Not Powerpoint, not whiteboards, but more visual sharing

The canonical boring meeting: a bunch of people who wish they were doing something else are listening to someone giving a Powerpoint presentation with lots and lots and lots of bullets. Maximum drag, minimum lift.
But we all know it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if a meeting has to be structured around one person presenting some body of information, even simple techniques can make it better. David Sibbet and the folks at Grove Consultants have for years argued that the bulleted list is one of the worst ways to transmit most sorts of ideas or information. Grove’s ‘Group Graphics Keyboard‘ collates different tools that could be applied in meetings (even in Powerpoint), and showing what the various sorts are good for.

In my experience, all of these techniques are best when applied collaboratively, through facilitated sessions, rather than simply as the result of an individual going off and building some representation on their own. And some of the complaints about more complex design types — like tree diagrams — are countered by the use of drawing programs or mind mapping tools.
And today’s 3D workforce — distributed, discontinuous, and decentralized — we don’t have the luxury of always meeting face-to-face, and that is an added incentive to use collaborative tools. But it may be that using collaborative web-based visual tools might be better in general than scribbling on white boards even when we are working face-to-face.
Conceptboard: A visual collaboration tool
I’ve just signed up to a new service that has great promise in this area. In my case, I do a great deal of remote collaboration. My least favorite experience is watching a remote presentation of a Powerpoint. But I haven’t found a way to easily collaborate visually using approaches like those in the Grove Group Graphics Keyboard.
The product is called Conceptboard, and it provides a variety of drawing tools on a large virtual canvas, making it relatively simple to add grids, diagrams, and other visual motifs. Because it is a web tool, images can be pulled from other sources, as well. And the tool implements a fairly broad social context around the premises of shared visual thinking.

The screen shot above is a bit busy. To the left is a panel with social controls for the conceptboard I created called ‘New Board’. The share button is to invite people to join, while the conference button toggles social conventions, like displaying where others are currently looking on the canvas (here, ‘Other Stowe’ is shown in green), toggling video and audio form the conference originator, and turning on or off the moderator mode, where the creator of the conceptboard can drive what others see.
To the right is the shared canvas itself. Note that all participants can add content, move visual elements around, or comment on any section.
The way I envision using this lines up with my thoughts about effective meetings. Let’s imagine I was planning to lead a meeting in a week’s time, perhaps a discussion with a conference organizer about an upcoming event where I had been hired to moderate a track. (I did this only a few months ago, so it is fresh in my mind as a use case.) Instead of just preparing some notes, or writing a long text-heavy agenda, I might create some visuals in advance of the meeting. A tree diagram of possible themes, ideas about speakers, maybe some graphics clipped from various reports. I’d prepopulate a conceptboard with those elements, and create an ‘action plan’ corner anticipating that as an outcome of the call.
I’d send out an invitation to the conceptboard to the attendees in advance, and suggest that they walk through the short tutorial in advance.
During the meeting, I’d forego video, but use the moderator mode to present my goals for the meeting, and then walk through various elements I had predefined. However, I’d also suggest that the others use the chat, comments, and other social communications in real-time, too. And finally, I’d invite the others to a period of silent brainstorming, where we’d add additional visual elements — for example, someone might be interested in the idea of using social tools in real-time at the conference — and then we’d reconvene to a summary, and development of actions to take.
One of the opportunities lost in so many meetings is that little or no feedback is given. The natural tendency is to focus on the discussion of issues, getting to agreement, and setting out a plan, so the chance to take a minute and tell someone how their contributions in the meeting helped: how their questions really sharpened the discussion, or that their reorganization of the critical path saved a great deal of time. With tools like Conceptboard, that feedback can be going on in real-time, in parallel to the brainstorming, discussion and getting to an action plan. It can be done in comments, chat, or in visual elements too. Imagine placing a big star on the bottom of a critical path diagram, with ‘Great Work!’ written inside.
After closing the meeting, Conceptboard would send out a ‘board report’ like that below, showing what people had done during the meeting. (I was unaware of this feature, so I didn’t think to add visual elements during the call, but they would have been included.)

Final Thoughts
The simplest way to make meetings engaging is to make them social, and shared. Instead of recitations of status, use meetings to actually work together. In today’s world of business, we have the infrastructure in place to instrument all meetings — even the ones where all participants are present — with social tools designed to make meetings suck less. In fact, that should be the tagline for Conceptboard, perhaps.
Some of the constants about meetings hold true: prepare, spend a lot of time listening, get people’s contributions, work to find consensus and common ground, and work towards concrete actions to take whenever possible. But we should increasingly try to work visually, and metaphorically, because whole-minded approaches to making sense of the world are simply richer than just words, even if the words come through social tools. Social visualization is a huge force multiplier when a group is struggling to develop a marketing plan, a strategy, or the next release of a product. Or anything else.

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