Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tips and Truisms: Listening for Graphic Recording or Visual Note-Taking


When asked by VizThink University to describe what I know about the act of listening, I didn’t consciously know what I knew. I knew that I had achieved a certain level of expertise, but much of that was a competency I had never articulated. So after pouring my listening experiences onto paper, I came up with six truisms and 18 tips for people who want to improve their skills in this area for the purposes of graphic recording, visual note-taking, and life in general. And to be momentarily sentimental, I realized that the most important thing about listening is encompassed by this quote:

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.

That is the most beautiful thing I could muster for this piece. And I didn’t technically muster it, so thank you, David Augsberger. My contribution to humanity is in the truisms and tips. Please, read on…


1. In all probability, humans will never write as fast as we talk. (Yes, I’m aware of stenographers but they’re using shorthand, and only an elite few can read it.) Unless we develop a mutant gene for rapid writing, normal people have a limited bandwidth of information storage relative to release, so it’s important that we have techniques at our disposal to compensate for the fact that we can’t scribe as quickly as we speak.

2. Listening is not an automatic pilot. It is a conscious decision that you make. I don’t go around in listening mode all the time. Ask my friends and family. Many of them would be surprised that I’m such an excellent listener because I’m also excellent at blocking them out. Ha! But it’s the same with any expertise. People who are masters of NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) don’t take one look at you and know where your weaknesses are. They have to make the conscious decision to focus on and evaluate your body language, eye movements, and whatever other non-verbal clues give away how nuts you are.

3. Listening is like any other exercise – you have to develop “muscles”. And even when you’re really muscular, you still have to warm-up. Most of us don’t immediately go into listening mode unless there’s a situation that warrants it – like when you have a friend in need or when someone is going on and on about how great you are. So at the onset of a listening session, there is often a natural, gradual transition during which our inner voice grows quiet. That’s why at the very beginning of a graphic recording or visual note-taking session, my listening is “cool” and it heats up as I move into a flow state.

4. Listening requires being OPEN, so emotions cloud pure listening. If we really want to hear someone, we can’t critique, judge, make counter arguments, pick apart, formulate questions or challenges, be overly emotional, or otherwise interrupt with our own thoughts. If we do that, it is certain that we’re not truly listening. Think of people who have been in long-term relationships. The historical context and related emotions literally block both parties from hearing the others’ needs. Unless the couple is…well…awesome.

5. If you listen without diluting the experience with your own emotional responses, you LEARN more:

  • You have the ability to really evaluate the content because you have absorbed the material better than many other participants who are there acting as content blockers.
  • You also have the ability to offer a thoughtful, well-rounded perspective, because you have truly become a vessel for what people are offering. This doesn’t mean you believe everything someone says. It simply means that you are in a better position to respond credibly.

6. It is worth it to learn to listen.

  • It increases the quality of your questions.
  • It increases your comprehension of a subject.
  • You pick up on information that others completely miss. Example: During the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the FBI didn’t use seeing people to listen to the audio tapes released by the SLA – they used blind people. Because blind people have a sense of hearing that is significantly more developed, for obvious reasons. This is why I recommend closing your eyes when you start to practice listening. It forces you to build that muscle.
  • You increase the likelihood that you’ll remember content because you were taking it in without interrupting with your thoughts.
  • You can show someone that you care about and love them by the simple act of hearing what they say, without judgment.


TIP #1: Recognize that listening requires practice and don’t expect that all of the skills happen overnight. Take comfort in the fact that much of interpreting information through hearing is innate and doesn’t have to be learned – it just has to be exercised.

TIP #2: If you’re going to practice listening, start by practicing with your eyes closed. Practitioners of Active Listening recommend that you carefully watch body language, but I actually recommend not going there until you have a level of comfort with your listening skills. Scrutinizing someone’s physical posture and appearance makes it more likely that you will have an emotional response to them, which will in turn cloud your listening. When your eyes are closed, you momentarily close off variables that may otherwise impact your listening.

TIP #3: In the beginning, practice listening to someone you WANT to hear. This seems obvious, but we have to realize that it’s essential to quiet our skeptical voice. Listening to someone we enjoy allows us to hone the listening skill so we can apply it later to people who are important, but who we may not want to listen to. Like a mother-in-law or every boss in the world. I was delighted to hear Nate Silver, so it was a joy to create the sample below.


TIP #4: Before you start to listen in a real setting, give yourself some context. If you are oriented even slightly to the topic and have a handle on the jargon or the acronyms, it will decrease the probability that you’ll get stuck on and focus on what you DIDN’T understand.

