Exploring New Options


Using Visuals to Facilitate Meetings

Using VisualsSpeak in a meeting

This is a guest post by Onno Kruitwagen, a VisualsSpeak customer from the Netherlands.

 Fun, surprising, personal and profound

Using VisualsSpeak in a meetingRecently, I learned firsthand that using visuals in facilitated meetings can be fun, surprising, personal  and profound. I would like to share my experiences with you, and give some pointers as well.

Last year, I was asked to facilitate a meeting for a team of senior project managers. The team
leader wanted to discuss the future of her team. The main challenge was to combine the individual
views about the future into a collective ambition.

This challenging request somehow coincided with my recent interest in using visuals in facilitated meetings. The literature about visuals told me that visuals can be very helpful in determining the  course of a team or organization, and helps to shape the future. So it didn’t take much convincing: we were going to use visuals.

During the meeting I used an image set of 200 different visuals, divided into categories like people, nature, and life. Lots of different shapes, sizes and colors. I will never forget the participants’ faces when they saw the big table full of images. This was all new to them. They thought we were only going to talk!

I used the images to get to know the participants’ motivation to join the team (what made them tick?), and how they individually perceived the future of it. After that, we combined their individual views into a collective ambition. By the end of the session, we also determined the main activities for 2013 and the individual contributions of the team members, but we didn’t use the visuals for this anymore.

Tips for Using Visuals in Facilitation

I would like to share my experiences with you, and give you some advice about using visuals as a facilitator.

  • You can choose to create your own image set, this way it is tailor made, or you can buy an existing one. There has been an interesting discussion about this on the IAF-group on LinkedIn (topic title: “Looking for picture cards”). I bought my image set at VisualsSpeak, because I didn’t feel like making my own one, and the image set of VisualsSpeak has lots of beautiful images (yes, I am a happy customer J).
  • I think most participants are not familiar with using visuals. They might feel surprised and want to know why you decided to use visuals. Expect these questions, and make sure you have some convincing answers for them. I have noticed that participants are easily convinced if you have a good explanation, and truly believe in what you are doing is helpful.
  • Participants should be able to see all the visuals on the table (or floor), so make sure you have enough space for that. Also make sure you have enough space for the participants to walk around the visuals. I remember that my room was too small, so it was a bit crowded when the participants had to select their visuals at the table.
  • Start with some easy exercises using the visuals. I started my session by asking the participants to select an image that indicated how they had entered the room. This way, they started to feel more comfortable with using the visuals. I recommend that facilitators participate in these exercises, so they can set an example and break the ice.
  • Be prepared for some very personal, surprising and confronting stories. Images can do a lot with people, you can really get to the bottom of it. One of the participants literally said that he had never expected the answers he had given.
  • Using visuals can be surprising for participants. Even so, I advise facilitators to use the visuals in different kind of ways during the meeting. This way, participants stay challenged and focused. I sometimes asked the participants to select one visual, and sometimes I asked them to selected a couple of them. You can use visuals in many ways, so make sure you do.
  • I found out that the participants really liked to talk about the visuals they selected. This took more time than I expected. Keep this in mind. It is such a shame to stop these personal stories too early.
  • Although some of the participants started a bit reluctant, at the end of the meeting they told me that they liked working with the visuals. They said it was fun, surprising, personal and profound, and it helped their team in shaping the future.

If you have any questions or have your own experiences to share, please get in touch.

About the author
OnnoKruitwagenOnno Kruitwagen is a Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) at OK-worx. He is self employed, andhelps project and team leaders to get more result out of their meetings. Onno creates customized programs that are tailored to the client’s needs, the participants and the intended outcome of the meeting. Onno is also a board member of the IAF Netherlands Chapter.

OK-worx logoEmail: onno @ OK-worx.nl
Twitter: OKworx
LinkedIn: nl.linkedin.com/in/onnokruitwagen


Questions for End of Year Reflection

VisualsSpeak: Triptychs in sections &emdash; Triptych 2: Center

Use visuals to help you think beyond the obvious.

If you have one of the VisualsSpeak tools, you can use them to explore and reflect on the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014.

It can be helpful to think about a particular context. You might pick your life, health, relationships, business, organization etc

Here are some questions you can use:

  • What do I want to leave behind?
  • What do I want to increase?
  • What might make me more effective?
  • What qualities do I want in my life?
  • What do I want to express to my customers?
  • How can I bring more ____ into my business?
  • What do I want our team/family to look like?
  • What increases satisfaction?
  • What do I really want?
  • What could I stop doing?
  • What am I ready to let go of?
  • How can I make sure I am satisfied this time next year?

