Revisiting Sarah Kay’s TED Talk

This post is part of a series I’m calling Sketchnote Flashbacks, in which I revisit sketchnotes that I took years ago, both to remind myself of the ideas I captured and explore how my sketchnoting process and style has changed over the years.

Almost eight years ago I watched Sarah Kay’s TED Talk for the first time and captured a few ideas from it in these sketchnotes:

My 2011 notes from Sarah Kay’s TED Talk on spoken word poetry.

Those were some of the earliest sketchnotes that I shared on The Graphic Recorder, a blog that I set up to document the development of my visual note-taking skills.

I’m going rewatch and redraw the talk (keep scrolling for that), but first, here’s what stands out to me as I look back at those notes that I took.

The Imagery

I remember how much I enjoyed coming up with that simple imagery of the word poetry flowing off of the page and into real life, capturing in a visual way Kay’s statement about spoken word as “creating poetry that doesn’t just want to sit on paper.” It’s listening for, and then capturing, those types of statements that makes sketchnoting interesting and memorable.

The Hoodie

Then there’s the girl in the hoodie. “Hey, I really felt that” was the phrase that most stuck with me after watching the talk and taking those notes. That phrase is what I associate with impactful art, and it’s something that I shoot for with the things that I make.

The Tools

I can tell by the style of those notes that I took them using an entry-level Wacom tablet, the kind without a screen that you have to connect to a computer. The use of that tool was a relatively short-term experiment. I shifted pretty quickly over to pen and paper (here’s my current sketchnoting toolkit, if you’re curious).

In that first viewing of Kay’s talk, I think my lens was focused on the subject of spoken word poetry, since at the time I wasn’t very familiar with that art form.

On the rewatch, though, something different stood out.

Rewatching & Redrawing

Since I’ve been revisiting my notes on the talk, I figured it would be a good idea to check out the source material again. So I decided to rewatch Kay’s TED Talk to see what stands out to me now compared to eight years ago.

I took the opportunity to practice some new note-taking techniques that I’ve been reading about in David Sibbet‘s book Visual Meetings.

I’m currently reading David Sibbet’s book Visual Meetings, and really enjoying it.

One idea from that book has stood out from the others: thinking about visual note-taking and graphic recording as “gesture with a pen” – that it’s something that can come as naturally as the hand gestures we make when speaking.

Since the craft that Kay describes and explores in her talk (spoken word poetry) utilizes gestures in a powerful way, it seemed like a natural fit to focus on capturing some of those gestures throughout the talk.

I’ve been wanting to experiment with new ways of drawing people in my sketchnotes, and I like the style that I’ve seen so far in Sibbet’s book, so I decided to imitate those, with one important constraint: don’t pick up the pen.

Once I start drawing the figure, I can’t pick it up until I’ve completed the loop. Head first, then one arm, down to that leg, then the leg and arm on the other side.

Here’s how those initial experiments with that technique turned out:

As rough and childlike as those drawings are, I actually really like them as a note-taking tool. They help to connect key phrases and ideas to the human experience, to bring them from the abstract to the tangible.

After watching that talk for the second time, it wasn’t the things about spoken word poetry that stood out to me, but rather that three-step journey that Kay describes, from “I can” to “I will” to “I am.”

When I first took those notes, I was just entering the “I can” stage of my sketchnoting journey. Not long before, I had stumbled upon another TED Talk that sparked my interest in the field of visual thinking: Sunni Brown’s Doodler’s, unite! Interestingly, both talks were given at the same TED event.

A year later I was ready to enter stage two and commit to this work, stepping away from a career path heading toward high school teaching.

Now, eight years later, I feel like I might have just crossed into the “I am” stage as I work to bring my full self to this field and the way I teach these skills.

I appreciate how Kay points out that step three never ends. It’s an ongoing process of infusing the work with what makes you you.

That feels like a worthwhile place to spend your time each day.

Dig Deeper

If you’d like to explore the world of sketchnoting in more depth, check out our online course An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking.

Reconnect to making marks by hand as you engage your full brain and get the most out of the ideas you’re working with.

Here’s where you can find our full course library.

Good luck moving from “I can” to “I will” to “I am” with the work that most lights you up.