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Back of the Napkin July 25, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Presentations, Reviews.
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“Charming” would be an apropros description of Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. How can one keep from being won over by Dan Roam’s neat manual on, literally, illustrating ideas? The title alone makes it hard to resist, and the overall aesthetic of the book — right down to the hand-drawn “doodles” used by way of examples throughout — doesn’t just serve to make it accessible and fun to peruse, but more to the point delivers the message that the author is someone who walks his talk (and rather well at that).

However, for a book ostensibly about making presentations, Back of the Napkin is a bit of a mixed bag, albeit of the more positive variety. What it does right, and overwhelmingly so, is communicate the author’s philosophy that “Any problem can be solved with a picture. And that anyone can draw it.” By eschewing slideware in favor of hand-drawn illustrations, and offering a sensible framework by which to use pictures to convey ideas, Roam convincingly demonstrates that all you need to make that next great useful presentation is quite literally at your fingertips. In that sense, it’s not just insightful. It’s downright empowering.

Still, the fundamental problem with the book — which it shares with similar titles of its ilk — is precisely that: it attempts to codify too much (unlike, say, Garr ReynoldsPresentation Zen). Make no bones about it: Back of the Napkin is ultimately a step-by-step tutorial about how to put order into one’s thoughts before putting them down on paper and thereafter to good use. Which is great. But it also feels a little too structured, almost to the point of being a tad contrived. There’s a fair bit about the four steps to visual thinking, which leads into a series of five “focusing” questions, culminating with (what Roam terms) a codex for seeing and showing. A useful framework, no doubt, but those more seasoned at making presentations may find this a bit much (and will lament the fact that the very doodles that give the book its unmistakable visual appeal fall somewhat flat in later, more complicated chapters).

Everyone has to walk before they can crawl; so it is with making presentations. Ultimately, Dan Roam’s singular achievement with Back of the Napkin is in having authored an effective guidebook to visual thinking. Novices at preparing and delivering presentations will find in this book the basics upon which they can develop their own skills and sense of style. Likewise, those for whom presentations are old hat nonetheless would do well to revisit Roam’s advice, and use this as an alternative checklist by which to evaluate how else to make good presentations even better.

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