There is nothing quite like a New Yorker cartoon. The late film critic Roger Ebert was such a fan that he entered the magazine’s Cartoon Caption Contest one hundred and seven times without winning. It got so bad for him that in 2009, he griped on his own blog that he’d like to win the contest just once, and see his caption printed in the magazine. All this, from a nationally recognized, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Eventually, Ebert prevailed and won Cartoon Contest #281 in 2011. Interestingly, a first-time applicant won Cartoon Contest #282, in what was either a stroke of magnificent luck or the editors having some fun with Ebert. Either way, the story underscores just how universally appealing and compelling the New Yorker style of cartooning—a single panel, often with a single-line caption—really is.
Jonathan Plotkin well knows the power of New Yorker cartoons. As a nationally published editorial cartoonist himself, he and Pat Byrnes, a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, co-founded The Drawing Board, a consultancy that employs a team of New Yorker cartoonists to teach people in the ethics and compliance space how to think creatively and “confront problems more insightfully.”
They do this through their Build-A-Metaphor workshop, a three-hour team exercise in which cartoonists from The Drawing Board lead the participants on a series of creative thinking exercises. A common warm-up exercise is for people to break off into small groups and imagine they are stuck on a desert island. With nothing else to aid them, what special skills does each person in the group have to ensure the group’s survival? Plotkin says that simple form of conversation, which takes people far outside of their professional selves, does a lot to get people to see each other in different ways, and to lower their guard, which prepares them for the real star of the event, the Build-A-Metaphor exercise.
For this one, the groups collaborate on whiteboards that feature a selection of different pre-drawn elements of a New Yorker-style cartoon. (At the moment, the whiteboards are digital because Build-A-Metaphor is still being conducted remotely because of COVID-19, but Byrnes and Plotkin hope to resume holding the workshops in person again soon.) There might be as many as 20 different backgrounds, from a castle to an office building, to a playground, to a deck of a boat. There might be a dozen or more character archetypes, as well as images of props, like a banana peel or a vending machine.
The participants choose a background, then drag and drop elements onto it, building a cartoon like how one might have played with Colorforms as a child. Before the exercise, The Drawing Board meets with the client for a series of interviews to develop the mural template to be used in the workshop. This ensures that the cartoon elements to be used will align with particular topics the client wants the workshop to address, such as conflicts of interest; anti-bribery; diversity, equity, and inclusion; environmental, social, and governance; or building a culture of integrity.
The Drawing Board facilitators encourage participants to have fun with the exercise, and to think about situations where things are likely to get worse not better, and to think about an outcome the opposite of what is desired. Usually, the final touch is the caption the group decides on to bring the cartoon together. By the time it’s over, the group will have created their own cartoon that speaks to a truth within the ethics and compliance space, or more broadly, life in the business world.
To be fair, not every cartoon created is a masterpiece. Single-frame cartooning is not an easy discipline to master, since so many story elements need to be expressed at once, in carefully crafted harmony or disharmony with each other. Still, some of the workshop cartoons are pretty funny.
“We had a great one recently that came out of one of the Ethisphere workshops we ran during the Global Ethics Summit,” Plotkin recalls. “There was a CEO in a suit standing next to another executive in the company, on a desert island, and the caption was, ‘It’s pretty quiet. Things must be going well.’ It’s a silly cartoon, but it actually represents the separation that sometimes happens between the C-suite and everyone else. When you find a way to share a common experience, you have almost guaranteed someone’s ability to be present in the conversation.”
That is why cartoons are actually a terrific way of reaching an audience. And this matters for ethics and compliance leaders, who are searching for ways to increase levels of engagement with their internal stakeholders.
Humor, Empathy, and Metaphor
One of the big deliverables of the Build-A-Metaphor workshop is to teach its participants how to think like a cartoonist. But to understand what that means, first, it pays to understand not just that cartoons work, but why. And how.
Cartoons are effective because they employ a sophisticated form of camouflage, explains Pat Byrnes. A winner of multiple national awards for cartooning, Pat deeply understands what makes a good cartoon, and why our brains so eagerly receive them. It all begins with humor, which Byrnes will admit, is not something people typically associate with the world of ethics and compliance. And yet, humor works here as well as anywhere else. Perhaps better, even.
“When you first look at a cartoon, you have to make a three to five second investment of your time, but the potential return on that investment is great,” Byrnes explains. “You might get a little chuckle or a wry grin, but if you get a laugh, that’s huge. People will spend an hour chasing a laugh. So for the three to five seconds it takes to look at a cartoon, the risk to reward ratio is negligible, and the reward to risk ratio is enormous. That’s why I am such an evangelist of humor.”
