Adding the role of Synthesizers helps groups focus

sam bradd, artist, vancouver, image, what is graphic recording, what is graphic facilitation, illustration, facilitation tools, facilitation toolbox, art based community building, what is collaboration, union, illustrator, best practice, vector, best practice, visualization, visual learners, infographic, graphic design, mind map, mind mapping, visual practitioner, creativity, sketch noters, visual notetaking, consultant, facilitator, visual thinking, information architects, visual synthesis, graphic translation, group graphics, and ideation specialists, live drawing, group facilitation, group collaborative work, world cafe, conference, information design, information designers, virtual coaches, educator, non-profit, progressive, environment, sustainability, community, health, indigenous, aboriginal, youth, teens, adult learners, adult education, empowerment, justice,  leadership, team building, experiential graphicsIt’s the middle of an important meeting. Heads are bowed. But unfortunately, it’s in Blackberry prayer.

An effective and gentle way to help a group refocus is the role of Synthesizers. 

Synthesizers are people who support the facilitator and summarize the main points and emerging themes for the group. They speak for 1 – 2 minutes at planned moments during the event. I’ve noticed heads look up as people tune back in for the summary. It’s a chance to pause and let the information sink in.

Graphic recording is visual synthesis, so it’s easy to work as a team.

Why does it work?

I know synthesis is key to being a good graphic recorder – I’m summarizing and making connections as I draw. The success is because all of the Synthesizers share the work with the event facilitator. Whether it’s out loud (or in images), synthesizers have ‘outsider ears*’ and catch the top-level, big ideas. It’s a way to acknowledge and reflect back what is happening in the room. People feel heard. The event facilitator is multi tasking: they’re keeping the group on track, responding to the groups’ needs, as well as summarizing. The Synthesizers focus on the content. It’s a team approach.

Tips for adding Synthesizers at your event:

  1. Identifying relevant Synthesizers. The event organizers invite either a handful of people, or one person, to play the Synthesizer role. The Synthesizers can be selected for diverse backgrounds or perspectives. A health forum might ask a key public official to synthesize by linking the event to a broader context. A team of Synthesizers for a large event can also be a best practice: an academic planning session might invite staff, admin and faculty to be on the Synthesis team.
  2. Good timing. The timing is planned out when the Synthesizer(s) will report back on the major themes. This may be halfway through a full day session, and/or at the end of the day.
  3. Preparation. Each Synthesizer listens and takes their own notes through the day. Some people speak on their feet, others use a laptop to print out their speaking notes. Some ambitious people take photos through the day and then show a photo while they speak – bonus points for visuals!
  4. Teamwork. Checking in between a Synthesizer team is key. An easy way is for the Synthesis team to eat lunch together. It’s time to reflect and share what happened at their small-group tables, and/or what they noticed happening in the room. Synthesizers can point out what topics are emerging as well as what is not being said (are there elephants in the room?). They can work as a team to identify themes for their report back to the larger group.
  5. Use Synthesizers between transitions. I find the out-loud and visual synthesis helps participants track the major points and feel grounded before diving deeper. This type of summary can help with transitions when moving from presentation panels to group work.

How does graphic recording fit with Synthesizers?

– The Synthesizers are aware of my role as a graphic recorder. I like to explain that I’m also here to summarize and support the group, and that we work together for the same goals.

– If there is a check-in just before the meeting starts, or a gathering over lunch, it’s great when I’m invited so I can hear and absorb the Synthesizer perspectives.

– My visuals can also be a facilitation support tool for the Synthesizers (it’s synthesis for the synthesizers!). For example, I’ve brought my graphic recording images to a lunch meeting where the Synthesizers are gathered. I quickly walk through what I’ve heard by pointing out different parts of the image.

– When the Synthesizers are speaking to the larger group, it’s a good time for me to review what I’ve captured in my graphic recording so far. Have I captured everything? Are new things emerging? Does the group have new questions? It’s a time for me to pause and double-check.

– Visuals support review and learning – it’s best practice for adult education. Participants have heard the content once and seen the larger graphic recording; the final summary recaps the information out loud and visually. Since I’m making custom images, it’s great to use them to their full potential.  The Synthesizer can refer to a specific part of the image – maybe mention a story that I might have drawn (“It was like climbing Mount Everest”) –  or display part of the image in a slide behind them.

– The graphic recorder can also play the role of Synthesizer at the end of the session. Sometimes I’m asked to talk through the graphic recording image and share the main themes that emerge.

Final thoughts

I find Synthesizers to be especially effective at forums, conferences, and large events. The structure is clear: there is still a main facilitator, and the workload is shared. And it’s one last chance to get to the heart of the message – which makes it easier for people to bow their heads afterwards and tweet it out.

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* Thanks to Brandy Agerbeck for the great description of facilitators’ “outsider ears”.

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