Whiteboarding: the definitive guide

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Welcome to Whiteboarding 101

Whiteboards are one of humanity’s unquestioned success stories. They are instantly-intuitive tools that allow us to convey or collaboratively explore complex concepts, quickly and effectively. They are optimized for humans in every way, reflecting how we work, how we learn, indeed, how we move around. And yet so many of us misuse this wonder-tool or struggle to find a place for it in an increasingly remote and digital world.

In this treatise, we’ll address all things whiteboarding: why the practice is so effective, how to do it properly, and how to seamlessly integrate whiteboards into an otherwise digital workflow.

The science behind whiteboarding

Why are whiteboards so effective at helping us convey, multiply, or dissect complicated ideas? The answers can be found in this tool’s two critical characteristics: intuitiveness and human-centricity. Let’s break these down and review the facts.

The instantly-intuitive whiteboard

No one has ever needed a user manual to understand a whiteboard: even very small children can immediately intuit its purpose. It belongs to a category of tools which is so easy to use that you could call it “instantly intuitive.” Other examples might include a roof or a bed: you see it – you know how to use it. We take for granted that our hand simply generates content on a board, seemingly without instruction. This is directly related to the fact that there is very little friction between what our mind can construct and what our markers can capture: we don’t need to translate a thought to an abstraction – as is often the case with even the best digital tools.

This phenomenon is well captured in the concept of Cognitive Load. “Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), combines the ideas of working memory and long term memory by assuming people have a limited amount of working memory. Therefore learning is limited by one’s cognitive load, the amount of new information one can take in and use at any one time. Cognitive load can be reduced when information can be pulled from long term memory instead of requiring that information to be constantly in use.” (see references at end of article)

In other words, if you’re drawing a flowchart and have to translate the concept of “decision” to the symbol of a diamond, then search for a button with that symbol, then click it and drag it to its desired location, you’ll be experiencing a significantly greater cognitive load than someone simply drawing a diamond on a whiteboard. That significantly lower cognitive load you experience while whiteboarding allows you to create content faster and in a more creative manner. This same benefit extends to the people viewing your whiteboard: following your simpler movements to create content, in turn, requires lower cognitive load to follow your lead.

The benefits compound – for both the content creator and the viewer – from the simple act of using the whiteboard to capture information. This concept is explored in another, related cognitive science theory called Distributed Cognition (DC). DC demonstrates how the distribution or off-loading of thoughts onto the board actively distributes cognition, therefore further reducing cognitive load. Put simply: you don’t have to keep that, which you’ve just written on your board in your limited working memory.

Whiteboards - created by humans, for humans

If you were tasked with conveying a complex piece of information – such as your company’s onboarding procedures – to a strange audience, in a limited amount of time, what tool would you choose? Most likely, you’d opt for a whiteboard or a pen and paper over a digital alternative. You’d do this because, as demonstrated above, the low friction between your thoughts and the content your marker is able to capture would allow you to create complex content quickly. However, while using the whiteboard, something else would happen: you’d move your body, you’d speak to your audience, you’d make gestures and facial expressions – you’d be human.

All of these additional verbal and non-verbal actions convey a lot of information to your audience. Indeed, it is often the act of coming up with and then writing down those few words on the board that conveys more meaning than the few words themselves. This is why we desire to “get everyone into a room” – it’s as much about the people involved as the contents they create.

Here too, we’ll find further scientific explanations behind the efficacy of the shared whiteboarding experience:

  • Whiteboarding involves using multiple senses and thus engaging multiple memory systems. “Written or spoken information paired with visual information results in better recall,” says Louis Cozolino, American psychologist and author.
  • The act of drawing is itself a very effective memory tool: Doodlers were 29% more likely to remember boring information in a study from Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology
  • The act of drawing content engages the same parts of the brain as seeing that same content (or watching it emerge from someone else’s marker). This helps explain why watching others write on a whiteboard aids recall and helps follow a presenter’s train of thought.
  • Indeed, the calming effect of the Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine released during drawing are also experienced by those who witness drawing
  • Students who watch their teachers move are proven to retain information better
  • Working on a vertical surface helps us develop spatial and body awareness, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination
  • Even the process of walking over to a whiteboard makes us more alert and aids with recall

Add to these the fact that whiteboards allow us to break our computer-centric work habits and you get even more benefits, such as reduced screen fatigue. And let’s not forget that the physical characteristics of the whiteboard, allowing us to use our full arms, shoulders, elbows and wrists (not just our fingertips), contribute to healthier work habits and directly feed back into the tool’s intuitive nature.

