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Book review: The Back of the Napkin

June 15, 2010

The Back of the Napkin
Dan Roam, Penguin Press, ©2008

This book got a lot of favorable press right after it was first published and picked up quite a few endorsements in the presentation-stuff community including Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind) and Dan Heath (Made to Stick), both authors I think highly of. It was on the market for quite a while before I picked it up and then it sat on my “to be read” shelf for a few months. In one way that’s bad, because I missed joining the initial flood of reviews and comments. But I’m also sure that there are some others out there who missed it the first time around, so if that’s you, read on because we both missed a pretty good book.

Bottom line?

Good book; portions are outstanding. Full of pragmatic techniques for idea and data visualization, this book is likely to help if you need new ways to visually present information and ideas. If you’re not convinced that pictures are more powerful than text, then this book should both convince you and give you a well-organized, step-by-step process to get there. This book may not change your life but it might make you a lot better as a presenter.

The bookBook cover image

Dan starts with a discussion of visual thinking, why it’s important and his thoughts on why making simple drawings is the key. Basically, what he’s saying is that pictures don’t need to be artistic to be helpful and, in fact, the effort to make the pictures attractive would be better spent on making them effective. The second part introduces his ideas for organizing visual information and the spectrum of choices for drawing types. His website has a couple of very useful PDF downloads that illustrate this summary very well—excellent to supplement the book. Part 3 is a lengthy case study, working through a business problem in detail using the techniques he’s introduced. Part 4 addresses the actual “show me” part of presenting and selling an idea using visual thinking.

What I liked

I opened the book expecting it would be full of the obvious—I’m a visual thinker and a whiteboard is already my favorite idea generation tool. But many of the insights here weren’t at all obvious. It helped me organize my own ideas and thoughts about presenting information visually while affirming many of my own experiences like the fact that even simple sketches can be really powerful aids to thinking. I liked Part 4 the best. For example, his explanation of multi-variable charts is, by far, the best I’ve seen and the first one I could actually put to real use. For me, Part 4 was worth twice the price of the book.

What I didn’t like

Really the only thing about the book that approaches the “didn’t like” category was the length, detail and very specific nature of Part 3. It’s well done but I kept struggling to relate the content to something I’d find myself doing. As a result, I found it tedious but I wonder if the value here may be as a reference section for when I need an example of what he’s discussed elsewhere. Time will tell.

Usefulness to Presenters

This book might (I hope) convince you to not launch PowerPoint at all, and that would be a very good thing. Far too many presentations I’ve seen show strong evidence of too much time on the charts and not enough time on the ideas on the charts. Visual aids are frequently crucial in the understand-remember-act cycle but far too often the PowerPoint charts aren’t aids at all, they’re obstacles to the presenter’s success. I wonder how many death-by-PowerPoint sessions could be avoided if those slides were replaced with a whiteboard, markers and a copy of Roam’s book?

Another way this book is likely to be useful is to help you understand the relationship of the topic and the data to the type of diagram (picture), so you can select the one that will best present it. I think that was the most useful aspect of the book for me. Understanding, for instance, that many chart types are really a kind of map really helped clarify why and how some charts worked. Of course, that part’s useful whether you’re making the diagram at the whiteboard or in some computer software.

Summary

In the end, this book fits into my “should have” category. It’s not in the same “must have” group as Garr Reynolds’ books or Nancy Duarte’s book. But it’s well written and fills a gap they don’t attempt to cover, so if you missed it before, it might just be time to reconsider that!

For more about the book check out the author’s website.

For another review check out the Six Minutes blog.

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