My 2017 Annual "Rapport"

It is time once again to glance backward, gather data and information, and reflect on the past year.

To me, this is not merely an excuse to report-out facts and brag about accomplishments, rather it is an opportunity to share both the ups and downs in order to build rapport with you. Because it's always a mixed bag, right?

Yet too often it is assumed that we should only communicate about our successes, that we'd never want to reveal our carefully-concealed shortcomings. But portraying this illusion of perfection just creates distance between us. Sharing our "failures," on the other hand, allows us to not only pass along hard-earned lessons, but also ensures that our audience sees us as a fellow human being, someone who they can share with in turn. 

Keeping this in mind, I'd like to give you a peek at what happened "behind the curtain" for me last year. While I worked hard and am delighted by what came of my efforts, I also fell on my face over and over and, like all human beings do, experienced plenty of doubt, frustration, and disappointment. 


First, here is the data...




Even better, here are the stories (briefly summarized)... 

2017 annual report.png


  • 150 job applications, 20 interviews, 0 offers
  • Most challenging clients and projects ever  
  • Plans to attend most-anticipated conference dashed
  • Letting go of another network I tried to start
  • Multiple losses of close friends and family
  • Most mortifying moment of my life



In sum:

I hope this annual rapport demonstrates my ardent belief that by sharing all our experiences, especially our failures, we reveal that we are truly committed to our ideas and gifts through regular, patient, wholehearted practice.

My failures continued to remind me that these are the principles that I believe are worth consistently practicing committing myself to:


Join me in making 2018 the very best it can be!

Someone once wisely advised me to consider the past akin to a rearview mirror, as something you glance at every so often to see where you've come from, while keeping your focus on the road moving forward.

As 2017 dawns, I am excited to announce a new way that I plan to put my principles into even deeper practice:

I've launched a Patreon page! Patreon is like Kickstarter but instead of being for one-time projects, it is for on-going creative work. Subscribers pay a monthly amount for the content that is shared with them.

This means:

  • I'm going to be able to produce even more inspiring content, about even more relevant topics
  • You will be able to play more of a role in my creative adventures
  • Most importantly: I will be better able to listen to, learn from, and offer more value to you

Don't worry, I believe in my work being as accessible as possible, so I will continue to write a free blog every month (and send it to your inbox if you wish).

If you want access to more insightful articles, useful worksheets, fun sketchnotes, and eye-opening data stories, you can become a subscriber for as little as $2 a month. In addition to more content, subscribers recieve rewards like access to live sketchnoting, discussions, and personalized content. Plus if our subscriber community reaches our goal, I will release extra special content! Check out my Patreon page here and feel free to share it with others.

I'm so ready to dive even deeper this year so I can give you even more incredible tools for transformation. I look forward to continuing to share the journey with you!

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Graphic recording: How to get started

Data visualization professionals often focus on numbers, helping to tell the story of what, when, where, and how much. But more often than not organizations first need to better understand the why and how (this is known as qualitative data).

Before there is a need to communicate key insights, there is always a need to communicate first about what insights will matter most to the people involved, and therefore what data to plan, collect, analyze, and present.

Graphic recording is a method for using visuals to support communication and understanding during real-time dialogue. Hand-drawn illustrations allow teams to simultaneously collect, analyze, and report qualitative data about people and groups.

There are several reasons why graphic recording is hands-down the best method for visualizing qualitative data:

  1. It’s an opportunity for thorough reporting. Graphic recording captures both broad themes and the actual language used.

  2. The method mirrors the content. By portraying social processes, the visual both reflects and highlights the interactions themselves.

  3. Relationships are kept central - and they are supported. Real-time graphic recording allows partners and stakeholders to better communicate and understand one another in the very moments when decision making is happening.

  4. It’s exploratory in nature. Qualitative data is inherently dynamic, not concrete, singular, or fixed. Graphic recording allows for multiple realities to be explored simultaneously, helping everyone better understand the complete, evolving context.

  5. It allows for remembering and reflecting over time. Groups of course change over time. Participants can revisit the visuals to not only recall what was discussed but to remember their personal experience was. They serve as a fun, ongoing feedback loop for continuous, thoughtful decision making.

When I first started helping organizations with communicating about data and complex topics, I quickly gathered that they needed more help with internal and partner communications to reach meaningful, shared understanding than they did with external and mass communications to persuade anyone else.

