Simple sketches are often more compelling than technically adept Power Point slides.
The book is broken up into four sections and two technical appendices. Interspersed with the text are countless line drawings to be used as reference. Ironically, as the reader begins to accept the central thesis of the book, it actually becomes quite difficult to read through the text, pause to look at a graphic and then return to the text. Instead, the reader will likely read through the text while glancing over the sketches and then stop to focus on one or two charts in detail.
In his introduction, Roam explains the fundamentals of visual thinking using the napkin as both a metaphor and a visual cue. While many of us feel that we can’t draw, the same isn’t true of kindergartners. Who’s wrong? Well, using sketches not that much better than a primary school student’s, Roam demonstrates that neither is wrong. It’s just that adults have forgotten how to express themselves visually. Roam then literally illustrates the breakthrough experience that led him to his conclusion.
Part two of the book: “Discovering Ideas” is exceptional. Here, Roam lays out the toolkit that any executive or designer should have in his or her arsenal to use visual expression as a presentation device. As anyone who’s looked at spreadsheets or typical presentation materials can attest, rows of numbers or pages of bullets are often enough to make one’s eyes glaze over. Since the book is targeted at a general audience, he next explains which visuals should accompany which concepts so that the audience is neither bored nor confused. One sketch, in particular, is among the best encapsulations of how to present thinking in a visual manner that I’ve ever seen.
Part three, “Developing Ideas” walks the reader through not when, but how to use the tools Roam has provided. I was pleased to see the progression from a blank napkin to a visual discourse on problem solving. Since a blank page can be intimidating, THE BACK OF THE NAPKIN actually walks the reader through this process, starting with a blank napkin and then drawing the most important part of the puzzle right in the middle of the page. Want to draw the competitive landscape? Well, start with yourself, because after all, you know you’re there. Then the rest will follow quite easily.
The fourth chapter of the book, entitled “Selling Ideas,” explains how to make the transition that the reader may already have had subconscious trouble with. Just as it’s occasionally difficult to rapidly transition from the text of the book to the graphics and back, when thinking has been done visually, it can be tough to explain it in words. Using the case study method, Roam talks (and shows) the reader just how to achieve this with ease.
By the end of the book, I had no doubt that hearing or seeing a presentation from Dan Roam would be a compelling experience. This book is a must read for managers and business leaders. Visual thinking frees your mind to solve problems in unique and effective ways.