No pictures for framing, but to blow up the frame

Blow up frames with pictures

"You will not find a path to success if you ignore images.”
(Wieke, 2005, p. 87)

“I can’t draw.” “That looks ridiculous.” “I’m a word person, so I don’t need to visualize things.” “Visualization is just a distraction.” You often hear people say things like this. But these are the very people who quickly become converts and true believers once they start using visualizations during meetings and in conversations.
The reason is that images can make things clear. Everybody can see what is going on, grasp ideas quickly, explore individual topics, and in the end images can create mutual understanding. These everyday experiences are reflected in numerous independent recommendations for efficient meetings. It has been said that visualization keeps problems in focus so that they are easier to work on, but fleeting words disappear as quickly as what is said (Wieke, 2005, p. 88).

Meetings Steal Time from Working Hours

The visualizations we are talking about are not the kind that are meant to be framed and hung on the wall. We are not dealing with great art here. What we have in mind is achieving better communication that will make your meetings more productive.

Isn’t that exactly what most business owners and managers are looking for? Shorter and fewer meetings that produce the same results or go even farther. This is what we discovered when we surveyed a cross-section of our customers. And it is confirmed by numerous reports and statistics showing that meetings are often thought of as stealing away valuable work time (MatchWare GmbH, 2013; Wieke, 2005, p. 10).

Managers are especially affected by this. They often spend more than half their working time in meetings, and about 1/3 of that time is unproductive. 76% of the respondents complained about too few benefits in proportion to the time spent (s. Fig. 1). But for 81% of the managers surveyed, the real culprit was poor organization and inefficient facilitation at meetings. Thus 90% of participants spent their time daydreaming during meetings, and 73% just did other work (Laufer, 2009, p, 13; Rogelberg, 2019, p. 140).

High Costs Because of Non-productivity

This lack of productivity costs companies a great deal of money. Laufer suggests a simple formula to show how this works. Multiply the salary of meeting participants by the time needed for the meeting, together with preparation and follow-up time, and then add these up. He gives figures for 10 participants with an average salary of 60 euros an hour for a meeting that lasts 3 hours . For preparation and follow-up, 100% of the meeting costs are assumed, resulting in costs of 120 euros per meeting hour and participant. A 3-hour meeting with 10 participants would therefore cost 3,600 euros (Laufer, 2009, p. 14). Then add to this the time wasted.

In the US alone, unproductive meetings cost companies a total of 30 billion dollars a year, according to Rogelberg.Then there are the added costs for disgruntled employees who work less productively and never innovate. Also, team spirit and willingness to help others is reduced. One study shows that after going through a terrible meeting people waste several hours ranting and complaining (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 140).

Despite these facts, comprehensive annual surveys conducted by companies never in inquire about efficiency and productivity at meetings. Also, training for budding executives in how to conduct meetings efficiently either does not exist at all or gets very little attention (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 141). Executives and meeting facilitators are expected to somehow be able to pick up these skills on their own and come up with the best practices. Later in this blog article, we will offer you a few suggestions about how to do this. In our blog article “From Monolog to Dialog to Multilog,” we also discuss how to prepare for a meeting professionally.

Too many and unproductive meetings for managers
Fig. 1: Too many and unproductive meetings for managers

Preparing for Meetings Professionally

Meetings are an essential element in businesses. They can offer information and solve problems, as well as help with decision-making, not to mention helping to develop strategies. They can also vary enormously in length. According to our survey, depending on the topic, meetings can range from a mere 15 minutes up to several hours—or even days.

To carry off a meeting efficiently, certain conditions need be considered. Being well-prepared means, without fail, having clear goals, planning your time, setting an agenda, and knowing who will be taking part. To make this easier for you, we have supplied a template called “The Meeting Core” (download here) in our article “From Monolog to Dialog to Multilog.” A good moderator will facilitate a meeting in such a way that everybody will have an opportunity to make a contribution—and talkaholics will be held in check (Zielke, 2016; Haufe Online Redaktion, 2013; Schoenherr, 2012).

