Maybe nothing that’s sketched on a whiteboard will ever find its way into an art museum, but approaching whiteboard presentations with an artist’s eye is a winning strategy when it comes to effective communication.
Respect the medium. Memorable artworks seem ideally suited to the medium in which the artist chose to create them. Rodin’s The Thinker, say, wouldn’t be nearly as powerful done as a drawing, and Gaugin’s islanders wouldn’t have the same sensual appeal rendered in bronze. What does that have to do with whiteboards? Whiteboards are also a medium of expression, elegantly suited to displaying visual information in a setting where collaboration is the desired outcome. Whiteboard presentations show complex relationships that would be cumbersome to describe in words, they make highly technical information more accessible, and they help people literally see a situation at a glance. All the while, whiteboard presentations encourage the kind of synergy that results only from sharing insights and ideas.
But when the nature of your presentation is not interactive, when the primary objective is reporting rather than problem-solving, opt for another medium. Whiteboard presentations have a way of being transformed into effective sleep aids about 3.5 minutes after it becomes apparent (a) you’re writing a really long list (b) collaboration isn’t the overarching goal. That’s not to say you can’t use words or make a list during a successful whiteboard presentation, but be careful that written material serves as shorthand or summary—the road map rather than the destination.
Imagine the elephant. Whether or not Michelangelo actually said that his approach was to find a piece of marble and chip away everything that didn’t look like an elephant, he sure enough knew what he wanted to accomplish before he picked up a chisel. It behooves you to do the same. Ask yourself what you want—how will you know at the end of the meeting that your goals have been met? Sketch out the order of the topics you want to discuss, choose illustrative examples carefully, and loosely time your presentation before hand (including time slots for discussion.) Deal with technical aspects like lighting in advance.
Remember, it’s 3-D. Keep in mind that even though the material on the whiteboard is two-dimensional, you must be attentive to three dimensions. When you are at the whiteboard, don’t just stand there. Change your position. Walk around a little. Involve the group with gestures of inclusion (in a small group setting, you may even went to rotate the duty of whiteboard scribe among participants as a strategy for getting folks to park their own perspectives.) Ask for suggestions from the group about how to best picture an idea. And always watch your back; turn towards the group whenever you can.
Be sensitive to scale. Match your presentation to the size of the group. The words or images on a whiteboard should be easily readable by the last person in the room. You may want to experiment before your meeting begins, and create a reminder of ideal letter size somewhere on the board. Plus, avoid writing on an area of the whiteboard that is lower than your waist. Any lower, and visibility is compromised.
Light it right. Artists make a big deal about the quality of light, and so should you. After all, visual information hitches a ride on light rays in order to get to your retina. For highly reflective whiteboards, use room lighting or wall washers for illumination, since a focused light source will bounce right back, causing squints from those in the group who forgot their sunglasses. (By the way, whiteboards don’t have to be shiny white; they are available in reflection dampening finishes and colors like gray, cream and beige.) If you plan to project items on a whiteboard, use rear projection or flat screen technologies with a touch sensitive screen. Here the light source emanates from the surface of the whiteboard itself, and your presence won’t cause a shadow.
Clean up. No matter how grungy their garrets, artists who care about what they do always take time to clean their brushes, tools and other stuff. It’s a good habit to get into with whiteboards as well. Clean the whiteboard regularly to prevent build up of residue. And keep away from the whiteboard—far away—any kind of writing implement not designed expressly for it. Some highly enthusiastic participant who grabs an indelible marker will do irreparable damage.
Think about changing with the times. If Picasso could decorate plates and Hockney use a Polaroid, you can ponder the benefits of acquiring an electronic whiteboard. Among many other advantages, electronic whiteboards allow you to: involve numbers of people at multiple locations, project letters sufficiently sizable to be seen by a large group, instantly save everything on the whiteboard to slide format for reference back and forth during the meeting, easily incorporate video and Internet sites into your presentation, e-mail copies of whiteboard items to participants after the meeting, and print out material. Still, training is required to utilize an electronic whiteboard well and some people are intimidated by the whole idea of using them. If that’s the case in your environment, it’s far better to stick with traditional whiteboards.
Have fun. Done right, whiteboard presentations are dynamic, involving, refreshing. Put what’s here into action, and enjoy making the most of the art of communication.