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Values as Visuals

June 29, 2010

(Thaler Pekar, a consultant specializing in persuasive communication, helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that rally critical support. You can find other posts by Thaler here, here, and here.)

Picture-your-legacy-zoom Last year, I participated in a wonderful workshop at the Golden Fleece conference titled "How Pictures Can Promote, Provoke and Prolong Communication." The workshop promised I would "leave with practical methods, simple exercises, and exciting tools for helping yourself and others to find the stories in their lives."

It was designed around Dialoogle® -- a blended word combining "dialog" and "Google" and meaning "a search for a dialogue." I was enthralled! The high-quality cards, each featuring an exquisite photograph, were scattered throughout the room, and participants were directed to choose three cards and "tell the story of three turning points in your professional life." The results were profound, yet seemingly effortless. We worked in small groups, and all the members of my group, including me, instinctively shared one story about their past, one about their current professional life, and one about their vision of the future.

Madelyn Blair, Ph.D, who facilitated the workshop with Pernille Stockfleth, a partner with Dialoogle, blogged shortly afterward, "If I ever thought that it was hard to help people find their stories, I realize now that this small tool acts like a match to a fire. You better stand back and let the stories burst into the room."

I purchased a set of the cards, and immediately upon returning home, shared them with my husband, Tom, who works as an audio engineer on documentary films. I asked him to choose an image that represented why he does what he does professionally, and to tell me why he chose that card. Tom chose the image of a man operating an old but working bellows camera and shared an earnest and heartfelt explanation of his work. He talked about the allure of "human interaction with a machine" and how the camera is a "practical, working device -- and is really beautiful." He then explained his desire to combine his attraction to visual imagery, his desire to work with his hands, and his respect for contributing something practical and tangible to the world. Tom is not someone prone to self-reflective conversation, and both he and I were surprised at the depth of the emotion behind the explanation of his choice.

So I was delighted to see that a similar tool had been developed specifically for the philanthropic sector. Picture Your Legacy is a tool created by 21/64, a consulting firm specializing in next generation and multi-generational strategic philanthropy. According to the 21/64 Web site, the oversized card deck "contains 52 colorful images designed to spark discussion among funders of any generation, facilitating greater understanding of an individual and groups' philanthropic identity and aspirations." And now there's a Picture Your Legacy iPhone app, which, according to the site, is "designed for users to search the image database, tag chosen images with keywords and notes, and send their choices to others."

Allison Sole of 21/64 explained to me the motivation behind the original deck: "We developed this tool to make more effective grantmakers." And she elaborated on the motivation behind the iPhone app: "Nowadays, families are far flung and they can start to generate these conversations with one member in California, choosing and sending an image to their grandparent in New York."

Indeed, Picture Your Legacy is brilliant at sparking conversation that might otherwise be cloaked or skim the surface of something that is quite deep. The instructions ask participants to "choose the images that speak to you and represent how you aspire to fund, operate, invest or be in the world." Participants are then prompted to narrow their choice to one image. If the exercise is happening in a facilitated session and there’s time, Sole said participants might be asked, "What does the second image say that the first one didn't?" As she explains:

This exercise hits people on an emotional, visceral level. We recently facilitated the exercise with a client, and it got deep real fast: He chose the picture of a cemetery, and it turns out he had a son who died. He also chose the picture of an athletic coach with a player. The gentleman realized that there are things he needs to do in his life, precisely because of the loss of his son’s life.

Our work is centered on family dynamics, so we want to tap into core emotional elements: legacy, values, mission. There is something different about this tool. It gets at emotion and intuition through pictures.

On its Web site, the folks at Dialoogle claim that "Apart from being great fun, dialoogling makes conversations flow more freely, enhancing the value and outcome for all participants. Dialoogle is an ideal tool for teachers and psychologists, business leaders and coaches, HR and management consultants -- for anybody striving to improve the quality of a conversation in any context."

Allison Sole admits that Picture Your legacy is an attempt to start with images and move to language. "Ultimately, we want people to craft some sort of language related to their philanthropy." And that's exactly what has happened: Sole's colleague, Sharna Goldseker, facilitated the Picture Your Legacy exercise with members of a family foundation who used language from that discussion to create a vision statement.

Madelyn Blair, who facilitates many groups seeking to push through roadblocks and enact change, says she uses Dialoogle "every chance" she gets:

Information comes at us so quickly these days, and we expect people's thinking processes to be fast, keeping up with the information onslaught. In fact, our thinking processes are not that fast. Often, we don't give people the time to reflect. Dialoogle cards are a way to stimulate deep thought and pattern making, the things we need to be creative and effective thinkers. The process of looking for the card is in itself a process of reflection (without even knowing that you are doing it). By the time you choose your card, you have done deep thinking.

Julie A. Morton, Ph.D., a communications strategist and executive coach at Conscious Legacy Coaching, often uses Picture Your Legacy. Morton works to remedy "miscommunications between the family and the family business relationships. I deal with all the baggage that families carry with them from the time members were six or seven and then dump on the board room table." She had been using cards with written values on them for years, and has found that combining those word cards with images yields quicker and more meaningful results for her clients. "People get tripped up on words," Morton told me. "The images are an entry way into conversation, especially with people who are not good with words. For instance, I may ask family members who are in conflict to choose an image that answers the question, 'How do you want to feel about a family member? Or, What conversations have you not had?'"

Picture Your Legacy was designed expressly for fostering inter-generational conversations, and Morton often uses the cards with multi-generational families: "Two generations may have been at odds, believing they were talking about different things. Once they picked their cards and discussed them they often discover that they were talking about the same underlying ideas; family members were just using different words to describe it."

