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Michael Sampson
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SmartDraw Brings Meetings To Life

Software vendor aims to replace PowerPoint slides with visuals that communicate relationships and associations.

If you and I were sitting down to coffee and I asked you (between sips of my extra-hot flat white) to explain something to me related to your work, how quickly would you give up on words and reach for a pen and a sheet of paper? For argument's sake, perhaps it's your iPad with a drawing app--same difference. Particularly if my facial expressions portrayed a lack of comprehension, would you continue to use just words, or would you say something to the effect of, "Here, let me draw it for you"?

If you took the approach of drawing it, you would be one of many to add emphasis to the research finding that diagrams, pictures, and images are more effective at facilitating communications than words alone. We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words; but do we live it in our business communications? According to SmartDraw, the answer is no--and the company wants to change that.

Consider meetings, that bane of reality for workers the world over. If you look at the academic research on supporting collaboration between distributed groups, much of it treats face-to-face meetings as the gold standard, and yet they're almost universally despised. How do we reconcile this paradox?

Back to SmartDraw, which argues that the way people meet is the problem. If people could meet in a different way, the results--including satisfaction levels--would be much improved, the company maintains. The practices they propose, which are easy to understand and implement, include:

1. Use a visual mind map to create an agenda in advance of meetings so that the objective is clear. Seeing meetings visually, SmartDraw argues, rather than as a list of bullet points, greatly helps with clarity.

2. Record discussions-in-progress on a shared mind map or flow diagram that's displayed on a large screen for all to see. This helps keep everyone focused on the task at hand, and it gives a point to further communications. It prevents people from saying the same thing over and over again. Once it's been said and captured in a shared visual, it has become a part of the group's collective memory.

3. Get rid of text-heavy, bulleted PowerPoint slides and use visuals that communicate relationships and associations instead. Doing so makes it clear what's being said, the importance of each item, and the context in which it sits.

As a software vendor, SmartDraw has a clear reason for this emphasis on doing meetings better: It wants you to give up on PowerPoint and buy its SmartDraw VP software for everyone in your company. Whereas PowerPoint is a visual tool that makes it easy to produce text--and hence why its users create so many bullet points--SmartDraw VP is a visual tool that makes it easy to produce diagrams.

The tool includes diagram templates for a plethora of shapes and images. I haven't counted them, but SmartDraw says more than 1,000 are included in the software. As someone who didn't do too well in art class, let me assure you that having drawing templates available makes a tremendous difference. Rather than fighting with the tool to create the shape desired from underlying elements, SmartDraw VP lets you choose from pre-created shapes. It's pretty cool.

Improving meetings isn't a hot topic in Enterprise 2.0 circles. That honor currently goes to micro-blogging and related technologies. But while micro-blogging involves a huge change in culture and work practice for an unquantified future state, improving meetings through better software and better human practices promises a huge change in a quantifiable current state.

What are you going to do to improve the collaboration that should be happening at your meetings?

Michael Sampson is a collaboration strategist and author. You can reach him at or +64 3 317 9484 (New Zealand).

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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robin oliver
robin oliver,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/23/2011 | 8:55:22 PM
re: SmartDraw Brings Meetings To Life
Simply stated, the best tool is the one that offers the most options for communications. But the software application tool, by itself, does not ensure successful conveyance of information. Moreover, there is no uniform cookie-cutter formula for passing information around...

The audience is at the center with its relationship to the "problem" being addressed, with its need for the actual information to be communicated, with its preferences for the level of summary or detail, with its preferred orientation to cognition of conceptual data and what should be done with that data...

As with any software application used for presentation, there are communications and design skills that must be mastered for effective use. These skills include, of course, implementation of the technology itself but also include the skills of the communicator using the tool, designing and implementing the message, defining the purpose for which the message should be communicated, and making good decisions about the requirements of the audience...

One of the best results of the maturation of electronic media is that it has helped us to refine the notion of communication to an effective mixture of words and images and visual motion and sound. But that is not standardized across all users (producers and consumers) or across all platforms and venues (from handhelds to auditorium screens)...

It may be true that one picture is worth one thousand words...

But when crafted by a competent writer or expressed by an effective speaker, one thousand words can create ten thousand images with the right audience...
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