication more visual?

In this post, we’ll explore how to think out loud in pictures — in other words, how to translate nebulous ideas into something tangible and visual. We will also share some easy-to-use visual methods — that is, templates — to help your team get started with visual thinking, even if it’s a brand new concept for you.

A picture is worth a thousand words

“This world is but a canvas for our imagination.”

💡 Henry David Thoreau 


Innovation starts with imagination. It’s how we go from what is to what’s possible. And by fostering imagination, we can make new, greater discoveries.

So, how do we kickstart our imagination? How do we bring imagination into our workspace — into our meetings? We turn to visual collaboration, the concept of thinking and working together using symbols, drawings, and pictures.

Let’s paint a picture...

An example of visual collaboration: the Design Sprint

Take, for example, the Design Sprint. For those unfamiliar, Design Sprints are a tried-and-true method for applying visual collaboration to a business challenge. They’re popular because they deliver an impactful solution. Over five days, the sprint takes a team through a design thinking-based process to uncover insights, prototype an idea, and test it with users.

If you haven’t participated in a Design Sprint, imagine this scenario: a facilitator helps your team identify the problem you’re trying to solve and/or the goal you want to achieve. The facilitator poses a question about the objective or problem and has team members answer it by jotting down words or phrases onto individual sticky notes. (Yes, visual collaboration heavily uses words! After all, words can convey ideas, too. The point, though, is that they’re shared in a format — the sticky note — that lends itself to being shared in a common space, moved around, remixed, and owned by the team.) Once ideas are visualized, it’s easy for the team to place them onto a wall to map them – clustering similar ideas together, making connections.

Why do Design Sprints work?

This in-person dance pulls ideas from our heads and gets them out into the world. When drawings or photos are needed, they can be added onto the whiteboard. Simple stickies with a few words work wonders to get ideas out into a shared, visual space. Soon, there is a wall that represents the team’s ideas. It's dynamic and visual, and everyone created it together. What makes these in-person workshops so powerful is that everyone participates, and ideas are put out in the open to be workshopped, understood and improved. Design Sprints are most often used to ideate, solve, and prototype solutions to complex problems — a multi-day affair.

And at the end, everyone can say with confidence, "I see what you mean."

At the end of a Design Sprint, teams piece together the information obtained to create a visual Cover Story of their findings and next steps. 

The power of a Design Sprint — that is, the visual collaboration — need not be limited to multi-hour workshops. What if the benefits of visual collaboration found in a workshop could be applied to everyday meetings? Better yet, what if they could be implemented when teams can’t be in the same room?

The good news is they can. And once you get a sense of the basics, you can put visual collaboration to work in your meetings and for your team right away — even when you aren’t in the same room.

Making visual collaboration virtual

Think back to our solution for bad meetings in Part 1 of this series: we need a creative, communal space to collaborate successfully and do the work in the meeting. Doing this is much easier when everyone is in the same room — office spaces and meeting rooms exist for good reasons. But how do we collaborate visually online?

Tools
like Google Docs are great for some aspects of working in real-time with your remote team, but they’re two dimensional in nature — you can only offer so much context. This limitation can lead to confusion and dysfunctional collaboration.

Here’s an example: one common problem of remote work (that no one talks about) is the ambiguous Google Doc comment dilemma. You know, when you don’t understand something in a shared doc, comment to ask for context or gain clarity, and the content creator — e.g., your boss or some other bigwig in the company — responds back with a “See previous comment” or some vague direction that could be interpreted in any number of ways. Dead end. What to do?! Comment back? Contact the head honcho directly? Drop a line in Slack? It’s a headache and hangup that happens all too often.

The solve: Introduce a space for virtual visual collaboration — the kind of space that allows for and even encourages multi-threaded sharing and problem-solving. You need a digital workspace where ideas can be pulled from your head, thrown on a note, passed around and riffed on. That’s where a platform like MURAL comes in. MURAL allows your team to problem-solve visually and simultaneously in real-time. This way, you can use the same visual collaboration you’d get in a multi-day workshop whenever and wherever you want.

Now you’re getting somewhere … but where, exactly?

You need a guide.

Overcome blank canvas paralysis with guided visual methods

You’ve reached the new frontier — a virtual landscape where you have space to imagine and think visually. Here, an exciting new world awaits. It’s a place where anything is possible, a place where your ideas, and the ideas of your team, can find a home.

Now what?

Because now you’ve got a problem. Once you have endless space to create, you might suddenly find you’re suffering from something called “blank canvas paralysis.” You see, with too much freedom and not enough constraints, you can get stunted before you even get started.

What you need is a guide, or more specifically, guided visual methodologies — helpful structures to assist your work. You need a balance of creative freedom and constructive guidance to generate the best results.