It often happens that when the leader of a meeting introduces the problem at hand and the discussion starts, individual group leaders will gradually emerge (Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 107). They take hold of the pen or stylus or sometimes get someone else do the visualization, but they are the ones who decides what should be visualized. At this point, you need to step in and refocus the discussion. To achieve the best results, everyone at the meeting should have a chance to share their ideas.

And when you are planning the meeting, also give some thought to who actually needs to take part in order to achieve the target goals. You may find that if you invite too many people to the meeting who don’t make meaningful contributions, everything will quickly degenerate into superficial conversations or even small talk. Make sure that everybody knows what the topic is, or even incorporate their ideas into your preparation. Then everyone will feel validated since they will all be involved with the issues and the solutions and will not feel like they are wasting their time (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 142).

Also, think about the location where you want to have the meeting and how to conduct it. Rogelberg also suggests taking chances and trying out new things. The goal here is to nudge the participants out of their usual comfort zone. You might even plan the meeting to last an odd length of time, say 23 minutes, or you could stand up during the entire meeting, or maybe even change the location, or unusual things like that (s. Fig. 2) (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 142).

After you have finished your preparations, you can send your proposed agenda to the participants. And you can also ask them about any other items that might have been left out and that they feel should be given priority. Be sure to send your email message at least 2 days ahead of time. Plan for a longer meeting if more issues need to be discussed or if more people than usual will be attending. And you might also want to pose some questions in advance to think about and then ask for feedback (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 141).

Dare to break up crunched meeting habits, e.g. get together in other places
Fig. 2: Dare to break up crunched meeting habits, e.g. get together in other places

Debriefing the Meeting

In tandem with your preparations for the meeting, a solid debriefing afterwards will often pay off handsomely. Debriefing is a useful step for gathering the feedback necessary to make your next meeting even more innovative and efficient. This will give those who took part an opportunity to vent and get closure (s. Fig. 3):

Here are some questions you might ask, and you can add some of your own.Were people focused or distracted? Were the contributions evenly spread out or did leaders emerge? Who said what? Did people stick with the topic or did the discussion drift to irrelevant issues? Did any new and surprising ideas or opinions come up, or was the discussion fairly bland? Were the participants motivated and committed? What worked and what didn’t work?

Make a note of what didwork so that you can incorporate that approach into your next meeting. Your participants will definitely notice the change. They may even start looking forward to meetings and—who knows?—they may even be more motivated in the future. In any case, this will without a doubt have a positive effect on the climate of discussion and on the overall productivity and quality of your meetings. And at the beginning of the meeting, you can openly talk about how you are making changes to improve meetings in general. This will give your colleagues a heads up that something new is in the offing and may help to create a more relaxed atmosphere (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 141).

Along with your own self-reflection, it is also important to regularly ask your colleagues what they think. Rogelberg recommends doing this one-on-one or by using computer-assisted surveys. You can start with just three simple questions:

  1. What did you like about the meeting?
  2. What could we do better?
  3. What do you recommend?
Follow-up of meetings for continuous improvement and productivity increase
Fig. 3: Follow-up of meetings for continuous improvement and productivity increase

Visualization to Increase Productivity

Now that you are all prepared for your successful and productive meeting, you will need to map out some topics that, ideally, you want to discuss. To do this, visualization will come in handy along with smooth facilitation techniques to help you generate ideas more quickly and to get everybody at the meeting involved (Laufer, 2009, p. 126).

The Visual Selling® method uses visualization to make meeting accessible for everyone so that the initial situation, issue, or problem can be explained much faster. You can avoid time-consuming repetition and misunderstandings because discussion will now focus on the essentials—and your topic will be clear for all to see. A shared image will lend some structure to your meeting, and visualization will make the process of generating opinions more transparent and even faster (Laufer, 2009, p. 126). We have confirmed this in our customer survey.

To take advantage of this, various media such as flip charts, whiteboards, and overhead projectors can be used. Laufer shows some advantages and disadvantages of these and other tools in a table (s. Fig. 4). And using an iPad or tablet will completely do away with the drawbacks of a whiteboard or a blackboard by doing the job even more efficiently. That is why a tablet the preferred medium for doing visualizations at a business meeting (Laufer, 2009, p. 127).