By making us laugh, Byrnes says, cartoons slip around our emotional defenses. By the time we realize that, we have already absorbed what they are saying, which is a good thing when trying to deliver a message about a prickly topic like bribery, conflicts of interest, or money laundering.
“The other thing that makes cartoons a wonderful way to break through is if you embed a message in a little story you remember, it stays in your head,” Byrnes says “It might have just been a cartoon about a princess and a dinosaur, but when you come up to some circumstance in your life and you realize what that cartoon was a metaphor for. Metaphors work on the level of lived experience. They work their way into our neural networks and they get processed as if we actually went through them. There is something in us that that recreates that experience, which is why they help you understand something deeply and with feeling. That is what makes them such powerful things.”
Cartoons also trade on our sense of empathy, which Byrnes points out, is closely connected to the mirror neurons in our brains. In order to understand a cartoon, he says, the reader must look at each character and understand what they are thinking, feeling, doing in just a second or two. Then they read the caption, which takes another three seconds to digest a complex story that has a surprise ending.
When all of that slams into the brain, he says, it creates a powerful experience. When we feel for the characters and feel their pain or their embarrassment, we build a bond with them, however fleetingly, and see ourselves in them.
“When you hit that self-realization in a way that you actually enjoy, that leads to be behavioral change,” Byrnes says.
Thinking Like a Cartoonist
The big deliverable for The Drawing Board’s workshops is to train its participants to think like a New Yorker cartoonist. The idea is that literalism and fastidious, rules-based thinking are the antithesis of a strong ethics and compliance because it promotes compliance through compulsion rather than compliance through compassion.
“In our workshops, we give people some basic skills for making visual associations and thinking metaphorically so they can find the unexpected connections between things and then put it all together in funny story that touches a critical moment,” Byrnes says. “When you start thinking like that, and developing an eye for things that are a little bit off, it is a wonderful way to develop your empathy.”
Cartoon-based thinking leads to compliance through compassion, Byrnes says, because it taps into our empathy, thoroughly engages our values, and creates a rewards-based learning format. We remember how a cartoon made us laugh, and the resulting positive feedback in our brain makes us more receptive to insight. That creates a virtuous cycle and enriches our understanding of something.
According to Plotkin, thinking like a cartoonist will be a valuable skill for ethics and compliance officers, since organizations are trying desperately to manage the process of training their own people to be more aware, to be more open-minded, and to act in accordance with the rules and regulations with their own rules and those that have been instilled by regulators.
“All this stuff kind of rains down on compliance officers, so we are trying to reimagine it in ways that would be more interesting and sticky. That’s why we use visual metaphor and cartoons to speak to any of these kinds of scenarios. Because let’s face it, a lot of this training is not fun.”
Plotkin recalls talking with one compliance officer who said she felt like a police officer at work, that her colleagues would whisper about her when she walked by. It’s a familiar story, and one Plotkin would like to address through the humor, empathy, and metaphor that cartoon thinking promotes.
“If people freeze up the moment a compliance officer walks into the room, that compliance officer is working with one hand tied behind their back, Plotkin says. “But if we can bring a sense of empathy into the conversation, and working with compliance officers becomes something people look forward to, instead of avoid, that would be great.”
For The Drawing Board, an ideal outcome is a session that reframes traditional ethics and compliance issues into a context that people can understand more deeply and more easily, especially if they are not ethics and compliance professionals themselves.
“We’re not compliance trainers, but we make compliance training easier, more engaging and, at the end of the day, more worthwhile,” Plotkin says. “We think this is a good collaboration that can be meaningful and can help our clients be better at what they do.”
ABOUT THE EXPERTS
Pat Byrnes is Co-Founder and Executive Creative Director of The Drawing Board. He is a cartoonist best known for his work in The New Yorker, as well as for his comic strip, Monkeyhouse. He received the 2001 National Cartoonists Society Advertising and Illustration Award and the 2017 National Cartoonists Society Gag Cartoonist of the Year Award. He can be reached at www.cartoonists.com and at www.patbyrnes.com.
Jonathan Plotkin is Co-Founder and Strategic Business Manager of the Drawing Board. He is a nationally published editorial cartoonist and illustrator who brings a 35-year career in business development to the Drawing Board team. Jonathan is a standing member of the National Cartoonists Society and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. His art can be found on the pages of the Chicago Tribune, American Bystander and other national print and online publications. He can be reached at www.cartoonists.com and at www.spontoonist.com.
The cartoons appearing in this story are part of Ethisphere’s Ethitoons collection and are ©2022 Ethisphere. For information on how to obtain Ethitoons for use within your own organization, please contact Anne Walker at [email protected].