TIP #5: STOP EVERYTHING YOU’RE THINKING and listen. Suspend your own frame of reference. Focus externally. Turn off your ego. Quit thinking everything revolves around your opinion. Give the stage in your head to someone else! (I know what you’re thinking, but just do as I say and not as I do. Joke! I have mastered this skill but I was the most unlikely candidate, so take comfort. Anyone can do this if s/he wants to.)

TIP #6: Prioritize what you’re capturing. Listen for ‘the bones.’ You won’t be tested on everyone’s name and what their favorite breakfast cereal is; you’re listening for what matters. Listen for qualifying statements that indicate level of importance (“You don’t want to miss this!”) and also learn to distinguish between content you can access later (available publicly) and content you can’t (information people pay for).

TIP #7: Use telegraphic sentences or phrases. When someone says, “Today I’m going to discuss five important initiatives that will lead our company to success,” just write “5 Initiatives to Success.” Sometimes you can use just one word and in this case that word would be ‘Initiatives.’ (Nice quote by Stephen Sondheim: “It’s the word, not the sentence.” So true.) So listen for the gems in the speakers’ points and add an icon that triggers or evokes the memory of the story.

TIP #8: Pay attention to the narrative build. Presenters often start by stating what they’re going to take you through. They’ll say, “First, I’m going to go over some facts, then I’m going to describe the value, then I’ll give you tips.” So you can know literally where you are in a presentation – the beginning, middle or end and that helps you with pacing and spacing. If you’ve got one page left in your notebook and the presenter has only just begun, you’ll know to simplify your sentences even more and write or draw smaller if you can. Note! If you listen carefully, you can also determine when presenters are incoherent and unfortunately, that will be reflected if your work is accurate. On the plus side, you can give the presenter really good feedback for the next time they present. (They love unsolicited feedback…..right.)

TIP #9: ‘Cache’ content. If the pace is too fast, write or draw just enough to trigger your memory and go back to it later. Give yourself two letters of a word or ½ of a phrase or a visual clue of some kind. Interestingly enough, even if you never actually go back to fill it in, you’ll still likely know what you meant.

TIP #10: Learn to anticipate the quality of a Q and A. Short questions tend to get short, “popcorn” responses. Long questions tend to get lengthy responses. The orange circles and red bullets in the image below show you how to capture answers quickly.


TIP #11: Listen for metaphors and similes. “This project feels like diving in a rabbit hole.” “You are an endless tornado of agony.” These literary devices really tell you how people understand their topic or their world, and they often give you something to draw so you don’t have to invent the wheel. You see right there? “Invent the wheel!” Perfect.

TIP #12: If content starts to seriously outpace you, resort to lines, connectors, frames, containers, and color. In times like these, there is no luxury for drawing metaphors or even elaborate illustrations. This can very often happen during a Q&A. See the example below.


TIP #13: Listen for descriptions about structure. ‘It’s a vicious or virtuous cycle.’ ‘It’s a hierarchical system.’ ‘These departments run parallel to each other.’ Like metaphors, these are cues that lead you to an appropriate visual without imposing too much load on your brain’s right hemisphere. The presenter is offering you a visual, so use it.

TIP #14: If you feel like you missed a significant point, move on. Getting your wheels stuck will only cause a traffic jam for future information.

TIP #15: Don’t fixate on misspellings or mistakes. First, if your notes are in your lap, no one may see this but you, second, even if they’re on a flip chart or a huge board in front of everyone, you’ll jeopardize what you’re about to capture by lamenting not being perfect. When taking visual notes, remember, the key is to KEEP taking visual notes. Try not to falter for no good reason.

TIP #16: Be aware of the text/imagery balance. Learn what works for YOU – whether you retain information best by leaving words off and focusing on imagery or whether you need text-based information to come back to. Find a balance that works for you. Experiment with varying ratios of words to images. Find what ratio has the best impact on your comprehension and retention. I know a researcher and professor named Virginia Scofield, Ph.D., and for years in her classroom she actually requested that her students ONLY use imagery to capture her lecture. No words. She had remarkable success with their comprehension and retention. So try it many ways and find your personal sweet spot.

TIP #17: Keep your images simple. Very basic shapes (bullets, lines/connectors and containers/frames) suffice to create a visual landscape that will trigger your memory and the memory of anyone watching you create it.