Suitable media for using the Visual Selling® method
Fig. 4: Suitable media for using the Visual Selling® method

It’s All about Taking Notes

Whatever medium you go for, the most important factor for success over the long term will be taking careful notes. During the meeting, write down what people say and make note of the pros and cons, and be sure to write down which decisions have been made and what needs to be done in the future. Then, after the meeting, send everybody a copy of your notes so that they can check them for accuracy. This will also help them to remember what they their future tasks are. We have a template for this too, and the download link is available in the post “From Monolog to Dialog to Multilog.”

Notes have their plusses and minuses. Most of the time people write them as plain text, but this makes misunderstandings difficult to spot. At a later date and even during a meeting it is not easy to keep track of what has already been said and what is still under discussion. Also, notes need to be read and interpreted over and over again, which can be quite a time-consuming task.

But with visualizations, you will be in quite a different ballpark, and a quick overview of the topics will be easy. The brain processes images 60,000 times faster than the written word (s. Fig. 5) (3M Visual Systems Division, 1997). Thus, it will be much easier to stick to the issues and to take up certain points if the notes are visualized. Make sure that your images are visible to everybody at the meeting.

They should be visualized on a whiteboard or flipchart. Ideally, though, using and iPad and a projector would make everything easier. It is also important that all your participants have an opportunity to take pen in hand. Then they themselves can take part in creating images in order to express their opinion and at the same time share it with others.

If duties are assigned and they are recorded visually, it will be much easier to understand them and carry them out later. Even tasks that can’t be done right away will not be forgotten if the Visual Selling® method is used efficiently. Visualizations can also be used to schedule follow-ups, so it is essential that they remain visible. Visualizations can be hung on the office wall or called up at meetings later. These are called ‘open items’ on our templates. You can refer to them when you are preparing for your next meeting so as not to forget about them.

Visualizations are captured 60,000 times faster than text
Fig. 5: Visualizations are captured 60,000 times faster than text

Guidelines for Meetings and Communication

Visualizations are a useful tool, of course, but guidelines for meetings and communication complete the picture.

Meetings take place not only on a factual level where certain goals are achieved and where visualizations will of course come in handy. But personal relationships also play an important role, and Lauferthinks it is important to take them into consideration. He believes that people who attend meetings should be satisfied when the meeting is over. Validation is, of course, important to achieve this, but so is the feeling that the meeting was useful (Laufer, 2009, p. 36).

Here are some points to keep in mind for your meetings (s. Fig. 6) (Laufer, 2009, p. 130ff.) (Rogelberg, 2019, S. 142f):

  1. Start off by creating a warm atmosphere and frame your topic in a positive way. Talk about letting others share and not monopolizing the floor. You can even play music while at the same time introducing the purpose of the meeting by using visualizations.
  2. Set some time limits, but be sure to include time for breaks, and then talk about how decisions will be made at the meeting and what the guidelines for discussion will be. Finally, set up an agenda and define the goals of the meeting.
  3. Pay attention to discipline. Start your meeting on time and finish it on time. Over the long haul, this will contribute to a sense of order. Otherwise, people will start showing up later and later—and maybe even stop attending.
  4. During the meeting, you should guide the discussion. Use visualization to present problems clearly and make them easy to understand The more transparent matters appear, the more likely people will feel included. At the same time, be sure the discussion doesn’t lead to criticism right off the bat, but create a space where people can present their ideas freely and without any restrictions. Before making any decisions, discuss what the evaluation criteria are. Without guidelines, team decisions will not be possible. You can visualize these guidelines as well.

Everybody attending the meeting will have a different idea about what the purpose should be, but discussing this can make the meeting more productive. There is one rule that always works at meetings: Avoid stress! Stress can cause mental blocks and always puts a damper on creativity (Laufer, 2009, p. 52ff.). This is another reason to start meetings off on a positive footing. But still, stress can build up during discussions. If people start talking too fast and taking notes gets difficult, this can cause stress or even make it worse.

