What's the problem with meetings? Yes, many  lack purpose and focus--and most go on too long. But there's another underlying problem: Everybody talks too much.

Human beings simply aren't wired to sit around all day in a closed room communicating verbally. Sure, way back when we'd gather around the camp fire at night but that was after a vigorous day chasing woolly mammoths or gathering nuts and berries.

So my idea for transforming meetings is very simple: give participants a chance to draw. Before you dismiss this approach, let me explain.

Wired to draw

Late last year, archaeologists working in South African cave made an amazing discovery: They found the earliest known drawing by Homo sapiens--which turns out to be 73,000 years old, predating the oldest discovered drawing by 30,000 years.

As reported by the New York Times, "the finding may provide insight into the origins of humanity's use of symbols, which laid foundation for language, mathematics and civilization."

"I'm convinced they are more than just random marks," said Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen in Norway and the lead author of the study, which was published in Nature. "I think it's definitely a symbol and there's a message there."

At the very least, the message is this: Almost as long as our species has existed, we've wanted to draw.

Lynda Barry, an American cartoonist, author and teacher, explains our intrinsic need to draw in her book  What It Is. "At the center of everything we call 'the arts' and children call 'play' is something which seems somehow alive, she writes. "Alive in the way thinking is NOT, but experiencing IS, made up of both memory and imagination. . .

"There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something--something physical we move like a pen, like a pencil. Something which is in motion . . ."

And Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, writes "One of the reasons that pictures are such a great way to solve problems is that many problems are hard to see clearly, and a picture can help us see aspects of the problem that might otherwise be invisible. Visual thinking helps by giving us a way to see problems not as an endless variety of things that go wrong, but as a small set of interconnected visual challenges, each of which can be pictured more clearly on its own."

Even doodling or sketching just for fun can increase creativity. But you can use drawing more purposefully in meetings--to brainstorm, solve problems and foster innovation.

Here are the three exercises from the book Gamestorming (by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo) you should try:


Participants envision and describe an ideal future in sequence using works and pictures. "Storyboarding as a technique is so versatile that it can be used to show any topic, not just an ideal future," write Gray, Brown and Macanufo. "But it particularly powerful as a visioning exercise since it allows players to imagine and create possibilities." Here's what to do:

  • Divide participants into pairs or into groups of three or four.
  • Provide markers, pads of flipchart paper and stands
  • Tell participants that the purpose is to tell a feel-good story. The topic is "The Ideal Future for [Blank]" which participants need to tell in storyboard or comic-strip format.
  • If participants freak because drawing is involved, reassure them that the story is the point of the exercise and that images play a supporting role. They can use words as captions.
  • When each group is done, the groups share their stories.

Draw the problem

This exercise is designed to "define a problem in a way that is not only clear but also compelling enough to make people care about solving it." It works like this:

  • Give each participants a large index card or a letter-sized piece of paper.
  • After introducing the topic of the meeting, ask participants to think about the problem you're here to solve. As they do so, ask them to write a list of items to explain the problem.
  • Once they've got their list, ask participants to flip over their paper and draw a picture of the problem, as they would explain it to a peer. 
  • When everyone is finished, have participants post their drawings on the wall and explain them to each other.

Graphic jam

This is a visualization exercise designed to bring abstract concepts to life, which you can use for presentation design, website design, metaphor development for learning and many other purposes. Here's what to do:

  • Give participants access to sticky notes and index cards.
  • Choose words that describe your focus areas like "quality" and "efficiency." Put those words up on a board.
  • Ask participants to reflect on the word and draw a visual representation so it can be posted on the wall underneath each word.
  • Once the drawings are up on the board, lead a group discussion by asking what certain images mean and how the artist related that image to the word.

Yes, it's just that simple. Facilitating a drawing exercise can transform a dull meeting into a productive, creative experience.