Select images in response to the question. Work quickly, not to think too much (you can do that later.) Tell someone what the images mean to you or write in a journal.

To explore your life

Michele Martin has a wonderful series of questions on her blog, 30 Juicy Questions to Grow Your Life in 2014 


Keeping Your Meetings Out of Quicksand

slide describing quicksand

This is a guest post by Nancy Seibel, a facilitator and coach for Keys to Change  who uses a range of VisualsSpeak products with her clients. One of the interesting things about this story is she is using our coaching tool, Exploring New Options in a group setting.

Nancy Siegel from Keys to Change CoachingIn August, I facilitated a 2-day meeting for the Infancy and Early Childhood Mental Health Committee of the New Jersey Council for Young Children, which is the state’s early learning council located in New Jersey’s Department of Education.

The meeting’s purpose was to provide input into the creation of a new approach to formation of the infant mental health workforce. Gerry Costa, my client and Director and Senior Lecturer at Montclair State University’s Center on Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health, explained that “formation” refers to the development of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, beliefs, values, intra-personal and interpersonal capacities needed for effective work with young children and their families. The stated outcomes for the meeting included identifying learning domains and topics, providing participants with approaches useful to their own work, and gathering volunteers to stay involved in the work moving forward.

What Made Us Successful

By the end of our second day we reached the stated outcome goals.  That’s important. Equally important is that the meeting process was successful.  Participants went out of their way to let us know that, both at the meeting and afterwards. The meeting’s success was a combination of many factors. These included my client’s vision for and commitment to the meeting, the collaboration in planning it, the thoughtfulness in inviting key participants, and the openness to my use of VisualsSpeak images as an important part of the agenda.

Exploring New Options images used for group meeting

Who Was In The Room

The participants were a group of 24 high-level experts in the field of infant mental health. The direction we hoped to move in was a new one. Informing it was a long history within the infant mental health field. This history includes knowledge, wisdom, evidence, a body of work, and interpersonal relationships, along with conflict, discussion, debate and dilemma. The task at hand called for honoring and building on the existing knowledge, products, experience and wisdom coupled willingness to think in new ways and move in new directions.

How We Used The Images

We used VisualsSpeak images in 2 ways during this meeting, both on the first day. First, we used the large Icebreaker Set for introductions. Each person selected 3 images. One image represented them, one represented a gift they brought to the meeting and one represented a hope for what they would get from the meeting. I asked participants to introduce themselves by making one brief statement about each of their three cards. A facilitators’ note: the entire activity took about 45 minutes. The introductions held everyone’s interest. No one tuned out as we went around the room. I think the exercise helped people feel connected and engaged, especially as there was a mix of seriousness and humor in the introductions.

slide describing quicksand

Second, based on planning conversations with my clients, I developed an exercise on “Avoiding the Quicksand.” I showed a slide with an image (found here, and purchased from the artist) and discussed the experience of getting stuck in the quicksand. I defined the quicksand as questions that are compelling, but that derail us, push certain “hot buttons”, are ways of avoiding progress, or signs of resistance. I provided directions (found on the Discovery Channel’s website, and available elsewhere as well) about what to do if you get stuck in quicksand. That got everyone laughing.  I then had the participants work in small groups. Each 4-person group had one Exploring New Options deck to use in identifying quicksand issues that could bog us down.

Our Results

This turned out to be such a useful exercise!  We never got stuck in the quicksand throughout the intense 2-day meeting. In my experience this is quite unusual! The exercise helped people self-monitor. They commented that at times they chose not to bring up what they internally decided were “quicksand issues.”  When participants did say something that might be a “quicksand issue” they noted it as such. We were readily able as a group to put aside those quicksand issues that came up and to spend our time and energy on those that were relevant to our purpose. 

We’ll be doing a brief follow up evaluation to collect participants’ experiences. The in-person feedback was exceedingly positive, enthusiastic and energetic. Not only did everyone enjoy the process, make new professional connections and gain new ideas and tangible products to use in their own work, we ended up with the hoped-for tangible outcomes to guide next steps in our work plan.  VisualsSpeak images helped people connect to themselves, each other and their capacity for creative, innovative thinking.

Submitted by
Nancy L. Seibel, M.Ed, NCC, BCC
Director Keys to Change, LLC


VisualsSpeak ImageSet as a Diagnosis Tool

VisualSpeack ImageSet a a Diagnosis Tool 2

Recently we received a success story from a customer in Argentina, Gabriel Pardi. He owns an organizational development and facilitation company called TecnoBiz. This is the report he sent. 

