Through years of my life and work with literally thousands of entrepreneurs, I’ve come to believe that there is a correlation between one’s likelihood for success, and one’s ability to visually brainstorm and articulate thoughts. Enter the whiteboard: the pale proving ground for ideas both genius and heinous.
Certainly, in the popular discourse concerning innovative communication technologies, the whiteboard is far from the cutting edge.
A younger cousin of the chalkboard, the whiteboard is neither small nor sleek. It consumes wall space, attracts graffiti, and requires an actual eraser in order to ‘delete.’ It does not deliver impression metrics, nor can it be connected with the cloud. And yet, despite its “square” image among more hip mediums for communication, I relish the opportunity to use the whiteboard as a means of connecting with my team.
Whiteboarding is a skill that we know when we see, but that we don’t talk about. It’s obvious when its missing: drawn out meetings, with lots of people and lots of distractions; or the extremely complex, heart-felt vision that someone can’t seem to articulate in a way that’s digestible for everyone else. In fact, when I find myself listening to someone attempting to articulate a vision without the ability to concisely represent their thoughts on a whiteboard, I find myself doubting their vision altogether.
The whiteboard does not replace technology like Photoshop, Asana, or Google Drive, nor does it have to. The whiteboard serves a simpler technological purpose in the office: to get people thinking away from their screens. And as you might expect from a medium adored by engineers, the whiteboard is a medium that wonderfully accommodates non-creatives; where no one cares how beautifully you draw, but rather how effectively your drawings communicate.
In my experience with startups, I’ve found that there’s power in presenting visual ideas offline, particularly when it’s done openly as a team.
My team can attest to my affinity for whiteboard usage, and my success with the medium may have something to do with the following points:
Structuring ideas, in public, is what it takes to get good feedback. Respect the fact that you control the smelly bright marker, and that this might be the first time your colleagues have stepped away from a screen this morning. The change of medium can be a powerful tool for engagement.
Teams appreciate a great note taker; those who save the group time and effort in recording a meeting’s train-of-thought. The whiteboard allows an MC to play presenter and secretary simultaneously, while taking notes for the group rather than the other way around. Productive engagement comes from the participation of the team– shouting out criticisms and contributions– in a fast, efficient, and non-digital format.
The whiteboard enjoys physical and emotional inclusiveness. Even as technology thrills professionals, in-person presentation remains empowering to the audience in a way that has yet to be fully synthesized online. The whiteboard is an open meeting space for my team and me, and is productive in part because of it’s separation from the stream of daily digital activities.
Also, all deletion is permanent, which is central to the creative process of the space. The whiteboard is intended to mitigate the risks of forgetfulness, while remaining free from the anxiety or expectation of permanence.
Be prepared to keep your erasure to a minimum. There’s nothing wrong with removing ideas from the board; however, breaking your train of thought to backtrack can risk the continuity of your presentation. Use the following tips to approach the whiteboard prepared:
• Visualize your agenda – if you have a clear agenda for your session, great! Write it down and review it quickly as you kick off. Solicit reactions and suggestions to the agenda, making sure everyone had the chance to be heard. If not, crowdsource a quick agenda. Be sure to always end with a review of action items or next steps.
• Know your key statements – force yourself to narrow down a brainstorming sessions to 3 points that YOU want to make. These can be things you believe in or event key questions you don’t yet have answers to. Know these beforehand, write them down somewhere, and keep them in front of you while you run the whiteboard.
• Turn the tables – the second you physically stand up and grab a pen, you have the power to ask questions from your audience. Ask questions that get people pointed towards your key statements. If someone is particularly passionate about something, hand them a pen and ask them to write/draw it. The better you do at facilitating others to participate in the conversation, the more committed everyone will be to the outcomes.
• Assign action items – Perhaps the most vital skill is to quickly gather feedback and turn them into actionable steps. Draw a star next to the action and then write the person’s name responsible for them. Be explicit about actions (or lack there of) for every single topic discussed and get a verbal commitment for the owners of each.
• Follow-up – After every good whiteboard session, you should have a lot of information that, to an outsider, will look extremely chaotic. Take a picture and capture an outline summary in an email or Google Doc that you can send to everyone who was there with extremely clear action items and owners for each. Make sure to do it within minutes or at max a couple hours of the meeting happening. Aka don’t over-engineer the follow up. Keep it simple.