Unfortunately, too often these internal communications are overlooked, side-stepped, or rushed through. Social dynamics are complex and navigating them can be overwhelming. As with any good data visualization, graphic recording makes understanding this complexity easier and communicating about it transformational.

For example, during one meeting I graphically recorded, the two groups that had been convened had so little understanding of one another that they spent almost an entire hour debating about whether to proceed with the agenda for the meeting. By the end of the meeting, they could clearly see that the solutions to the questions and concerns that they had initially raised were easily found among one another.

The process of graphic recording can support internal dialogue as well as any communications that follow. Many times a graphic recording I created during a team’s process became a visual that they proudly shared with others as a representation of not only the “who” and “what” but the “why” and “how.”

Perhaps the best news of all is that graphic recording is a tool that doesn’t require extensive planning or even knowing software to begin using it. Like all data visualization, it does require a certain degree of visual clarity and, above all, the willingness to stay true to the data and to consciously engage in a thoughtful process in order to share it in a way that will be meaningful and effective.

Here’s some tips for getting started:

  • Practice listening objectively. As always, content is king. To make sure you are capturing the most important ideas and themes, you need to both listen without judgement and allow time for thinking and synthesizing before making marks.

  • Learn the basics. Whether you are using markers on paper or a stylus on a tablet, you’ll need to slowly master lettering, using bullets, lines, arrows, and boxes, and drawing people and faces. If you are, like most people, unfamiliar with and/or intimidated by drawing, start with the visual alphabet below.

  • Build your vocabulary of visuals over time. Again, focus on developing this based upon key concepts rather than exciting icons or complex metaphors. For example, when people are describing emotions I often use hearts and when they are talking about ideas or “aha”s I often use lightbulbs.

  • Mind the big picture. Draw connections between ideas, use size to emphasize ideas or themes, and consider layout ahead of time (many folks start using graphic recording by using pre-existing, pre-drawn templates).

  • Practice, practice, practice. Only real-time practice will flex the muscles you need to write and draw faster, capture content more accurately, and become more helpful to the folks in the room. The easiest way to start may be to capture one-person talks or podcasts in a private notebook (also known as sketchnoting) and then work your way up to capturing discussions publicly. I offer workshops so you can get your feet wet among other beginners.

  • Leverage our supportive community. We love helping others learn more about this incredible, little-known tool. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment below and I'll reply for the benefit of all readers!

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What happens when we connect with "the other"

As I take stock of another year gone by, one thing I am reflecting on is that this year I really embraced my own identity as a connector, liaison, mediator, network weaver, and culture nomad. It took me years to realize that it's no coincidence that most of my collaborators are leaders of networks. I love assisting them with addressing the unique communication challenges that come with bridging identities, disciplines, industries, and/or sectors.

One of my personal favorite ways to traverse apparent divides is to attend conferences where I can meet with folks outside my own industry. What makes conferences so much richer in my opinion than other learning experiences (books, podcasts, webinars, even classes) is that they are like "microtribes." Attending them is like immersing yourself in a group that has specific languages, behaviors, and ideologies. You get exposed to a range of perspectives and ideas from different people who tend to share similar roles, experiences, and/or goals.

This past year I had the great fortune to meet with many microtribes - from ones focused on data to ones filled with art to ones all about civic engagement. At each conference I attended, I was both enough of an insider to want to be there but also enough of an outsider to be reminded of all those things that we experience when different tribes come together within workplaces, networks, even nations. For me it was a ongoing experiment in connecting with "the other," or someone significantly different from me.


Here's what I noticed happens to us when we visit other tribes and meet those who are different...

First, we get uncomfortable. In particular, we feel confused and perhaps even conflicted. For example, I got confused about what feelings folks were holding back expressing publicly, how they neglected to think more consciously about including those not at the table of power, and why it was so difficult to talk about profit and purpose and passion in the same sentence. I felt conflicted about what I could or should call attention to for the benefit of other attendees (for example, of course whether the visuals speakers may or may not have used were effectively conveying their ideas).

If we stick through this initial displeasure, we are sure to discover and learn. Of course I learned so much: about how rapidly Denver is changing and why, the history of social network analysis, religious traditions associated with sustainability, how designers are helping orgs respond rapidly to stakeholder needs, not to mention about countless tools I can use to support my work and that of my collaborators. We also have an opportunity to teach others who may not think, understand, or act the way we do. For me this often looked like demonstrating and/or teaching graphic recording, sharing how creative work can catalyze social change, and encouraging other creatives to become more socially and civically engaged.