VisualSpeack ImageSet a a Diagnosis Tool3

I had a great experience using the ImageSet as a diagnosis tool. I had to facilitate the reorganization of the security and environment area (CASS) of a petroleum company, to examine how it fits the needs of their internal customers.

Before the two days of work that I had with the members of the CASS, I made a diagnosis of their service, with their main internal customers. For that I used the ImageSet. I worked with a total of 25 people who are in six different groups of internal clients, working in six separated meetings.

VisualSpeack ImageSet a a Diagnosis Tool 2

The meeting agenda was as follows (each participant worked separately):

  1. Icebreaker (to become familiar with the method)
  2. Question: How would you represent the service you are receiving from CASS?
  3. Please describe your picture
  4. Select an image that expresses a request for an improvement in the quality of service you are receiving
  5. Please state what the image says

VisualSpeack ImageSet a a Diagnosis Tool

The diagnosis result exceeded all expectations: in amount of information, its breadth and depth. This method is much better than to do a written survey (I used to do that), where you have to limit the questions and possible answers.

 Thanks Gabriel for sharing your story. I agree, I always feel I get more information from using VisualsSpeak for assessment than when I use a more traditional instrument.


Ride Connection’s vision for their new space

Ride Connection retreat at Albertina Kerr

ride-connection-logoRide Connection is a wonderful organization based in Portland, Oregon that provides responsive, accessible transportation options for those in need. Soon they will be moving into their own new building into a condominium surrounded by housing options for seniors and others who use their services. It’s in a renewing neighborhood where they have not been located before.

Two years ago when Christine facilitated a retreat for the board and senior staff, the organization was a lot smaller. There was no building in the works, although it has been a dream for decades. Many years of work and some fortuitous partnerships came together to make it happen. It is now under construction.

How to use the space?

The new location is in a neighborhood. The new building has a large room in the front that they can use for their training. They wondered what else they could do with all the new space. So they decided to focus this year’s board retreat on starting to generate some ideas.

Ride Connection retreat at Albertina Kerr

The challenge of limited space for the pictures

The retreat was held at Albertina Kerr, another affiliated nonprofit, that partners with the community to support people with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges to lead self determined lives and realize their full potential. They have a lovely garden room event space.  The food and service provided by volunteers was wonderful.

The challenge was the tables were small and the space was tight.

A different kind of icebreaker

You may notice each person has a piece of paper on ribbon tied around their neck. These are their introductory images that depict what each of them can offer to the team. By placing them around the neck like a badge, they were able to walk around so people on the other side of the room could see. They could refer back to them as they started working on the larger team images.

Visioning a space for Community

We asked, “what are the possibilities for using this new space in new ways?” Each person selected images to answer this, then each table discussed possibilities together. Each small group created a large image to present to the whole group.

In the afternoon, we listened to each group’s ideas. There were similarities in the values being expressed, but a whole range of ways they could put them into action. The room in the new building that was previously thought of as the training room blossomed into a whole community center.

Vision for Ride Connection new building

So many options, how do you pick?

This is a dynamic organization, they have way more ideas than time or money allow them to use. Seeing how many ideas they came up with so quickly, they realized they wanted to involve the rest of the staff and their partner organizations before they narrowed them down. After all, a community space needs the input of the community. So the conversation continues.

Now they can see common language

Some themes were used over and over by the different groups. They know those words and pictures are what they can use as they start to expand the communication with other stakeholders.



Working with Groups That Have Done it All Before

Sitka 274

Sitka Center for Art and Ecology is a small non-profit that operates classes and a residency program on the Oregon coast. It’s located in an ecologically sensitive and important biodiverse area. It’s a very special place.Sitka 277

I was lucky enough to be invited to a three week artist’s residency. As part of the program, each resident does a community service project. Mine was working with the staff of five on team building.

What if they have already done VisualsSpeak?

The executive director, Jalene Case, has been a VisualsSpeak customer for years. Her team has played with the pictures before. As a matter of fact just a week before I arrived, the same team had done the two most common team building exercises. First they selected images and shared stories to describe what each of them brought to the team. Then they did the same with their visions for Sitka.

They had recently used images to deepen two conversations. That didn’t mean I couldn’t use images to deepen a different conversation.

What if they don’t have problems?

