Learn these two simple techniques that will dramatically improve your whiteboard skills
Become a pro when working with whiteboards without reading a single book or attending a specialized training
Why would you care
Every office set up has them — whiteboards. Everyone seemingly knows how to use them. However, it is only down to individuals who are really good at using those to create pleasing and remarkable notes and diagrams that are valuable and that others are willing to take a picture of. What is their secret?
It is a common belief that you have to be of a ‘creative type’ to master whiteboards. Most people think it is about a unique set of skills that is not available to everyone.
But what if I told you it is not totally true? What if I told you that with a reasonable investment of your personal time you could dramatically improve your whiteboard skills and unlock new opportunities in your day to day professional life?
Imagine a typical situation — four people in a meeting room, about to start brainstorming a better way to solve a professional case. “Who is taking notes on a whiteboard today?”, the group leader asks. “It is Nora, she draws really nice,” replies another participant. Everyone agrees, including Nora. Later, while in the middle of the session, when there are notes on the whiteboard and the problem is taking shapes, there are notes and comments that hint to possible solutions and then suddenly one of the participants, Helen, has an insight and she says, “I think I can see a different perspective on our problem!” The group encourages her to elaborate more, but Nora struggles to understand the concept, and so she cannot mark up this new insight and tie it to the existing diagram. Helen, on the other hand, feels too reluctant to stand up to the whiteboard and to do draw herself — she is too embarrassed with her drawing and handwriting skills and besides she is afraid to ruin Nora’s beautiful diagram. After a couple of minutes of confusion, Helen says, “Nevermind, the idea might be too messy, let’s just go on.”
Does this story sound familiar to you? Have you ever been the Helen in such situations? Let’s see what just happened there. A lack of confidence prevented Helen from contributing to the process, left her frustrated and maybe the group missed a great opportunity. And all of this because she did not feel confident enough to stand up to the whiteboard and express her idea concerning the group’s conversation so far.
You can compare this situation to leakage of knowledge. When Helen fails to contribute because she is lacking visual skills, the group is losing the unrevealed potential. The problem with this leakage is that you cannot see it. The end result might just not be the highest possible.
The good news is that it is not that difficult to close this skills gap. You do not need to have read dozens of books or have attended specialized courses (although that would only help, of course). All you need to get started is to learn about the two simple techniques and practice them as much and as often as you can, preferably in a professional set-up, when you are solving a real problem. That way you learn and hone skills the fastest.
Those two techniques are:
- Fast and legible handwriting.
- Fast and simple drawings from your visual vocabulary for visual anchors.
Let’s have a closer look at how these two techniques work and how they can dramatically change the way you perform on the whiteboard.
Technique #1 — Fast and legible handwriting
What about the calligraphic font we were taught back in school?
When I ask people whether they are happy with their handwriting, 2/3 of them would answer, “No.” 1/3 of them would state that they cannot comprehend their own written texts after a workshop or a meeting. Why is that so widely spread?
The problem goes back to our school times. Most of the adults today were drilled through the so-called ‘joined-up’ handwriting teaching. After centuries of being a standard for a written language, it still prevails in schools around the globe (read more in this story from BBC). While there are debates about whether children must learn to write in joined-up style or should they learn to type instead, I personally think that the truth is somewhere in between.
The joined-up font is indeed not a good fit for a professional set-up today, we need something else. So no, the answer is “No, you are not going to write with the calligraphic font you were taught back in school.” Which is actually good news.
Let’s start with the problem
To better illustrate the power of the first technique we need to start with the real life challenge. Remember Helen from our story above? She is not adept at using visual thinking skills and generally is reluctant to perform on a whiteboard.
Let’s see what happened recently. Helen’s company has hired a vendor to supply a software product that makes it easier for their employees to track and report expenses. As Helen had the knowledge about the current process, so she was asked to lead a workshop with the vendor to map out the most common scenario — tracking and reporting expenses related to business travels. And bummer, Nora was away from the office, so she had to draw everything herself.
The process was not documented, so she had to explain it on a whiteboard, with the vendor asking questions as she went on.
She gave the explanation by pointing out five major steps of the process:
- Go on a business trip.
- Collect all the receipts.
- Finish the trip.
- Fill out the expenses form.
- Submit the form.
As the vendor was asking about essential aspects and biggest pains experienced by the employees, she would suggest clarifications as bullet points below each of the steps.
This is what she got in the end:
Let’s analyze problems with the resulting diagram:
- The font is difficult to read, and Helen will have issues trying to comprehend it, later on, a few days after the workshop. She writes in the joined-up style, the way she was taught in school.
- She did not plan the available space, so when she ran out of it, she had to bend the diagram in a way it could still fit the whiteboard.