But by using visualizations, you can reduce the stress level or even wipe it out. Taking notes visually has a subtle effect and calms everybody down: ‘We have plenty of time.’ Visualizations can’t be rushed. Even though Visual Selling® is all about making things clear with quick, deft sketches, it still takes time to think about how to visualize what people say. And you will still need to know what the image means later. Actually, visualization works much like a movie since everybody is watching the visualization together. Gradually stress levels somehow begin to subside on their own.

“Meetings where much is visualized move along in a more targeted way and are also conflict-free.”
Hartmann, Zoll, and Funk, 2017, p. 124

Visualizations can also come in handy when conflicts arise during a meeting or difficult connections are hard to understand (Wieke, 2005, p. 88). Attention will now be focused on the image, which will facilitate mutual understanding, and misunderstandings can often be eliminated immediately. That’s why you should always have a flipchart, bulletin board, or whiteboard handy even if you have planned a meeting without visualizations (Wieke, 2005, p. 88; Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 148ff.). As the leader of the meeting, you need to be flexible and resolve conflicts quickly.

Visual Selling® with meeting and communication rules
Fig. 6: Visual Selling® with meeting and communication rules

Monologs, Dialogs, Multilogs: What’s next?

Another common problem in meetings is that people digress, get distracted with other activities, or simply withdraw and listen without saying anything. Monologs begin to take the place of the all-important sharing that is the creative heart of dialogs. Many discussion leaders, on the other hand, are content to do all the talking and have everybody else simply sit there and listen. Such one-way communication makes things happen faster, of course, but the content is drastically narrowed.

When dialog partners actually become part of the conversation, they have a chance to ask each other questions and give feedback on the content of the meeting. Then whatever is said can be adjusted to fit everybody’s understanding (Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 41f.). Then when you add visualization which causes the communication channels to multiply and—voilà!—you get a multilog (s. Fig. 7). Everyone can now speak with one other and also discuss the images. The better this succeeds, the more pleasant the entire communication process will be. Participants will get more involved and will be committed to better mutual understanding. The upshot of this will be to bring all the goals of the meeting into focus (Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 40f.; Hartmann, Zoll, and Funk, 2017, p. 124f.).

In the process, it is important to make your visualizations easy to understand. To add some uniformity and structure for this purpose, you might think in advance about how to color and format your visualizations. What color and shape should the letters and the headings be? How are relationships represented? How are important aspects highlighted? And so forth. We recommend using colors associated with your customer’s company if possible. Then customers will be able to identify with the images on a more personal level and will be more likely to take part.

Increased productivity in the meeting: through Visual Selling® to the Multilog
Fig. 7: Increased productivity in the meeting: through Visual Selling® to the Multilog

Facilitating Group Dynamics with Visualizations

Group dynamics basically means ongoing group processes and how they work (Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 17). Group interactions will play a significant role during meetings, and how they are working will become clear as the meeting progresses. Groups move through different stages (s. Fig. 8) (Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 24ff.):

  1. Forming (Orientation and Exploration)
  2. Storming (Clarification of Roles: Conflict and Power Struggle)
  3. Norming (Consolidation: Bonding and Familiarity)
  4. Performing (Differentiation and Reinforcement)

It is actually only during the Performing Stage that the group becomes efficient. But visualization can help out during all the stages. Adding visual hashtags during the Forming stage makes it easier for everybody to get to know each other, and this can trigger positive feelings. During the Storming Stage, people may be trying to figure out where to sit. You can also manage this with visualization. Distributing pens or styluses can be a subtle way to show people where they should sit.

During the Norming Stage, illustrations, colors, and structures should be discussed and decided on. Visualizing different possibilities can quickly produce agreement. With this as your starting point, you can now concentrate on the Performing Stage. Visualization helps people to stay on topic, and all kinds of new ideas can evolve.

When it comes time to depart and say Goodbye, everyone can take stock of what they have produced together. Sending a photo or a digital copy of the visualizations will make sure that everybody is on the same wavelength. This will also make it easier for everybody to work with the results of the meeting at a later date.

