Have you ever encountered a facilitator whom over the course of a meeting wrote down lots of words on easel-pad paper, filled up the wall space with page after page of notes and at the end of the meeting simply transcribed the notes into a word processing document or worse, never captured the content at all? How useful was that?

Elsewhere, I contend that using visuals appropriately is a core competency of a facilitator and in this post want to expand some on the purpose and functions of using visuals as a facilitation tool. Far from being the “facilitator thing to do” the effective use of visuals is critical to the facilitation process. Visual learning is a component of most experiential learning theories detailing that people learn by processing with all senses available to them. As a result, facilitators should not be in the business of “writing things down on easel pads” but should be employing learning theory in their use of visuals. In my understanding of experiential and adult learning theories, I would suggest that visuals have three primary functions in facilitation including:

Organizing, Naming and Representing
: The effective use of visuals in facilitation has the purpose of getting the group into a place of shared understanding and the co-creating of ideas. To do this, a facilitator needs to use visuals to organize ideas, name common elements and represent complex issues. At the most basic level, an example might be a facilitator listing the results during brainstorming and then helping a group sort and narrow items. However the task of shared understanding and co-creation often requires access to more sophisticated visual processes.  Brainstorming and narrowing are wholly inadequate to capture complex concepts.  Other tools  such as concept mapping, story-boarding, logic models, event-planning, decision trees or other flow diagrams are necessary to meet complex needs. When a facilitator gets stuck on making and narrowing lists, s/he fails to access the wider dynamic of systems thinking that is required to move from ideas to a shared understanding and representation of those ideas.

Orienting and Navigating: The second use of visuals in facilitation is to provide a sense of orientation and navigation. Think about times that you shop online or complete an online survey or register for a new website. These days we take for granted that whenever we are completing a multi-stage online experience, there is often clear guidance somewhere on the computer screen telling us that we are “at step three of a five step process” or that we are “60% of the way through the survey”. If we get lost or stuck, help is a click away. In group facilitation it should be no different. While a printed agenda might be the most basic visual to orient a group to where they are in a process, good facilitation effectively uses visuals to mark progress through a given task. Visual learning tools that a facilitator might use to keep groups on track might include a printed organizer, visual metaphors or icons approach to mark transition points, or purposeful color coding. Orienting and navigating become even more critical when the facilitated process extends over time and multiple sessions. When a workgroup is together for 12 meetings over a period of six months, visual orienting and navigating are important facilitator functions.

Summarizing and Narrating: As I suggested in the opening paragraph, there is nothing more useless than a transcription of flipchart notes. Yet, often such transcription is appended to meeting minutes. Visual learning requires the facilitator to synthesize large amounts of information and represent it as summary and story narrative. Summarizing and narrating, discards early draft ideas (like initial brainstorm lists) and focuses instead on the shared understandings and the things that are permanent. Again, if the facilitator has been successful in visually creating shared understanding and keeping the group organized, the summary and narration might include a simple task grid to identify actions, assignments and accountabilities or as complex as creating a final storyboard.

While, anyone holding a box of markers and easel paper might be able to run an effective meeting, the use of visuals in facilitation is really about process. In an expanded view of the facilitation process, visual learning is very different than writing things down. Visual learning is based on learning theories such as Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theories mode or other experiential learning theories. In addition, the tools used to support visual learning in facilitation are also connected to theory. So, for example, Google search concept mapping or logic models and you will see that such tools are not simply drawing circles and arrows. The point is that the use of visuals in facilitation needs to be thoughtful, intentional and purposeful for groups and facilitators to be truly effective.

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.