The Back of the Napkin

Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures

By Dan Roam

Portfolio, 256 pp. $24.95


Reviewed by Richard Pachter


I'm one of the last guys in the world who need to be convinced of the efficacy of the visual presentation of ideas. As a youngster, I was heavily into comic books and realized early on that most people remember things by visualizing them; attaching images to thoughts, ideas, names and places is the surest way to invoke them. As a writer, one tries to use language to evoke images, and as an advertising copywriter, I find marrying words to pictures to create interest and encourage action is an ongoing challenge.

But most people are not adept at expressing themselves visually. Even with the aid of high-end software, I am not a good artist, for example. And with a pen, pencil or marker, my drawings tend to compel people to howl derisively.

That is where Dan Roam comes in.

His book does three big things really well. First, it presents a persuasive argument for employing simple iconography as a means of communicating and persuading. Next, he provides some important and powerful examples. Finally, he tells and shows how to do it.

As a way to inspire and motivate, for some people - many people in this nascent postliterate era - pictures are more immediate and persuasive than words. The only drawback about it is this: For some, words are enough. The images they create may be personal and powerful. Defining them tends to limit them. If you can remember the days before music videos, we had no idea of what songs really "meant" and how the performers really looked, except for infrequent appearances on TV variety shows between Italian hand puppets and guys juggling plates. Suddenly, people knew what Prince and Duran Duran looked like and many people wanted to Wang Chung, preferably tonight. But I digress.

Roam is a deft and interesting writer. Even when he is just using words without pictures, he's an engaging and stylish communicator with a distinctive voice and a definite point of view. Though I am not completely sold on the idea of visual presentations for every occasion, I think the act of trying to come up with the right images forces the presenter to break things down into the most important and meaningful components, which is a good way to get a point across, irrespective of the chosen medium. As a way to get attention and disrupt the status quo and penetrate defenses, simple imagery is deceptively potent and effective.

Besides his fine text and illustrations, Roam presents other resources - books and software - to help readers become more adept at visual presentation. Interestingly, after I read this book, I did a quick search on the Web and discovered a few adjuncts to this book. One was a slide show that author Roam created for BusinessWeek, here:

. Another was the "lost chapter" of the book, here:

» READ MORE: http://

go.philly.com/lostchapter.

Of the two, naturally, the slide show was more interesting. Figures.

Richard Pachter is the business book columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be reached at rap@WordsOnWords.com; more columns are available at www.WordsOnWords.com.