PowerPoint sucks.  That’s the common refrain.  But the reality is PowerPoint is actually quite amazing.  It can do anything — animations, photos, videos, charts — all wonderful tools to visually reinforce key messages.  That’s just the thing:  Powerpoint is a tool and you can use it well or you can use it poorly.  Most people use it poorly.

The issue is usually that people use PowerPoint as some type of group read-along.  You’re guaranteed to bore people if you’re reading the words on your slides.  There are hundreds of guides about how to give better presentations and it’s well worth your time to improve your presentation skills.

But this post isn’t about PowerPoint.  It’s about a more effective presentation technique:  magic markers.  That’s right.  On your next sales call make sure you’re in room with a whiteboard.  Start the conversation off by noting what you plan to cover. Write it down on the far left side of the board.  Ask your prospect/customer about their key goals.  Then write that down.   Stop for a minute and think about what’s already happened.  You’ve shifted from presenter to facilitator.  That’s a much better postion to be in.  You’re not trying to force your audience down a pre-defined road — you’re working on the path together.  The whiteboard has transformed into a remarkably effective selling tool.

Here’s one story from my own experience.  At Prospero Technologies we provided hosted social media applications to major media companies and other brands.  We had a long list of blue chip clients, but that still wasn’t enough to convince the folks at ESPN that we’d be a good choice as a partner to create a new service called “Conversation Pages.”  We had several high volume clients serving millions of requests per month.  For ESPN we had to show how we could handle billions.  A large group assembled for the meeting including a product manager, editorial director, designer and several technical leads.  There were many questions about design, editorial control and scalability.  Chip Matthes, our CTO, participated in the meeting and he used the whiteboard to show the overall architecture of our platform — how the messages were cached, where they were stored, and how word-filters would create a queue of messages that could be reviewed the editorial team.  Graphically it wasn’t compelling.  Chip is a brilliant technologist and marketer, but he’s not blessed with good handwriting.  That didn’t matter.  Simple cylinders represented the databases.  Boxes represented the message queues and word filters.  A mock-up “page” had wavy lines to show their articles and how the commets would connect.  I was standing along with Chip and helped narrate as he added things to the board.  Everybody in the room was looking up; they were looking at us and Chip’s drawings.  Contrast that dynamic with what would have happened if we had provide an architectural overview as a handout.  Everyone would have been looking down.

There are times you can achieve similar results with a projector — assuming you can stand up and point to the different parts of a diagram or elaborate on the slides.   But there’s something about a whiteboard that provides an organic element to a meeting and helps people feel like they’re collaborating in the solution.  That’s what you want.  In fact, ideally someone else will get up and scribble something or circle something to illustrate a question or emphasize a point.  If you have that kind of participation you’ll know that your audience is engaged and the meeting is going well.

To be sure, this isn’t easy.  You’re working without a net and you need to be comfortable with the conversation going different directions.  Working on a whiteboard doesn’t mean winging it.  The best way to prepare for this type of meeting is to have a chalk talk internally where you work through many of the questions and have a plan for how you’ll address them and illustrate them on the board.  This is the same type of preparation that you’d need to do for a Powerpoint, but you have to know how you’ll literally draw out your key points.

Our meeting with ESPN isn’t a unique example of using a whiteboard to help close a sale.  In fact there’s a company called White Board Selling (recently acquired by Corporate Visions) that has a whole program built around this approach. They cite research by Aberdeen that visual techniques like white board selling deliver significantly better sales results:

– 50% higher lead conversion
– 29% shorter time to new rep productivity
– 15% shorter sales cycle

The video below is a short overview of some of their services and other metrics.  (Disclosure:  White Board Selling was a client while I worked at KnowledgeVision, but I no longer have an affiliation with the company).



Here’s another except from Corporate Visions:

With the visual storytelling approach, it’s essential that you immerse yourself in the content.  Prospects perceive salespeople with a clicker in their hand as “PowerPoint jockeys.”  You are telling a story that someone else created.  A visual story that you draw, and explain along the way, gives you the credibility.  It confers the knowledge and expertise to you, not the Marketing department that created the pretty slides.

The effectiveness of a whiteboard is also evident in the growing popularity of “sketchbook” narrated video such as those created by Common Craft and the Kauffman Foundation.  They are much more polished with real artists illustrating the narration, but there’s something especially compelling about watching the story take shape in a hand-drawn format.  Here’s one example:

As with everything, it’s unlikely that using a whiteboard will work for all circumstances.  If you’re in a coffee shop, your iPad and notebook work best.  If you’re just introducing yourself and the company, a few printed slides may work well.  Contrary to what I said above, there are some situations where you want people to have take-aways that include their own mark-ups and notes.   And PowerPoint has its place too — especially if you use just a few words and compelling visuals to convey your points.  (For a good example of a sparse, highly visual PowerPoint presentation take a look at David Cancel’s presentation on “Creating a Data Driven Business.” )

The key lesson is understand your audience and use the best approach for the situation.  In a time where too many people rely on clickers and waving at a screen, a magic marker can be a refreshing and effective alternative.