A Storyboard maps out each step of the Design Sprint experience that you want to test and clarifies the pieces you need to prototype.

Just what are guided visual methods? They’re prompts that provoke conversation and engagement. Like Goldilocks, you don’t want the group work dynamic to be too rigid or too loose; you need it to be just right. Guided visual methods help you find that sweet spot of team productivity. And the best part? With these structures available on demand (e.g. through template libraries), you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. Once you figure out what works best for you and your team, you can replicate it — whether for something as simple as a weekly team meeting complete with a team building exercise and magical agenda or something as complex as quarterly strategic planning, customer journey mapping, Design Sprints … You name it, you can build a template for it.

If you’re intrigued and want to try a template out, below are a few methods that will help you unlock visual collaboration and get you started with guided visual methods today.

Kickstart visual collaboration with icebreakers and energizers

You can practice guided visual methods with your team right away. Consider icebreakers and energizers. These “games” or “structured play” can be used in combination with a visual space (either in-person or virtually with MURAL) and put to use in all sorts of working sessions — especially for meetings! Playful icebreakers and energizers are a great way to bring visual thinking to your team, getting everyone into a creative mindset.

Whether in-person or online (or a hybrid of the two), icebreakers are excellent starters for meetings. From enticing question prompts to physical group movement, there are loads of fun options to creatively jolt the room. Take rock paper scissors. This classic one-on-one game comes with an icebreaking twist; it’s a tournament. Have teammates pair up for a rock paper scissors match. The winners of each round advance to the next round. This continues until there are just two people left. It’s an excellent activity to ignite excited energy among a group.


Energizers bring a little extra vitality into the (virtual) room, something to mix up the dynamic and add a stimulating oomph. They spike participation and quickly evaporate any stale air to increase productivity. These activities are bite-sized to get people moving, encourage a dose of fun, and keep the team’s spirit high. Include them at the beginning of a staff meeting and/or somewhere in the middle to brighten up the workflow.

We’ve found icebreakers and energizers particularly helpful in remote meetings. They’re a welcomed burst of physical and mental play and creativity. Here are some of our go-tos:

  • Giphy dance: Dance break! Put on a tune or jam to your own beat and have everyone do a dance. Capture it as a gif (we like to use Snagit) and then share it with everyone.
  • Guess the desk: Have everyone (anonymously) upload a picture of their home desk space in a MURAL template. Take turns guessing which desk belongs to whom.
  • Creative color: Choose a specific color and ask all staff meeting attendees to pick an object near them of that color and show it on screen. Knight the person with the coolest object the winner. The winner then chooses the next color and you repeat the process.
  • Check out: MURAL Energizers, Session Lab’s Icebreaker games, and Voltage Control’s Workshop Methods & Activities for more.

Icebreakers and energizers are a quick and easy low barrier to entry that opens the door to the creative collaborative space so your team feels welcomed to participate. Plus, who said meetings couldn’t be fun? And now, you’re on the path toward making headway in how your team puts imagination to work.

In your next meeting, use MURAL to pull up this Visual Thinking template. It is a basic platform to help you get started with visual collaboration. This template assists you to take notes with images while you listen to speakers talk in the meeting, which helps you visually curate and understand the key ideas. At the end of the meeting, you will have a visible representation of what was most important in the meeting.

Visual thinking template in MURAL
The Visual Thinking Template is a great starter for visual collaboration; it helps you listen and take notes with images during meetings. 


Or try the Visual Thinking Mad-Lib template — it’s another introductory exercise to try visual thinking with your team. The purpose is to help your team use imagery to communicate beyond just words. Try them out and see for yourself how the power of visual collaboration can elevate your meetings.

These templates, combined with the inclusion of icebreakers and energizers, are an excellent way to get started today with virtual collaboration and have more effective, productive meetings.

Forge your own path

As you get a handle on the ins and outs of the visual collaboration frontier, you can integrate skills and ideas that highlight your own unique qualities and bring your expertise and distinct perspective to the table. And with the knowhow to conquer (or at least avoid) the problems of meetings, the freedom to collaborate visually and focus imagination with guided methods, you’re well on the way to working in new ways you never before thought possible.


In Part 3 of our Better Meeting series, we’ll explore how to take the bite out of remote collaboration and even make remote meetings fun, creative, and productive. We’ll dive into what tools and technology to use, how to focus your work with a specific goal in mind, and more. In the meantime, test out some of these exercises and templates above to start getting comfortable with visual collaboration.

Other sections to look forward to:

  • Part 3: How digital resources influence our working environment.
  • Part 4: The crucial role of facilitation; how to reel in chaos to create meaning
  • Part 5: The future of working together and solving hard problems.