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June 2013

Visualizing Ideas: Graphic Facilitator Brandy Agerbeck Discusses Her 'Really Strange Job'

As told to Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor

When people ask her what she does for a living, Brandy Agerbeck has a stock answer ready: “I've got a really strange job — I'm a graphic facilitator.” Then “cue sound of crickets,” she writes in her 2012 book, The Graphic Facilitator's Guide.


But once you see Agerbeck in action, you immediately recognize what it is that she does. She is one of a growing number of professionals who are hired to map ideas and information in real time, taking the raw materials of words and images — plus paper and colored markers — and finding the patterns and connections between them. Because she's very good at what she does, Agerbeck tends to make it look like magic. But, as she explained to Convene, graphic facilitation is a practiced blend of drawing, thinking, and listening skills.

I was the type of kid who drew all the time. It's funny, looking back at the photos of when I was little, because I was either drawing or making stuff with clay. I went to Grinnell College [in Iowa]. Grinnell had a class called the Freshman Tutorial — it teaches you how to write and research and speak. At the end of that semester, we each had to give a speech. The night before, I pictured it in my mind: “Here are the pieces of it and this is what the shape of it is.”

The next morning I give my talk, but at the same time I'm talking, I'm turning to the chalkboard and drawing it out. I can still completely picture my professor in the back of the room, just looking at me like I was an alien dropped from the sky. Like, “Why is she drawing?” So that was the first seed — where it was just truly, “Oh, this is the way I need to explain what I'm doing.” I graduated with a BA in studio art, and in my final critique, my professor said, “You're really good at helping people talk through their ideas.”

After college, I moved to Chicago and got a crappy job in an art store. Afew months into it, I said, “I can't stand this,” and I quit. I started temping. One of my classmates worked at a temp agency, and one of the contracts they were filling was for Ernst & Young, the consulting company. That was in 1996; it [was] the middle of the consulting boom.

Ernst & Young had bought a process from a company called MG Taylor, which stands for Matt and Gail Taylor. [The Taylors] and their colleagues had created this completely phenomenal process where participants would work together for three days. Time after time, these clients would come out of this three-day workshop saying that they got six months’ or a year's worth of work done because Matt and Gail and their colleagues had figured out how you facilitate people to problem-solve and work together. So Ernst & Young had licensed their process, and they were just starting up in Chicago.

At the time, the last thing I wanted was a full-time job, and [my classmate] said, “No, no, no, it's a contract thing. You would work for six days.” I thought, “Okay, I'm 22.I don't know which end is up.” I was hired to do one of these workshops for a six-day contract. It was very highly facilitated — there were 60 people in the workshop, there were 15 of us supporting the event by doing graphic facilitation or setting up the environment. The very first thing they told us when we walked in was, “This is all about facilitation. Your job as facilitators is to make the participants’ job easy.” And that was it. I get that.

I get to really, really work at the peak of what I am good at. I think a lot of people come at [graphic facilitation] in different directions and it's not necessarily their sweet spot. But for me, I'm really thrilled that I get to work completely to my strengths. And I get to serve people. Our culture is slowly getting more and more visual. Look at YouTube and Pin-terest and Tumblr — those are all really visual mediums that people totally get and embrace.

There are three powers to the work. The first is being listened to. Ithinkyou can go into a meeting and spend all of this energy worrying about how you're going to get to express X, Y, and Z. The great thing is, once you get X, Y, and Z out and it's on that sheet of paper, you think, “Okay, now I can listen to other people. Now I can build on their ideas.”

The second thing is shared understanding. It's the idea that I came in with X, Y, and Z, but Bob came in with A, B, and C, and Jill has M, N, and O. You're seeing how these things all fit together.

The third thing is that idea of seeing and touching your work. We live in a very text-based and auditory culture. You go into these meetings and the medium of a meeting is talking, and you only retain the things that are most pertinent to you. Once you get it up there on paper, people see everything in context. They have a shared understanding, and they also have much better retention.

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