How to conduct successful whiteboarding sessions

The human-centricity of whiteboards cuts both ways: while the tool is, indeed, human-optimized and builds on (and, indeed, strengthens) the ways our minds and bodies work, it is up to us humans to use them properly. Not every whiteboarding session is equally effective. This has to do with why we whiteboard to begin with and how we conduct ourselves during our whiteboarding session.

The term “whiteboarding” itself has different meanings in different contexts. There’s more than one way (and reason) to whiteboard. You may be whiteboarding to generate ideas, to organize thoughts, to coordinate efforts, to convince, to teach – the list is long. Each of these purposes carries its own best practices; however, as ultimately “whiteboarding” involves completing one of the aforementioned tasks via (or in large part with) a whiteboard, the basics are common to all.

Whiteboarding basics - Step 1: Preparation

First things first, whiteboards are naturally interpersonal tools; their use often presupposes the participation of at least one other person (note the word “often” – the practice of individual brainstorming is a notable exception here). As such, preparing to use them requires us to adhere to basic principles associated with any meeting:

  • Have clearly defined goals
  • Prepare a specific agenda
  • Invite the right people to attend
  • And, perhaps most critically, make sure you need the meeting at all

This bears repeating: please prepare well. An ill-prepared whiteboarding session will yield limited value and may even be counterproductive. Only after you’re confident in your preparation of these basics can you move on to some whiteboarding-specific prep work. This work will depend on the overarching purpose of your session:

Idea generation

Often called brainstorming, ideation, or even a buzz session, the concept is simple: generate ideas! The frictionless and human-optimized nature of the whiteboard suits this purpose particularly well. To prepare for your ideation session, consider the right starting point: the center of a mind map or specific prompts by category or even characteristic. And to keep the free flow of thought unencumbered but also generally on track, remember to keep a Parking Lot. This simple tactic works wonders to capture those concepts which might not seem to fit the assignment but which have value in another context (or in a way which requires you to reassess assumptions).

Organization and coordination

If you’ve ever participated in a requirements prioritization meeting or a cross-functional team status update, you know how important good preparation is. If you’re leading your meeting, prepare your whiteboard to reflect the categories or structure used in your discussion. Prepare those “MSCW” columns in advance, or make sure you have the right color markers ready to go. Keep in mind how your audience will view your board. Yellow markers, for example, are notoriously difficult to read. For your status update, consider replacing yellow with patterns, such as green lines or dashes.

Consensus building or sales

To drive your audience to a desired conclusion, start by considering their perspective. If there are key questions that might help everyone arrive at the same point, capture them at the top of your board and leave them there for the duration of your meeting. Also, be mindful of your own body language and key movements. As mentioned earlier, how we move affects what our audience remembers. Use proper mannerisms to emphasize your critical points and help your audience recall them effectively.

Explanation or teaching

The key here is the preparation of the content itself. Beyond that, a clean board and good markers are your friends (good tips for any whiteboarding purpose). And remember: combining text with drawings or even simple graphic elements will help your audience with recall.

Whiteboarding best practices - during the session

So, you’ve come prepared and it’s time to put that whiteboard to good use. Regardless of the purpose of your whiteboarding session, there are some basic best practices that will help you reach your goals.

Identify the facilitator(s)

More often than not, a whiteboarding session sees a primary facilitator leading the discussion and/or being responsible for capturing content. In certain contexts – such as teaching – this is obvious but in others – such as business ideation – it may not be apparent who should play this role. Be specific and identify a single facilitator, if you can. Even group brainstorming events will benefit from a master of ceremonies – someone to welcome everyone, assign roles, establish rules, and lead the agenda.

Participation is key

Whiteboards are an interpersonal tool by nature. So too effective whiteboarding sessions depend on your ability to elicit participation from your attendees. Get as many of your participants actively engaged in the discussion as you can. If you’re addressing remote or hybrid audiences, make sure to use the right tools (see more on hybrid whiteboarding below).

