Usually when you ask a group of kindergartners, "How many of you can draw?" there's a lot of shouting and pretty much every hand in the room shoots up. But when you ask a group of business professionals the same question? Typically, crickets. What happens between the age of 5 and the age of 35 or 45 or 75? Do we lose our ability to draw or just our confidence? Or do we not even think of sketching out an idea as a viable business skill?
Many of us are familiar with the story of the legendary napkin sketch from which Southwest Airlines was born. Still, you may be thinking, "This doesn't really apply to me; I can't draw." Well, if you remember the Geico commercials that said, "It's so easy, a caveman could do it," then you know that when it came to drawing, cavemen did do it -- over 40,000 years ago. So, if they can do it, you can do it too!
One of my executive coaching clients -- a pharmaceuticals company -- was having some difficulties with its new sales team. When it came to describing the company's products and services, as well as the organization's competitive advantages, it became clear that everyone was telling a completely different story--and many of those stories were not entirely accurate. As a result, when sales professionals were out pitching to potential customers, they were unsuccessful in clearly articulating what the company did, how it did it, and why it was better than the competition.
We brought the entire sales team together for a full-day offsite, and gave them the following challenge: "You each have a single sheet of flipchart paper hanging on the wall. On that piece of paper -- without writing any words -- we'd like you to draw what the company does."
After some initial grumbling, I told them the aforementioned kindergarten story, and asked them to try get past their ICD (I can't draw) syndrome and just start putting pen to paper. I said, "If you can play Pictionary with your family or friends, or if you can draw a stick figure, a square, a circle, or a triangle, you can find a way to illustrate your message. This is not a test of your artistic abilities; it's a test of your ability to communicate your ideas visually."
With that, they each proceeded to silently immerse themselves in their drawing. (It was the quietest I had ever heard a group of salespeople in one room at one time!) When they were done, while most of these sketches would not be worthy of display in the Museum of Modern Art, a lot of them ended up being surprisingly good. And once they had overcome their ICD, they had actually seemed to be having a good time with this assignment, as indicated by their multiple requests for different colored markers and pleas for "just a little more time." With their 15-minute time limit up, they were each allotted five minutes to explain their drawing, tell their story, and deliver their pitch to the rest of the group as if we were one of their customers.
What came out of this exercise was both amazing and, to be honest, a little unsettling. For, while some of the reps did an incredibly effective job, many of them delivered messages that turned out to be way off the mark.
For example, one sales rep had drawn a gigantic blue whale (representing the company) swallowing a school of tiny orange goldfish (representing the company's top competitors). It was a very creative visual metaphor, and beautifully drawn. Unfortunately, however, both the metaphor and the message were completely wrong.
Upon further discussion, it was determined that a better, much more effective, and far more accurate metaphor was that the company's top competitors were more like great white sharks, while the company was better portrayed by a friendly and welcoming dolphin. In other words, while my client's competitors were cut-throat and ruthless, my client's brand image and competitive advantage was its caring, attentive, and accessible customer service. The company's bottom-line message: "We may not be the biggest and the baddest, but we are the best."
Going forward, this would be the new, unified way the sales team would portray who they were and what they represented. In just two hours, this creative exercise completely clarified the sales team's messaging, while, at the same time, boosting both their skills and their confidence. And, as an added and unexpected benefit, it gave them a newfound appreciation for the power of the pen.
So the next time you need someone to see what you're saying, the best way to get that idea out of your mind's eye and into theirs just might be to pick up a pen and see if you can draw them into your world.