I've taken part in exercises where participants were asked to illustrate meaning by creating collages out of images found in magazines, and I've always found those exercises to be confining -- in part, because I'm acutely aware of the agenda behind the images (imposed either by an editorial staff and/or an advertiser). And though I suspect the images in Dialoogle and Picture Your Legacy also have been carefully curated, I'm much more than willing to grant those applications the benefit of the doubt. I believe Blair when she says, "Dialoogle has no agenda other than to stimulate you." And I agree with Sole when she says, "People respond to visual stimulation in a way they wouldn't respond to trying to have a conversation. You're sort of clearing the deck."

Give them a try yourself. I think you’ll be pleased with your discoveries and the results.

-- Thaler Pekar

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Posted by Limor  |   June 29, 2010 at 03:04 PM

Great post, certainly makes one want to try out all this stuff. Thanks!

Posted by Nancy Schwartz  |   June 29, 2010 at 03:36 PM

Great post, Thaler. Images do make it easier to convey complex ideas and also (at times) break out of stuck thinking, especially for a group. Also to move forward in articulating what's difficult to do so.

Visuals Speak is another option. More info at http://www.visualsspeak.com/.


Posted by jbradham@corporatedevelopmint.com  |   June 29, 2010 at 09:18 PM

These cards remind me of the ones Tom Peters designed years ago and we at Corporate DevelopMint have used numerous times. They are good for audiences who are not too self conscious. I always like using them. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Cynthia Kurtz  |   July 06, 2010 at 02:16 PM

Hi Thaler, great post.

One issue with using photographs to elicit stories is that you have to pay attention to excluding or off-putting messages hidden in plain view. These are most likely to cause problems when the people who will be telling stories are speaking from a different context than where the photos came from. Unlike drawings, photographs contain much more information than is immediately obvious. Clip art in particular tends to come packaged with some fixed assumptions about class, value, belief, and so on. For example, if I type "clip art success" into Google's image finder, I get a page of twenty thumbnail images, and out of those twenty I can think of reasons that somebody would feel offended (or at least unrepresented) in about fifteen of them. It's so easy for people to look at a photograph and see something you had never thought of. If some people are turned away and believe the project isn't about them, the stories you collect will be diminished in diversity.

I'd say there are three ways to maximize the utility of pictures for story elicitation. First, use pictures with metaphorical rather than direct connections to stories. So, for success, instead of showing a person-of-some-background wearing or holding something, you could show a flower bursting into bloom or a puzzle fitting together or something. In this way nobody feels unrepresented because the picture doesn't represent or exclude anybody. (But watch your metaphors too: something that connotes safety in one society or context may connote danger in another.)

Second, photos should be tested in front of many audiences to ensure broad utility for elicitation. People are surprising! And third, the set of photos you use should give people maximally diverse choices. Even with testing, no one picture can speak to all people, so if you increase the diversity of the prompts you increase the diversity of the responses.

I agree with your criticism of magazine-advertisement methods: advertisements are not the best pictures to choose among because they all have an agenda which is difficult to separate from the topic they represent. (And hidden-in-plain-view messages are the bread and butter of advertising.)

I've looked at the Dialoogle pictures and they seem to score well on all three of these issues. The images are mainly metaphorical and compelling; they seem well chosen (and may have been tested, I can't tell); and the picture sets are diverse. The VisualsSpeak set seems also good, though it seems a little less aware of its hidden messages from what I've seen. For Picture Your Legacy I can't see the pictures so I can't tell.

Of course, the best story-eliciting pictures are those tailored to the needs of the project's context and group of interest. I've been part of projects where stories were elicited with cartoon drawings that emerged through the cooperation of people in the group of interest working with a cartoonist in a facilitated sensemaking workshop. This more intense style of image-based story elicitation works wonders for diverse, authentic and productive response; but it also entails a larger project scope and is inappropriate for small-scale efforts. A well-chosen set of stock images fits well when needs (and budgets) are smaller.

All great ideas and enjoyed the post.


Posted by Thaler  |   July 06, 2010 at 07:43 PM

Thank you, Limor!

Posted by Thaler  |   July 06, 2010 at 07:44 PM

Nancy, thank you for your comments, and the link to Visuals Speak.

Posted by Thaler  |   July 06, 2010 at 07:46 PM

Thank you for commenting, and nice to know of a fundraising consultancy that is using a similar tool with success.

Posted by Thaler  |   July 06, 2010 at 07:58 PM

Cynthia, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your experience and insight. I especially appreciate your definition of and advice to use metaphorical pictures. The Picture Your Legacy iphone app is now available at no cost, if you want to look at the photos that way. Picture Your Legacy is tailored to 21/64's promotion of multi-generational philanthropy: they contain a great number of metaphorical images, and also images specific to potential giving areas, such as education, advocacy, health care, and Jewish issues.
Thank you again for commenting, Cynthia. I always welcome learning from you.

Posted by Howard Adam Levy  |   August 31, 2010 at 09:22 AM

Great post Thaler. This sounds like a wonderful and very useful tool. At a leadership retreat that I went on, we were given cards with images to tell a story about the nature of the attendees at the event, and it was an effective exercise. It is interesting how images can open people up. I am interviewing designers now and I ask them how they start to formulate concepts - some start with visuals and some with words. So it it interesting to see people's acclimation.

Posted by Thaler  |   August 31, 2010 at 02:38 PM

Thank you, Howard!

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