When Graphic Recording, I must always listen both deeply and broadly for multiple aspects: the overall topics, main themes, structural frameworks and individual elements. Some speakers and discussions lay this all out in a clear, logical (even linear) fashion. More often, not. 


Especially when working with discussion panels, brainstorming sessions or strategic meetings, we can tend to jump around – a lot! – and it’s essential for me to keep alert for and capture all the aspects (overall, themes, frameworks and elements) in a way on the murals that organizes them systematically and aesthetically so it’s both easy and interesting for participants and later viewers to absorb.


Given all this, one of the key questions I ask every new client, and every client on a new project, is: what is your vision of the output?


What I’m asking is: are you expecting mostly pretty pictures of the individual elements, more of a text-based content mapping of the structural frameworks, a larger storytelling narrative of the main themes, or a meta-level perspective of the overall topic as relating to the whole field?


The answer to this question informs how I prepare for the event, and how I listen during the live discussion.


Sometimes clients are not yet sure, (or haven’t thought about it in this way yet) and we talk it through. This pre-event conversation itself often expand upon a client’s original concept, including ideas for leveraging the onsite work while we are there in the room together, as well as in a variety of ways post-event. 


The post-event intention is also essential for me to know: how are the Graphic Recording artifacts (both the original murals created onsite and hi-res digital files of murals) going to be used once the live, onsite event is done?


In order to provide the best possible mural artifacts for a client, knowing where to focus my listening is essential: on the overall perspective, narrative themes, structural frameworks or individual elements? Of course all aspects are included in some fashion, but emphasizing the importance of one over others results in a very different mural artifact.


My colleague, Kelvy Bird, asserts that “when listening, we attend to the parts, the interdependencies, and the meaning – all at once” and that “listening involves the parallel capacity to notice each of these elements as they come online, as they become clear” (1). She has further developed this concept, by applying Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening (2) to the practice of Graphic Recording. 


Kelvy describes how we visual practitioners work as 4 different levels:


1. mirroring: hearing words, making pictures

 Where we track at the data elements, with a focus on the individual parts.  


2. differentiating: interpreting words, making sense

Where we organize data elements to make sense together in themes as information, such as in a scene or mind map.


3. connecting: relating ideas, making meaning

Where we understand and draw a narrative framework, including background context that may not literally be being discussed in the room.


4. surfacing: revealing essence, making known

Where we intuit and bring forth an emergent overall, meta-perspective, including what’s in the unsaid (things such as glances, pauses, gestures, and the energy or mood in the room) but is present in a palpable way just as the culture of an organization or nation exists: you feel it, sense it, smell it even, more than hear it spoken. 


Examining my Graphic Recording style and overall approach to each project (as described at the beginning of this post), onto Kelvy’s model has both expanded my understanding of my own process and work, and provided some opportunities for further development. One such opportunity was to practice listening at only one of the 4 levels at a time. Sounds simple, but is super challenging!


The images you see here are some early examples of such experiments: we listened to various audio segments and created visual depictions of that content from different levels of listening.


For the audio about the Presence of a Good Hunter, I also tried white ink on black paper, a nice shift (opposite really) in materials to my usual approach that may be useful in some projects. 


A poem (Wild Geese) was read 4 separate times: we did a Graphic Recording from each of the 4 different levels. 


A news report about How Race Shapes American Life was read once: we practiced an integration of all 4 levels together, now with an awareness of them based on Kelvy’s model.


These experiments have made me consciously aware that I’m listening simultaneously at all 4 levels in an integrated or “parallel capacity”.


This realization further reinforces for me the import of removing myself from the situation, meaning I’m “just” the tool through which the speakers in the room see manifested their individual words, meaning, narrative themes and emergent overall perspective; but without influence from me personally. Just like in my laboratory science experiments, where the intent was to observe data points, document results collectively, identify larger themes and even apply all this to the overall field. 


As such I encourage my client event planners and participants to consider this a co-creative process, where their participation is key! For example, I may ask them questions about what they are saying in order to appropriately capture data, depict information, narrative themes and even overall essence as appropriate.


Where as appropriate varies with each event. For me to listen, draw and ask questions from a place of illustrating big-picture emergent ideas when what a client is looking for is simply discrete illustrations of individual data points would miss the target. Similarly, in reverse, to listen from the trees (individual details only) when what a client needs is meta perspective (forest) would be an equal but opposite dis-service.


Which brings us back to the original question: what do you envision as the final output? 


Hopefully this post clarifies how I work together in partnership with clients, the importance of clear intended outcomes, and participant engagement.


And perhaps even prompts you to consider an expanded range of outputs available to you?!











Are you planning an executive leadership offsite, a brainstorming session or a strategic visioning event?  


Contact me today! I’d love to be of service to you in co-creating the best mural artifacts from whatever levels of listening are appropriate for your event!




(1) Kelvy Bird, Generative Scribing: A Social Art of the 21st Century (PI Press, 2018)
(2) C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2009)


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