I’ve brought my drawing materials to three conferences this year to sketch the speakers during their presentations.

It’s the closest thing I’ve found to being a courtroom sketch artist.

Conferences are hardly ideal settings for sketching people, but they’re better than stealing glances on a downtown bus. The speakers stay on a single stage with consistent lighting, and they’re energized rather than put off by someone staring intently at them for 30 minutes, an hour or longer.

Why draw? Drawing is a form of engaged observation that still allows you to pay attention to the words. Your mind isn’t drifting to other topics, you’re making eye contact with the speaker, you’re not checking your smartphone. You’ll remember the speakers you sketch.

And if you accompany text with drawings, other people will be more likely to read what you write.

Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association

January 8–11, 2015, Vancouver, British Columbia

I brought a yellow legal pad and a set of color pencils — just the primary and secondary colors plus black and white. Some of the resulting drawings were monochrome sketches, others were accented with a ballpoint pen.

MLA is organized around hundreds of sessions, most of which gives three to five speakers the opportunity to present their papers. Some stand at the lectern, others read from their seats. The rooms were rarely full, and so I would splay out a range of color pencils on the seat next to me.



Content2Conversion / Demand Gen Summit

February 16–18, 2015, Scottsdale, Arizona

Simplifying my kit for use in a packed ballroom, I made pencil sketches on Strathmore Artist Trading Cards (Bristol smooth surface, 2.5” x 3.5”).


One of the speakers, Alicia Fiorletta from Demand Gen Report, spoke about how Millennials prefer a lower text-to-image ratio than my Generation X cohort. That’s the moment when I realized that my little drawings, if paired with pithy tweets, could represent Millennial-friendly content.

Fiorletta sketch

I selected a representative quote from each speaker, and tweeted the quote along with the sketch.

American Banker: Retail Banking 2015

March 9–11, 2015, Austin, Texas

I started the conference with the intention of doing more portraits. Then, Suresh Ramamurthy from CBW Bank speculated about what might happen if Apple allowed developers to tap into its Apple Pay payments service. Inspired by his comment, I sketched what a panel at the conference might look like five years hence, each of the panelists’ heads replaced by the Apple logo.



This represents a twist to conference sketching: live cartooning. Tweeters are always looking to make some kind of quip, but a quip with a cartoon is much more appealing, especially to those wacky, lovable Millennials.

Live cartooning is a high-wire act. You need to know enough about the business to follow the conversation, you have to be funny enough to come up with a joke, and you need sufficient artistic talent to execute on the idea. Practice, practice, practice.

I decided not to force it. I’d draw portraits until someone made a cartoon-worthy comment.

Oliver Jenkyn, Group Executive, North America at Visa talked about the virtues of finding a “Millennial Mentor.”

I drew him alongside what appeared to be a generational stereotype: skinny jeans, large-gauge earrings, tattoos, beard. Actually, it wasn’t a stereotype, it’s one of my nephews (Hi, Drew!).


Gareth Gaston, EVP and Head of Omnichannel at U.S. Bank described how the usual data elements used for authentication no longer worked: “Static data is compromised. SSN, gone. DOB, gone. Dog’s name? Maybe if you rename your dog.”

I drew a dog with an password-worthy name.


Number crunching

The rename-your-dog tweet landed 1,274 impressions, 29 total engagements, 15 photo clicks and 5 retweets, including a retweet by the conference presenter.

It’s a small community, the people who go to financial technology conferences. These were decent results.

Let’s compare the American Banker event, where I drew cartoons, to C2C, where I drew portraits accompanying direct quotes from the speakers, and to last year’s Sibos, where I only posted text tweets.

conference sketching stats

Tweets with drawings are twice as engaging as text-only tweets.

10 Tips for Conference Sketchers

  1. Start slowly. Don’t decide upon the orientation of the head too soon. That’s to say, if you start with a head-on view, what happens if the person spends the whole talk showing her profile while drawing on a whiteboard, or staring down into his notes? Get the proportions right first, the angles between shoulder and the bottom of the chin and the top of the head. By the time you get the eggshell on paper, you can get a rough sense of what your most effective perspective will be.
  2. Portrait, figure or landscape? Portraits pair well with a quote. Figure drawings work best for keynote speakers. Landscapes capture the scene: a plenary session, a panel discussion, the expo hall.
  3. Take a reference photo. You’ll need it when you screw up the live drawing.
  4. Be nice. Be more like a boardwalk caricature artist, where the subject of your drawing is also the client, rather than a MAD magazine satirist skewering public figures. Take it easy on the overbites and moles; better to go with a big, goofy smile.
  5. Develop your skills. If you want to take the first steps toward learning to draw, work through the exercises in Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Support the teaching artists in your community by taking a class or two or ten. For caricaturing tips, read Tom Richmond,The Mad Art of Caricature!
  6. Practice. Copy a portrait from the newspaper to practice drawing people wearing business attire. Then, to practice drawing a moving subject, watch a video lecture and draw the speaker.
  7. Consider your tools. Bring an eraser. Color pencils are fine if you keep it to a limited palette for stylistic effects rather than precise blending. Graphite pencils let you focus on the likeness. You can add filters later, or overlay color if you like, using digital editing tools. Whatever works for you.
  8. Take the best photos you can. Find some natural light and lay the drawing on a neutral surface. Include white space around the edges, because you may have to crop the photo differently for different social networks, e.g. Instagram likes squares and Twitter likes landscapes.
  9. Share your work online. Find the Twitter hashtag and join the conversation. Also, many conferences have their own apps with social network feeds. Use those, too.
  10. Network. Put your pencils down and share your work in person. “Hey, I drew your picture!” makes for an excellent icebreaker.

In October, I’ll be taking my pencils to Singapore for Sibos. Contact me to arrange a free portrait sitting.

Follow me on Twitter.

One thought on “What I learned from sketching at conferences

  1. Pingback: Foreword to “The Sedervantes” | ivantohelpyou

Comments are closed.