 This organization has the usual challenges of a small non-profit, but has a solid foundation. The team gets along and functions well. This was not a request to fix something broken. Rather it was a request to enhance performance, prevent problems, and reinforce what is good.

Without a problem to fix, it was even more important to get clear on what the desired outcomes were. The main challenge was that it is a small organization where each person had a lot on their plates and it was right before the busy season begins.  I had a conversation ahead of time with the leader, then opened the day with asking each person what would have to happen over the day for each of them to feel the day had not been a waste of time.

The main thing they wanted was to get to know each other better, especially regarding the person who had joined the staff six months before. They were hoping to feel they got something worthwhile for the investment of time. Not sure they totally believed that was possible. 

The Morning Session

Sitka 278Designing Deeper Exercises

I knew this was a team with the basics of good communication and trust. They wanted to know each other better. So I decided to have them focus on creating images about their whole lives, rather than just work. I gave them each an Exploring New Options deck to create two images, one of the present and one of what they want in the future.

Before they shared the stories, I talked about the core visual language each one of them displayed in the way they arranged the images. In general, the more structured images are the people who tend to be more structured and analytical in their thinking. The less structured images are those who tend to be more big picture thinkers.

To make this applicable, I talked about where each person seemed to fall, and asked if the rest of the team found that to be true. People recognized themselves and each other. Then we talked, given that understanding, about how they might best divide tasks and frame communication for each other. In other words how to leverage those differences.

Interacting with the Stories

When it came time to listen to the stories of each person, I took an active role. Rather than just allow the person to share the initial story, I asked deepening questions. I used cues in the arrangement, like what was in the center, to guide my inquiry. I asked how things might apply. I asked to hear more about dreams. I didn’t pry, rather offered ways they could share a bit more if they wanted to. They did.

People don’t always share everything right off. Often because they don’t think of it right away. It can be helpful to have a curious witness asking for clarification.

The Afternoon Session

 Using the Pictures to Frame a Conversation

 I started the afternoon using the ImageSet to get each person to make an image about “What Makes Sitka Sparkle?”. I knew “sparkle” was how they described the special quality they strive to create for the staff, board, residents, guests and visitors. We talked about the little touches, the magic of the physical place, the relationships that make it all possible.

Once they were grounded in what makes the place special, I told them we were going to pretend we got a message that we had four hours before a big wildfire would arrive. What would they do?

We spent the rest of the afternoon working on an emergency plan. Here is why:

  • It’s something they’ve worked on some, but it kept getting put off in the presence of more pressing duties
  • It gave us another context to look at how they worked together
  • It gave them something valuable at the end of the day


We were able to not only achieve everyone’s expectations, but exceed them. At the end of the day there were task lists, commitments,  promises to go home and talk about emergencies with family, and a better understanding of each other.

 Tips for Working With Groups Again

  • Bring new information to the table
  • Use different prompts or questions than before
  • Interact with participants to help draw them out
  • Make sure you are doing something of value to THEM

Expressing Love


Nothing shows us how each of us expresses and experiences emotion differently quite like Valentine’s Day. So many expectations, hopes, dreams fueled by marketing and cultural stories.

What if we do it differently?

When I strip away all the media hype, I like the idea of taking time to intentionally focus on the love in our lives. To stop and appreciate the simple as well as the profound. How can we do this with images?

First, don’t make it harder than it needs to be. I know I can get concerned my creative expression isn’t good enough to truly represent how I feel. Or that if I try to write something it comes off as corny or mushy or just plain weird sounding.

Try visuals

Any of the VisualsSpeak tools can be used to show someone appreciation. Or you can gather photos from magazines. Spend a few moments thinking about a person in your life. Quickly thumb through photos selecting those that say something about what you love about that person. Arrange them on a piece of paper (you don’t need to glue them down, you can just snap a quick photo with your cell phone.)  If the person is there in person, you can just tell them the story of your image.  If they aren’t you can write out a description, record a quick audio or video to send with the image.

Don’t fuss over it! The faster you do this, the more what you pick will come from a core place. Speaking from the heart touches other people, with all its imperfections. The essence of your feelings can shine through.

Appreciate each other

You can do this with other people as a powerful way to speak things to each other we don’t always take the time to say. With a partner, you can make images about each other. With a larger family, you can make images about the person sitting to your right. Same with a group of friends.

Keep it simple

image expressing love Here is an image I did using the Exploring New Options set for my husband. It took less than five minutes to arrange and photograph. Some of the things I love about him:

– love of nature
– spiritual connection and practice
– ability to play and laugh
– coexists with differences
– willingness to do things differently
– his ground to my air

I can share this with him (and in this case the world here on the blog), but it can also be the start to a conversation. He can ask for more details, or clarifications. It can be a way to deepen our connection.