Focus on goals, stick to the agenda

You’ve already defined your goals as part of your whiteboarding preparation. Now, be sure to stick to them. Use a parking lot for ideas that might take the discussion into a tangent. Stick to the agenda and watch that clock.

Combine (big) text with visuals

Your whiteboard content is no good if it’s illegible. Make sure everything written on the board is big enough for the person farthest from the board to see effectively. Take advantage of the freeform nature of whiteboards: combine visual elements with text whenever possible; this is a scientifically proven method for driving information recall.

Speed vs. prettiness

Our minds can move quickly. If your brainstorming session is particularly prolific, you may have a hard time keeping up with the concepts being thrown at the board. First and foremost, make sure they’re captured; if at all possible though, don’t let the “how” suffer either. Content that looks appealing and reflects a good balance of visual and textual elements is naturally more memorable and impactful. Ultimately, legibility is most critical though; you can always pretty up your board during a break.

Erase non-essential information

This point is inextricably linked with the previous one. To keep your board clear, legible and rich in useful content, don’t forget to trim the fat. Rely on features such as Board Memory to keep an instant replay handy, in case you erase something important.

Keep the meeting actionable

Never lose sight of your meeting’s purpose. This is just as important near the end of the whiteboarding session as at its beginning. If you’ve completed what you’ve set out to achieve, assign tasks and owners thereof; keep the work actionable and tied to explicit next steps.

Keep it time-bound

Better yet: keep it short. Don’t make your whiteboarding session any longer than it needs to be. Well-defined meeting objectives and a strict adherence to your agenda will help you stay on target.

Photo of conference room with people

Whiteboarding - superiority over digital alternatives

The notion that whiteboards are somehow less effective in our increasingly digital-centric world couldn’t be more flawed. In the previous sections we’ve outlined the inherent, tangible benefits of using whiteboards to communicate, expound, or explore complex topics. But how do whiteboards fare in a head-to-head comparison with digital alternatives?

Short answer: as with any tool, it depends on the job to be done. Different tasks require different tools; complex tasks may require multiple implements. You might create a table during a whiteboarding session but that doesn’t mean you’ll stop using your spreadsheets. In a more apples-to-apples situation, however, the whiteboard holds its own.

Consider the act of giving a presentation – particularly a persuasive or informative presentation. Many would consider using slides to convey their thoughts in this scenario. Here again, science points to the natural superiority of whiteboarding.

Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer at Corporate Visions, has covered the whiteboard vs. PowerPoint topic very well in his work entitled “Should you whiteboard in a virtual sales meeting?” A few key highlights:

  • Though only 6% of sales professionals rely primarily on whiteboards (77% rely on PowerPoint), 43% consider whiteboards to actually be most effective (vs. 33% for PowerPoint). The difference usually is tied to the accessibility of whiteboards or a reluctance to use the tool in remote or hybrid settings (more on that below)
  • Watching a whiteboard presentation led to a 16% improvement in recall of the presenter’s key message
  • Business professionals watching a whiteboard presentation were 91% more likely to pay visual attention to important presentation elements, compared to PowerPoint
  • In that same neuroscience study, whiteboards proved categorically more effective at driving audience consensus

The key rests in what is called the Picture Superiority Effect – the fact that concepts expressed visually are significantly more likely to be retained than those expressed solely as text. The free-form nature of whiteboards allows well-trained professionals to take advantage of this effect and deliver a more memorable presentation. This, coupled with the already demonstrated benefits of observed writing and even movement, compound the positive effect of whiteboards as a medium for persuasive presentation. The study even found that observers were statistically more likely to assign greater credibility and authority to presenters relying on whiteboards, when compared to those relying strictly on PowerPoint.

Again, whiteboards are not always available and are not always the best tool for the job. When they are in reach, however – and when they are properly used – their impact is unquestionable. But in an increasingly remote world, are whiteboards a viable option?

Hybrid whiteboarding

Hybrid whiteboarding has been around for decades. The notion of using a whiteboard with some physically-present colleagues while others join remotely is not new. The results, however, have often left much to be desired. Remote participants in such situations are often second class citizens, unable to clearly see the board, much less contribute to it.

