Why the Pen is (Still) Mightier Than the App

Forget electronic tools, the humble whiteboard might just (still) be the most effective method.


Ever have trouble remembering something? Yeah, us too. According to molecular biologist John Medina’s book Brain Rules, listening to a words-only presentation will yield 10 per cent recall after two weeks, if it’s only pictures you might recall 35 per cent, but if a presentation combines both words and images you’ll remember 65 per cent of the content – a whopping six times more than if it was just verbal. This is why the work that graphic facilitator Jessamy Gee, at her visual communication business, Think in Colour, is so busy these days.

“There are three main reasons why we use [graphic facilitation] and those are engagement, comprehension and memory retention,” says Jessamy in her Fitzroy studio in Melbourne. “It’s not just someone drawing pretty pictures on a board. It holds your attention, holds you in the content.” And it’s six times more likely to help you remember. “And that’s where the real power of graphic recording is,” says Jessamy. “The pictures are fantastic, but it’s the combination of hearing it, seeing the pictures being created in real time and having the words in there as well, it works.”

But it’s not just on a participants’ memory that her graphics have an impact.


“They’ll start to use a more visual language, which allows for a different conversation to happen,” she says. “They start using metaphors to give a richer description of what it is they’re talking about. They actually get further in their conversation because they’re talking about things in a way that they might not have done before.”

It’s this kind of shift in thinking that Boston-based IdeaPaint wants to help foster in the workplace. Invented by a group of college students who wanted to free their ideas from the dimensions of a standard whiteboard or flip chart, IdeaPaint can turn any surface into an erasable whiteboard.

Companies the world over, such as PayPal, Reebok and Zappos, as well as schools, universities and other organisations, have since discovered the value of turning walls, doors, desks and, well, pretty much anything they want into seamless writeable surfaces that give ideas room to grow.

“What we’ve seen over and over is that when a person is freed up from a piece of paper or a 4×3 whiteboard and all of a sudden can write seamlessly around the whole room, a couple of things happen,” says John Stephans, president of IdeaPaint. “More people get involved, so we democratise the way ideas are generated and built upon. And ultimately, teams get to better ideas faster, so it’s creating the broadening of idea generation and ultimately idea execution.”

IdeaPaint also makes it easier for people to collaborate and sketch out ideas whenever and wherever they strike, whether it be at the water cooler or in the lunchroom, rather than being confined to official meetings behind closed doors.

“One of the big things that we do when we consult with companies is talk about not segregating your collaboration area to a conference room,” says John, “because ideas happen all the time and everywhere.”

Time to pick up your pen. Here are John’s top tips for generating great ideas through graphic recording:

EVERYONE GETS A PEN. Far too often the most senior person in the room takes the pen, and he or she is the only one who talks and everyone else sits back and listens. The physical act of giving everyone a pen really changes the dynamic. As soon as that first person walks up to the wall, it opens up the whole discussion.

GET OUT OF THE CONFERENCE ROOM. Create areas that are natural for discussion. In our sales area we have three walls of IdeaPaint that our sales teams are constantly using to build upon ideas and work on trackbacks. It’s nothing formalised, but they’ll take that opportunity during breaks or at the beginning or end of the day to build upon what they’ve learned.

BE PREPARED TO REVISIT OLD IDEAS. I’ve been in many meetings where someone will bring up an idea and someone else will immediately say, ‘We’ve thought about that before, it doesn’t work.’ Well, really? Why didn’t it work? I’ve seen too many potentially good ideas get squelched under ‘we’ve done that before.’

MAKE SURE YOU FOLLOW UP. What happens after the meeting? What do we do with all the information we just took down? What are the action steps that need to be put in place? At the end of the day, the brainstorm is just one part and the execution is what’s going to make it all come to life.

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