Express love often

None of us can get too much love. Bring it into your life and the lives around you by keeping it simple. Expressing it in multiple ways. Taking a few moments at any opportunity you find. It can take 30 seconds or a few minutes, but can make a difference way beyond the effort it takes.


Using VisualsSpeak in prayer

One of our favorite things is hearing how our customers use Visualsspeak, esp when they do it in a creative way.  Here’s a note we got this week describing how a community are using the images in prayer.

Dear VisualsSpeak Team,

Greetings from Chicago! I have been very happy with all the materials I purchased from VisualsSpeak in two separate orders, and I wanted to write you to tell you about one of the ways we used them.

I live in a Christian community of 16 people and we pray twice a day. Normally we use some form of Scriptural prayer but we are open to other prayer styles and last week I decided to use some of the VisualSpeak photos for evening prayer.

I spread them out on our prayer table and when the community members entered the prayer space, we recalled the presence of God and then I gave them the following instructions:

There is a collection of photo-images on the table. Some are self explanatory. Others are more evocative and invite the viewer to imagine and explore more deeply.
• Choose a photo that evokes a response in you, that suggests something about our life together in our community for the second semester.
• Reflect on it for a moment and be prepared to pray what you desire for us at the moment of bidding prayers.
• Show your photo to everyone, and as you set it down on the table, explain your choice, and pray your intention.

The participants were very taken with the images and spent some time choosing the one they wanted to pray about. Most of them chose photos that were symbolic rather than self explanatory. It was fascinating to hear how the images moved all of us to a deeper understanding of our relationships in an intentional Christian community and our projection to the broader community around us. Though none of the images was explicitly religious, the inherent sacramental quality of our world became evident as we prayed.

Your website states that the images can be used for Personal, Professional and Organizational development, and you probably did not intend the use to which we put these images. Nevertheless, they also helped us to focus our community development and to sharpen our perception of God’s presence in our lives.

I have appreciated the prompt and personal service and hope to continue our relationship in the future. I will also recommend your images to other teachers and members of our communities.

Michael G. French

Thank you so much for sharing with all of us Michael. What a beautiful way to use the pictures.


The Graphic Facilitator’s Guide Review

How to use your listening, thinking, and drawing skills to make meaning.

Visual communication can be daunting. Most people don’t learn the foundations in school. Even if you go to art school, you may know how to draw, paint or make stuff. But you still may not know how to take this skills and utilize them in a business context.

Brandy breaks it all down in this book. She isolates the design aspects you need to effectively record conversations and provide visual overview for meetings and events.

Do you have what it takes to be a graphic recorder?

Early in the book, Brandy lists out the success factors for being a successful graphic recorder. Later she defines the language and skills you’d be using.

I am not a graphic recorder. While I have most of the skills required, my brain likes to gather lots of data and think about it before creating visuals. I’m just too reflective to be able to get the visuals down in real time. Even so, there is a lot of value in the book for me. It helps me understand the factors that make for other types of visuals like slides and flipcharts. It delves deeply into the most important elements to think about.

The Principles of Graphic Facilitation

 The bulk of the book are the Principles of Graphic Faciliation

  • Overview
  • Listening
  • Thinking
  • Drawing
  • Practicing
  • In the Room

She breaks down each part and clearly describes how you can use each principle to be more successful. Of course there are illustrations through out to help us see clearly exactly how to apply each idea.

Her section on drawing gives you a basic visual vocabulary that anyone can do. Really. If you can write and make simple marks on the page you can do these drawings. It’s a fantastic reference to pick up so you don’t have to think about how to draw something – it’s right there on the page.

(Real artists use references all the time! You can too.)

Other reasons I like this book

The book is well thought out through out.  Brandy really covers what you need to know to communicate more effectively using visuals. Graphic recording uses a lot of words. Oftentimes the visual parts are the organizing structures. I think this must be why Brandy is so good at it. She breathes structure and organization and makes it look effortless.

You can get a copy of the book at Amazon or on Brandy’s website.

If you’d like a really deep dive into graphic recording, Brandy is offering The Lab. It’s a small group concentrated learning experience, sure to accelerate your skills. I saw the results her students got after the last class and was really impressed. The next session is January 7-9, 2012 in Chicago. As of this posting, she’s only got 2 spaces left.

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