- It is difficult to see the whole whiteboard when you stand close to it, so naturally, her text lines tend to go up all the time. For some people, lines tend to go down, but that is the same issue.
- Helen does not feel comfortable when she has to write a lot of words with the meeting participants sitting and waiting for her to finish the writing. This forces her to hurry up, so she shortens the words, but most often she hurries through the rest of a word’s letters making it impossible to recognize those later on.
- As the black marker was out of ink in the meeting room, Helen had to take the only one that was filled — the red one. That is a pervasive issue with the meeting rooms — black markers are dry, and you do not want to “waste” time looking for the replacement marker and you end up using the wrong color.
As you can see, not all of the issues listed above are related to handwriting, but we will see how those could be easily resolved.
Applying the technique to solve the problem
First thing first, always write in black. If you are using whiteboards a lot, make sure you still have a spare black color marker in a room, and better yet, organize a ‘workshop box’ to carry with you in meetings that involve working with a whiteboard. That box would, of course, contain loaded whiteboard markers. Let’s see how Helen’s diagram changes when written in black color:
Learn to write in block letters. It does take time, and your writing speed will go down in the beginning, but you will get used to writing in the new font quite quickly. It does not matter what style you pick, it just has to be simple and easy to write. Easy means no surplus elements like serifs (those small caps on the tips of letters) that translates into the speed of writing. But easy also means letters that are much better to recognize, especially on the smartphone photos.
In the beginning, concentrate on capital letters. It is OK to write everything in upper case letters since we are not operating with large texts on whiteboards. Lowercase is making large portions of text more comfortable to read. That said, you could take care of lowercase letters later when you are comfortable with capital letters.
Let’s see how Helen’s diagram would look like if all the text were written in careful block letters:
Next thing we are going to fix is alignment. Remember, Helen failed to fit the diagram into the available space. But that happened only because she did not even plan for the available space. For many people, the topic of managing the available white space seems to be super complex while in fact, it is super easy to do. The strategy is simple:
- Recognize there is a problem and plan the available space ahead.
- Try to assess the number of blocks that constitute your final diagram. In our case, Helen is the subject matter expert and she knows that there are approximately 5–6 major steps in the process. And so all she has to do is to allocate approximately 1/5 or 1/6 of the whiteboard width for each hi-level block. Furthermore, the diagram is the process which flows left to right, so logically, Helen should have started on the leftmost side of the board. And be always a bit pessimistic, that will buy you some extra space in the end.
But what do you do if you run out of the space? Do you erase and start all over again? What is the best practice? Well, there is no recipe for such an unfortunate situation, and you need to assess it case by case. But generally speaking, starting from the scratch is not the best idea — it is incredibly demotivating for the person who facilitates the workshop, and it is seen as a massive waste of time by all the rest who participate. You should avoid starting from the scratch and try to be creative — can you stick a paper next to the whiteboard to extend the space? Can you put a mobile whiteboard next to the static one to continue the diagram there? Assess the available materials and try to buy yourself more of the white space.
- Fill the space block by block. You are in control now!
Let’s see what could have happened should Helen had followed the strategy:
There are two important aspects here that are worth pointing out:
The whiteboard visual has improved significantly by now. You might agree that it even looks more professionally now. However, the content of the visual did not change — it contains precisely the same amount of information. But now it can be photographed by a smartphone and added to slides, and that would be just fine. The same would not apply to the initial diagram — it just looks too messy.
This should be good enough, but there is yet another simple trick that you can easily adapt to make the diagram even more efficient — organize font sizes according to the information hierarchy:
Summary of the technique #1
- Always use black color to work with a whiteboard. Make sure you have an extra marker if you run out of ink in the middle of the process.
- Do not write in a ‘joined-up’ font (sometimes also called cursive), the one you most probably were taught to write in your primary school. This is a terrible font for working with whiteboards.
- Learn to write in a plain and neat block letters font. Use the sample from the article to copy the letterforms or google a better alternative. Be patient though, it might take you a few weeks (3–5 weeks on average) before you get used to the new font.
There are plenty of online courses that could teach you simple handwritten fonts. My favorite is by Heather Martinez, check her web site to learn more.
- Start with capital letters, you can learn lowercase letters later.
- Slow down, do not worry about the meeting participating waiting for you. They will appreciate the quality of the visual over the “lost” time.
- Plan the available space by counting the number of blocks in your visual. Control your use of space.
- Align blocks and written lines nicely — this makes your visual look more professional.
- Choose font size in accordance with the information hierarchy — more important things should be written in a larger font. Usually, three sizes are enough.
- Do not write smaller than 1 human hand finger — smaller texts are hard (impossible) to read, and those texts will be lost on the digital snapshots of the whiteboard.