The solutions to problems such as visibility – even among the largest companies – have been woefully inadequate:

  • They’re often surprisingly low-tech (picture a stack of books with a laptop on top, facing a whiteboard surface)
  • They’re addressed through extremely expensive workarounds (e.g., “flying everyone in” for a brainstorming session)
  • They’re dependent on digital look-alikes which do not exhibit the aforementioned scientifically-proven benefits of physical whiteboards and/or don’t take advantage of the physical proximity of in-person attendees

At the same time, hybrid work settings are quickly becoming the norm. Following a sudden shift to remote work during the Covid19 pandemic, companies have started demanding that their employees return to the office. Many employees protest these RTO mandates and the result is often something in the middle.

Gallup Poll

https://www.gallup.com/401384/indicator-hybrid-work.aspx

This conflict is truly global and continues to heat up. Pressure is mounting from both sides:

  • According to McKinsey research, 87% of those given the option to work remotely, take employers up on their offer
  • Buffer and Forbes report that almost everyone they polled (98%) expressed a desire to work remotely at least part of the time
  • At the same time, also according to Forbes, 9 out of 10 companies will require their employees to return to the office; indeed, 90% of those surveyed, plan on completing this return by 2024

Some of the research conducted seems to conflict with other published works and it’s difficult to predict exactly what the future holds. Still, one immutable truth remains: however the megatrends of workforce migration play out, in one way or another, work in many sectors will remain “naturally hybrid.” Companies serving clients or working in multiple locations find themselves addressing semi-distributed audiences, regardless of their policies toward their own employees. The shifts caused by RTO mandates and the pandemic before it only serve to accelerate the natural trend toward a hybrid setting, brought about by the internet.

Now, despite a steady march toward hybrid exchanges being the new status quo, most of the tools we use for communication and collaboration are remote-first. They’re meant to be used between players that are physically separated. In hybrid settings, they create the absurd situation where in-person attendees are using digital tools in unison, rather than taking advantage of their physical proximity. Or the equally frustrating double-work scenario, in which remote-first tools have to be used in addition to physically-present tools (such as whiteboards).

Thankfully, there is a new category of hybrid-first collaboration tools emerging, with ShareTheBoard as a leader in this space. The technology underlying these tools is created from the ground up as a hybrid solution – meant to take advantage of the physical proximity of certain participants and to level the playing field with those who may be joining remotely. These tools aim to capitalize on the scientifically-proven benefits of traditional whiteboards while combining them with the efficiency and convenience of digital solutions.

Summing up

Used correctly, whiteboards can be extremely effective. Their unmatched ease of use and human-centricity make them very well suited to brainstorming, collaboration, or teaching – especially when covering subject matter which requires improvisation. Indeed, they are often the best tool for the job, exceeding in effectiveness many digital alternatives. As hybrid work becomes the norm, new hybrid-first whiteboarding tools will help make whiteboards even more effective, regardless of where its users may physically reside.


 

Congratulations! If you’ve made it through this entire exposition, you’ve essentially completed Whiteboarding 101. Stay tuned for a detailed exploration of the topics covered here and other concepts that will help you become a whiteboarding expert.

 


REFERENCES

Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). ‘Human memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes’. In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Bannert, M. Managing Cognitive Load—Recent Trends in Cognitive Load Theory. Learning and Instruction2002, 12(1), 139–146.

Hollan, J.; Hutchins, E.; Kirsh, D. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction2000, 7(2), 174–196.

Paas, F.; Ayres, P. Educational Psychology Review2014, 26(2), 191–195.

“https://www.chemedx.org/blog/distributing-cognition-using-whiteboarding-techniques”

“https://smithsystem.com/smithfiles/benefits-of-using-traditional-whiteboards/”

“https://neurosciencenews.com/drawing-seeing-15334/”

“https://www.theartstudiony.com/blog/why-drawing-doodling-is-good-for-your-brain/”

“Learning and Embodied Cognition: A Review and Proposal” By: Jaclynn V. Sullivan (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1475725717752550)

“https://win.corporatevisions.com/rs/413-YED-439/images/Research%20Brief%20-%20Maximizing%20the%20Picture%20Superiority%20Effect.pdf”

“https://www.gallup.com/401384/indicator-hybrid-work.aspx”

“https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2023/09/24/nine-out-of-10-companies-will-require-employees-to-return-to-the-office”

“https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it”

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