TIP #18: Establish a graphic vocabulary to liberate you from trying to visualize a concept while you’re taking rapid notes. An ‘idea’ is a light bulb. ‘Excitement’ is a large exclamation mark. ‘Partnership’ is two people with their arms around each other. ‘Creativity’ might be a human head with flowers sprouting off the top. Create your own language and become fluent in it. The process of establishing a graphic vocabulary is wonderfully fun anyway. And to get started, try Nancy Margulies’ book Visual Thinking and The Grove Consultants International’s workbook Graphic Facilitation. The latter is really good because Yours Truly is on the cover. I am the woman in black! It’s my power color.

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  2. Pingback: Tips and Truisms: Listening for Graphic Recording or Visual Note-Taking « Sunni Brown / BrightSpot Writer River

  3. Lafayette Howell

    What would happen if people turned off their mobile device for 24 hours? Would they miss anything? Try it one weekend with your special person and make a pact to do so once per week. None of us, is THAT important. Then I believe we could really listen and capture what is going on around us, instead of always trying to be heard. Besides, if you are trying to win new business or win the “girl” I “guarantee” you WILL see your batting average increase dramatically. WARNING: results vary by individual and you might have more business than you can handle by improving your listening skills.

    1. Sunni Post author

      Exactly, Lafayette. That’s why I called it an ‘underrated’ skill – because most of us don’t realize how significant it is. If I may say so myself, I am amazed at how well I grasp the content of a session I am graphically recording. Because I have to go into a sort of meditative flow state, I CAN’T afford to block what someone’s saying with my own thoughts. So I get pure, unadulterated content that I have yet to judge. It gives me an invaluable absorption rate, as well as a lot of understand toward the speaker. I’m glad that the listening tips resonate with you; you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. :)

    1. Sunni Post author

      Hey there Beth! Long time. I’m glad to hear you were in the workshop and that you enjoyed it. If you’re interested in more, it will keep coming. I am on a mission. :)

  4. Pingback: Feature Article in Associations Now: Are You a Visual Thinker? « Sunni Brown

  5. Pingback: A hard lesson learned, and why I still like pen and paper « odnett

    1. Sunni Post author

      The most challenging problem (and consequently the most common problem) is for participants to quiet their own voice and focus on the content. When you’re working visually, people get into all sorts of conversations with themselves about what visuals they should use, they start fixating on something they’ve drawn imperfectly, they wrack their brains for an appropriate metaphor and so forth. This is all in addition to the natural human condition of being unable to truly listen to others anyway. But, like most problems, these things can be alleviated with intention and effort.

  6. Luigi Safdeye

    Thank you for the sound critique. Me and my neighbour were just setting up to do some research about this. I am very happy to see such great information being shared freely out there.

    1. Sunni Post author

      I’ll look for your research on listening. I’m curious as to what research you’re doing? Thanks for the comment and I’ll connect with you via your website as well.

  7. Pingback: VizThink Blog » Blog Archive » VizLinks | Visual Thinking Bookmarks for March 5th

  8. ken long

    i like it it seems to me that to be a good listener requires you to develop “child mind”, mindfulness, to be here now (in the words of Ram Dass) to allow the message to come thru

    to be the paper on which they write their message to you, and which you can then offer them back as a gift

    that’s connected to your thought that to be heard is akin to being loved, if we think of love as selfless communication


  9. Pingback: Tips for Visual Note-taking | Daniel Hoang

  10. Joseph @ Apple Ipod Discount

    I’m glad i found your site..i need all this information.
    great great article…well done!

  11. Pingback: Interviewing as listening | Designing Change

  12. Recording Studios NYC

    I love that blip about NLP users. I look for VAK – visual, audio, and kinesthetic triggers when cold reading someone. Eye triggers and the rest can be used for extra rapport but it’s not where I start. Honestly with most art-loving people, it’s easier to just find out what their favorite music is and play it to get the same level of trust established.

  13. Sherry Lowry

    Sunni, what truly marvelous work and contribution you have right here and well beyond on the quite fine art of listening! 😉

    It’s remarkable it’s the one life-most-essential skillset we have for both the cultiviation of happiness and effectiveness in ALL our undertakings and relationships, yet for which we have for all practical purposes, NO easily accessible training.

    I’m going to be doing a presentation on “listening” as a core competency (of life) but also professionally in Nov’ 2012 here in Austin. Will definitely be contacting you about quoting via some of your most remarkable images and captions. You’ve nailed so much of the essences.


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