The first technique alone can raise your skills to a entirely new level. Yet, there are more tricks up the sleeve. Let’s move on to the next technique below.
Technique #2 — Fast and simple drawings from your visual vocabulary for visual anchors
The second technique is about learning how to draw. But do not worry too much — you will have to learn to draw just a tiny little bit. It is not in any way about becoming an artist. It is only about learning how to draw around 50 visual elements that are slightly more complex than written letters (some of them are actually less complicated compared to letters). Just as you had to learn how to draw letters when you went to school being a kid.
In order not to fall into full-tilt artistic drawing, just follow the three straightforward rules:
As you can see from the rules above, the drawn elements we are talking about are very similar to the icons you see in mobile applications and on the software interfaces. Somewhat identical in simplicity to airport and road signs. Such visuals are created by drawing an object’s contour in a solid color. There are no shades, no tones. Just an outline and a minimum number of details.
Now the set of such drawings that a person has learned to draw is called a visual vocabulary. This means that if a visual is on someone’s visual vocabulary, that person is capable of drawing the visual quickly and “by tote”, not even thinking about doing so. This is our desired outcome.
Below you can see a set of visuals that are frequent participants in my diagrams:
This visual vocabulary is not exhaustive, and every person has to construct their own and develop it indefinitely, adding more elements to it as they encounter new situations. But 80% of what you need is probably already there.
Let’s now see what happens if Helen adds visuals to her diagram:
Now the diagram looks much more professional. It is clean and clear, the text is easy to read and easy to follow from the most important information to the less important one.
The visuals help navigate faster and trigger observers imagination so that they could see a broader context behind the process. For example, they understand that the receipts are depicted as they are — the long strips of paper. This envokes the empathetic thinking where participants of the meeting can actually imagine the employee’s experience when they have to save and store those receipts, so prone to be lost.
The two additional icons help differentiate between two types of comments on the process steps — whether those are important constraints or are today’s employees’ pains caused by the current process.
If the next step of the workshop agenda were to discuss the comments collected for each step and to analyze their influence on the vendor’s tool implementation, I would recommend the last amendment to the diagram to further facilitate the discussion — introduce the color.
Now the color is as powerful as it is a dangerous thing. When applied randomly and inappropriately, it can destroy the clarity and obfuscate important information conveyed via the diagram. In this particular case the only elements that are worth coloring — are the considerations icons:
Summary of the technique #2
- Establish your visual vocabulary. If you entirely lack the basic drawing skills, start by copying the vocabulary suggested in this article. This set of icons will suffice your needs in the foreseeable future. Some icons are very elementary, some icons are quite tricky. Such as a gear (cog), cloud, flame. Subscribe to my Instagram where I demonstrate the drawing techniques as a series of short videos. There are excellent commercial collections of icons developed by the German company called Bicablo. You may find their products here. And you can always find tons of examples on the internet (just google the word you are searching for and add ‘icon’ after that).
- Incorporate icons into your diagrams and visual maps to facilitate reading and navigation across the complex information.
- Don’t be shy to show people and emotions in your diagrams. When you put a person into a diagram, the discussion becomes less abstract as participants will imagine themselves in the context of the discussed situation. And mapping emotions helps pinpoint most significant challenges very fast.
- Be wise when you apply a color to your diagrams. Ask yourself a question — should the diagram be helped with a color or is it clear and comprehensive already? Is it too cluttered so much that an additional element is needed to introduce an extra dimension to it? The best way to learn using colors appropriately is to practice and make mistakes.
- When it is essential to differentiate between elements belonging to categories, introduce clear legends to colors/icons. Like we did in the last diagram with Helen. This helps ensure consensus about comments that were born in a dialog.
I hope that you enjoyed the reading and even more important — feel encouraged and confident to apply the described technieques to your whiteboarding. Do not hesitate to reach out to share your success/struggle — I would like to learn how these recommendations made an impact on your professional life.
Just remember the rule of 3P — Practice, Practice, and Practice. Visual thinking is a skill, and just like sports, it can only get better when practiced.
I have received an early feedback from my friend suggesting that I should be offering some printouts for the people who want to practice block letters and icons in particular. I will create such printouts in case there are at least 30 people who need those. To vote just clap precisely three times 👏👏👏 — that way I will count the potential users of such material.
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About the author
Yuri Malishenko is an active practitioner, an author and a trainer on the topic of visual thinking and visual facilitation. He works as an agile coach and a product owner for the Danish company and uses visual skills every day to co-create better software products and to become a better person. Check out his recent practical guideline on mastering basic skills of visualization. If you like this type of content, follow Yuri on twitter @YuraMalishenko and facebook.