Musings on cartoon thinking, comedy and speechwriting

I’ve led many cartoon workshops over the years, and have yet to meet someone incapable of learning how to draw. But occasionally before a workshop, I’m told, “I’m sure you won’t be able to teach me how to draw, because I’m a verbal, words person, not an arty, visual one.”

The tendency for people to view themselves as either visual or verbal is widespread in our culture. Its roots lie in the mistaken belief that our senses exist in separate boxes, more or less isolated from each other.

The now discredited theory of learning styles – the view that when it comes to learning things, each of us favours the input of one sense, above others – is yet another manifestation of this wrong-headed notion. Imagine the pickle you’d find yourself in if you had to teach a self-described auditory learner the shape of Algeria, using sound alone. Whatever their professed learning style, there’s only one sure-fire way to teach someone the shape of Algeria, or any other country for that matter – you need to show it to them, and they need to take it in with their eyes!

It just doesn’t make sense for someone who regards themself as primarily verbal to insist they aren’t visual – not least, because good writing tends to be jam-packed with images and metaphors. Whether we’re talking Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jerry Seinfeld, good writers and communicators, paint pictures with words.

The art of the gag
Recently, the Guardian invited the very funny and clever stand-up comedian, Milton Jones, to analyse his comic technique. He began with some reflections on this, his opening gag:

“Incredible to think, isn’t it, that the Chinese language started off as English in England, but then one person whispered it to another person…”

As a practising speechwriter (words person?) and cartoonist (pictures person?), I’d like to share a few insights into how I think this delightful gag works, because I believe the same set of techniques could help you bring your own stories, speeches and presentations to life.

Jones observes that when one of his gags works “it’s because it puts a silly cartoon in people’s heads, and they suspend their disbelief for a millisecond.” I know exactly what he means – cartoon thinking is my stamping ground. I use it everyday in my work as a cartoonist, speechwriter, and workshop leader – and I’m convinced it lies at the heart of all good communication.

The grain of sand in Jones’s creative oyster is the phrase ‘Chinese whispers’. He uses the term “reverse engineering” to describe the cartoon thinking technique he uses to pull the phrase apart and then put it back together again, differently.

“Most of my stuff is reverse-engineered from tripping over a phrase or an idea and working out what the most unlikely misinterpretation might be (now the phrase reverse engineer has me thinking). At some point, I played with the concept of Chinese whispers like a Rubik’s cube in my head, until I’d settled on the unlikeliest combination.”

Words into pictures…pictures into words…
Cartoon thinking brings to light the intimate relationship, and interplay, between drawn images, mental images and words. All it requires is something to make a mark with (pens are useful!), something to make a mark on (paper comes in handy!), and an unfettered imagination.

Let’s kick off with some doodles inspired by the phrase, ‘Chinese whispers’, starting with the word ‘Chinese’.
chinese head
The currency of cartoon thinking is stereotypes: the bad cartoonist is blinded by them; the good cartoonist deconstructs and subverts them. The act of thinking about a word or image is akin to throwing a pebble into a still pond – instantly, and without conscious determination, your mind begins to ripple with associated images, words, recollections and feelings.

“Chinese…inscrutable…populous…whispers…Great Wall…take-away…Red Army…power…Chinese language…difficult…pictograms…”, and so on. The order of associated words and feelings will, of course, vary from person to person, but stereotypical thinking guarantees that many key associations are shared.
The word ‘Chinese’ gives rise to ‘whispers’, so let’s look at a drawing of one Chinese person whispering to another.
The drawing depicts a single act of whispering, but the notion of Chinese whispers conjures up an image of a chain of people whispering – let’s look at one in action.
chinese whisper
Cartoon thinking often employs exaggeration to get our attention, and make its point – rhetoricians call it hyperbole. ‘Chinese whispers…Great Wall of China…’ – what if we imagine a Chinese whisper that’s as long – or maybe even longer than – the Great Wall of China?

Pictures in your mind’s eye
At this point on our creative journey, the mental image begins to offer much more imaginative versatility than its physically drawn counterpart. In my mind’s eye, I can fly at great speed above a Chinese whisper that circles the world. What’s more, I can swoop down and zoom in to look at the faces of the individual whisperers too. (Compare Churchill’s iron curtain descending across the continent ‘from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’ – as a mental image it catches fire, but would fall flat on its face as a PowerPoint slide).

Chinese whispers is a visual metaphor for the degradation of a message as it passes from one whisperer to the next. What message could these people be sharing? It’s time to play with another basic cartoon thinking technique that involves turning things on their head, it’s called reversal.

What if the Chinese whisperers aren’t Chinese at all. What if they’re English like Milton Jones, and me? England and China…what if the chain of whisperers stretches all the way from England to China?

Two very different languages, English and Chinese. What could connect them? What if the degradation of the message involved one of the languages morphing into the other? You see where this is leading, don’t you?

As this stage, Jones has a clever idea, but his next big challenge is to translate it into words that do it justice. Like all good writers, he knows that less is more. He tells us that sometimes it can take him years to get the wording of a gag just right: “a subtle inflexion or an extra word can make all the difference. But when a joke is successful it makes people see something in a completely new light.”

And like all good performers – whether they be stand-up comedians or speechmakers – he knows that audiences love to be involved in the act of creation, and like nothing better than being invited to fill in the gaps. The rhetorical devices that make Jones’s gag tick are synecdoche (building a picture of the whole from a significant detail) and enthymeme (filling in the missing gaps of an argument) – devices also beloved of speechwriters and speechmakers!

In a recent Desert Island Discs programme, comedian Jack Dee described these devices another way when he talked about the stuff you don’t say being just as important as the stuff you do say: “it’s allowing the audience to join the dots and do some thinking for themselves, which is brilliant.”

So next time someone asks you about your preferred learning style, think cartoonist and tell them you’re a visual/verbal/auditory/touchy-feely kinda guy, or gal, with a nose for a good idea.

If you enjoyed this post, why not come along to our day workshop on 11th July in Brighton – if you use the promotional code CARTOON when booking your place, you’ll get a whopping £150 discount!


  1. Martin,

    You touched on and explained so many subjects so well. Thanks.

    When I was first learning to give speeches (four decades ago!), I was told to study politicians and preachers. These days I tell people to study stand up comics. So I love your analysis of Jones.

    I think that what you say about cartoons applies to stories. And the word that applies to both is sketchy. (A sketch is both a rough or incomplete drawing and a short skit.)

    What matters to both cartooning and storytelling (I’m not a cartoonist, so correct me if I’m wrong) is sketching out a rough picture — on paper or in people’s imaginations — using a few telling details, which allow the reader/audience to fill in the gaps.

    It is often the gaps — what isn’t said — that allows people either to make connections or to take a leap. Either way something (an insight?) happens.

  2. Martin Shovel says

    Chris, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I like your use of the word ‘sketchy’ in this context because it illuminates the interplay between words (stories) and images (cartoons).

  3. Great article Martin. Really challenges thinking and mindsets. Particularly like the point that our senses are not in specific boxes.

  4. Max Atkinson says

    Good blog for Father’s Day

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