Why Visuals are Powerful Storytelling Tools

on May 11, 2017

One of my favorite experiences as a Concept Artist at Root was when a simple rough sketch turned into a storytelling tool that completely changed the course of a two-day workshop. Our client, a chemical company, was consolidating two parts of their business that had essentially the same purpose but in two different areas. The merger would create efficiencies, cut redundancy, and promote best practice sharing. To kick off the integration, they held a two-day workshop with the top 100 employees from each business unit. Root was invited to help facilitate, and I was brought in as an artist to observe, listen, and sketch. This was freeing, as I could act as a fly on the wall, creating a visual documentation of the meeting, but without a focused purpose.

How One Visual Made a Massive Impact

From that vantage point, I saw the business units were entrenched in their respective camps. The casual conversations surrounding me were ambivalent at best and downright hostile at times. It was truly a Hatfields vs. McCoys situation. So, I drew that. On a 19×24 pad, I drew a wall down the middle of the page. On either side of the wall I drew the two teams, each growing a crop, putting in their vigor and expertise, and reaching toward the same vision at the top. A couple of people were lobbing rocks—initiatives and accusations—over the wall at the other team without follow-through or accountability and without thinking about the impact for the other side.

During the lunchbreak on the first day, I approached the leader of the organization and showed him the sketch. He looked at it lying on the table in front of him, arms crossed, hand on his chin. His rubbed his mouth then ran his hand through his hair with exasperation. “Ho boy. Stop the presses,” he said. “Wow.” He slammed his hands down on the table on either side of the drawing and said, “Scrap the rest of the agenda; we’re going to talk about this!” At that moment, the client realized something that our team at Root already knew—visuals are powerful storytelling tools.

The picture was simply a representation of what I had seen and felt in the room, which I thought would have been apparent to anybody. But the teams were in denial, clinging to their territories and workflows as though they could will the change away and go back to doing what they always did. The drawing surfaced the issues in a way that didn’t accuse either team or any individuals; it was a watercooler conversation brought to life in real time. Once it was drawn, it could not be ignored. It demanded attention from the group, because they knew that nothing could be accomplished if they held onto their old mentalities.

Rewriting the Story with a Visual

Root helped to rewrite the agenda for Day 2 to include conversations about the drawing, teambuilding exercises, and a round robin style cross-functional alignment session. The energy in the room turned positive, and I think for the very first time members of each team saw that the value of working together was stronger than what they would purportedly lose.

What would have happened without that one illustration? Would the client have been able to accomplish its consolidation smoothly? Would its employees have been able to accept the change and work together for the best of the business? We’ll never know. But, I do know one thing—visuals and illustrations are incredibly powerful storytelling tools.

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