As we learn, our connections and conversations, including within our own tribe, deepen and our potential for collective transformation expands. By participating in multiple conversations I was able to notice larger trends. The chaos that environmental advocates and civic engagement professionals groaned about was the same chaos that creatives called us to embrace, for example. While more people may be more willing to talk about equity and inclusion (and notably some still aren't), the conversations tend to be surface, cyclical, or, sadly, not among a diverse group of people. Overall, too often when people come together, they are thinking only of appealing to their own tribe and not about including the people who will help move them forward.

What I couldn't help notice above all else is the great paradox of so many people talking about how there isn't enough conversation nowadays. Personally, I think there's plenty of talking. What there needs to be more of is learning, or in other words more willingness to get uncomfortable. That's the best way we get to action, specifically the kind that really matters.

I invite you to look for ways to let yourself grow through discomfort next year. Perhaps you'll consider volunteering in an unfamiliar neighborhood, attending a conference you don't really belong at, or simply asking someone you disagree with to teach you something that perhaps you can then pass on to someone else.

I know being a "nomad" isn't for everyone, but most of us do like to travel to new lands every once and awhile. If we want the tribes we belong to - our families, workplaces, cities, and nation - to be better, we probably need to do it more often than we like.

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Tips for sharing research visually

This Academic Writing Month, Janet Salmons asked me for my suggestions on sharing research work. My responses to her questions are below.

What approaches do you recommend researchers take for using visualizations and images of various kinds to communicate research findings? Is it different for qualitative or quantitative researchers?

Like research and writing, creating images requires thoughtful process. I highly recommend that anyone and everyone use a design thinking process. This includes thinking about who your audience is and gathering information about them before developing ideas, and then using sketches or prototypes to test ideas over and over. Something else to consider, whether you are a quantitative or qualitative researcher, is what type of visual serves your goal best. Photos are great if you take them yourself to capture something very specific. Digital graphics created on a computer are great if you can keep them very simple. In my opinion, hand drawings are often the best because they can be specific and approachable, but what they aren’t good for is showing highly technical ideas. Graphic recordings are visuals created during real-time dialogue so can be great coupled with some qualitative methods.


How does one “proofread” a visual representation to determine whether the message was presented clearly?

A trained eye learns to “proofread” but even we need to test our visuals with real people (ideally, several very different ones, or at least ones who represent those we are trying to communicate with) to learn whether they are clear and how we might improve them. This is why I am a firm believer in the design thinking approach. It ensures that you are putting the viewer first from the very beginning of your process. That is the best way to develop messages, visual or otherwise, that will resonate and spark new understandings.

What software tools do you recommend? Are there free or cheap options available for student or new researchers?

There are many online tools and of course software programs for creating visuals, and which to use largely depends on the type of visual you are creating. For those that are data-based, I prefer Tableau Public, but Excel or Google Sheets work too. I also prefer Prezi over Powerpoint (a free version is available). For geographic maps you can use Google Maps or ArcGIS Online (public or education version), and for network maps Kumu is an easy, free option. Regardless of which you choose, I recommend always starting with pen and paper. You have the most options available to work out ideas without fussing with technology until you are clear about what exactly you need to create.

What resources are available to help us develop graphics, diagrams, or even photographs that clearly convey ideas and relationships?

There are entire fields of study dedicated to this! Namely, art, design, marketing, data visualization, graphic facilitation… You can find a variety of beginner courses online, such as on Skillshare and Lynda. Stanford also has a Virtual Crash Course in design thinking.

Some of my favorite thought leaders are Edward Tufte, Alberto Cairo, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, Stephanie Evergreen, Dan Roam, Nancy Duarte, and David Sibbet all of whom have written incredibly useful books. To learn more about using visuals to support groups, read Brandy Agerbeck’s Graphic Facilitator’s Guide or Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution (see video) or my own short ebook, Using Visuals to Support Collaborative Work. There’s also a new book called Visual Note-taking for Educators. One of my favorite resources on human-centered design is’s free Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.

What’s most important to understand about design– the study of using images to convey ideas– is that it is really all about practice. Just like research, if you want to do it well, you can’t just study it, you have to do it. Over and over again.

This blog was originally published by SAGE Publishing's Methodspace for Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo

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