Note group dynamics in meetings
Fig. 8: Note group dynamics in meetings

Active and Passive Listening

Active listening is absolutely essential for a productive meeting (s. Fig. 9) (Wieke, 2005, p. 25f; Wellhoefer, 2012, p. 43). Active listening is the first step towards dialog because it communicates interest in what the other person is saying and forms a kind of partnership bond. It shows that someone really wants to understand the content of what the other person is thinking. Active listening is the real key to being creative. Bay suggests the following features for active listening (Bay, 2018, p. 35):

  • Sincere interest (no preconceptions or assumptions)
  • Non-judgmental attitude (no criticism or guilt feelings, instead encouragement and acceptance)
  • An open attitude (avoiding foregone conclusions about how to solve problems)
  • A genuine willingness to understand what the other person’s point of view is
  • A concentrated effort to be objective and direct

Visualization can come in handy here as well by making it much easier to see things from someone else’s perspective. And in the process, you can show your interest and appreciation for the way that others are thinking. An unexpected image can quickly involve others and will often take the discussion in surprising directions.

Also passive listening (s. Fig. 9) often occurs in his two characteristics of withdrawal and scanning. One study has shown that this is the most common type of listening at most meeting, and it often gives people in charge of meetings the impression that their meetings are quite productive (79%). But only 56% of respondents agree with this statement. A study at Beijing University has also shown that a meeting is considered effective if participants are especially active, but this is usually the case only for meeting leaders, and as a result, they often don’t get constructive feedback for making subsequent improvements (Rogelberg, 2019, p. 140).

If a meeting leader drones on and on with a solo monolog, then the other participants will simply have to listen passively. This is not conducive to dialog and many people will simply tune out (Bay, 2018, p. 28).Since other participants have no idea what the passive listener is thinking, the atmosphere can degenerate into feelings of insecurity and aggression.

Visual Selling® can solve this problem. Images can awaken the visual sense and encourage a response so that everyone will be inspired to participate actively in the discussion. People will become curious about the image and what it means or says. In addition, they will be likely to ask more questions so that they can find out exactly what the image means, and this of course will develop into dialog. People start off talking about images but end up talking about the topic of the meeting. This is how multilog works.

Active and passive listening
Fig. 9: Active and passive listening

Start now and increase productivity in your meeting

So get started right away with all the stages of your professional meeting preparation by downloading our template. It will give you all the tools you need for taking great (visual) notes and suggest guidelines for later debriefing.

Works Cited

3M Visual Systems Division. (1997). Polishing your presentation.Austin: 3M Visual Systems Division.

Bay, R. H. (2018). Erfolgreiche Gespraeche durch aktives Zuhoeren[Successful dialog through active listening]. Renningen: expert verlag GmbH.

Duden. (2018). Das Bedeutungswoerterbuch[Explanatory dictionary]. Berlin: Bibliographisches Institut GmbH.

Eichenberger, R. (1992). Klartext reden [Speaking plainly]. Asslar: Schulte & Gerth.

Hartmann, M., Zoll, A., & Funk, R. (2017). Mini-handbuch Meetings leiten [Minimanual for leading meetings]. Weinheim: Beltz Verlag.

Haufe Online Redaktion. (30 Januar 2013). Besprechungen effizient gestalten[Making discussions efficient]. Downloaded from Haufe: https://www.haufe.de/personal/hr-management/meeting-regeln-besprechungen-effizient-gestalten_80_161926.html abgerufen

Laufer, H. (2009). Sprint-Meetings statt Marathon-Sitzungen—Besprechungen effizient organisieren und leiten.[Sprint meetings instead of marathon meetings: Organizing and leading meetings efficiently]. Offenbach: GABAL Verlag GmbH.

MatchWare GmbH. (16 Oktober 2013). In Zahlen: Meeting Statistiken. [By the numbers: meeting statistics]. Retrieved February 2019 from MeetingBooster®—Professional Meeting Management-Software: https://www.meetingbooster.com/de/blog/in-zahlen-meeting-statistiken/

Rogelberg, S. G. (Januar—Februar 2019). “Why Your Meetings Stink—and What to Do about It.” Harvard Business Review (97), 140-143.

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