There’s a scene in one of the first episodes of The West Wing when the President, late to a cabinet meeting, has the stenographer re-read the Vice President’s opening comments. “Our first goal should be finding a way to work with Congress,” suggested the VP. The President – against a backdrop of broader animosity – disagrees, “You don’t think our first goal should be finding a way to best serve the America people?” 

“I didn’t say that,” the Vice-President returns. And this where it gets hostile. The President re-reads the stenographer’s minutes – “Let’s have a look. Yeah, that’s what it says right there.” He counters. 

The point is, the VP’s comments – set in stone in the form of minutes – contrast with the President’s own. What should have been a throwaway line at the start of a meeting becomes a point of contention because it is unchangeable on the stenographer’s page. Unretractable.

I’ve been in similar situations myself. When presenting to a client and what is, to me, a more trivial issue compared to the overall thrust of the meeting, such as a phrasing, or an icon, or an even just a design, derails the conversation. Suddenly – like in The West Wing – the meeting focusses on the less important, away from the point at hand. 

There’s an excitement to creating new content live that is plain missing from a PowerPoint. It creates an energy and interest that is unique and keeps engagement and interest throughout.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Clients, like everyone, have personal predilections and – if crossed – it can be hard to win back the audience, let alone land the main point you want to get across. Whilst this is easier to avoid in an end-of-project debrief – when you know more about the clients’ preferences – it’s can be harder in a proposal pitch when you might be meeting them for the first time. 

I remember one meeting where my term – ‘in-depth interview’, what I considered an industry accepted term – riled the audience, their preference being ‘one-on-one interview’. A minor point, in the great scheme of things, but something that tainted the positive atmosphere I was trying to foster. It is here where PowerPoint, a genuine force for good when used correctly, becomes your enemy. When the point of contention – in my case ‘in-depth interview’ – keeps being repeated throughout the presentation. Despite me changing my verbal delivery to use their term, the slides undermined me at each click, as I couldn’t change them. They were set in stone, just like the West Wing’s VP’s. Unretractable. 

In contrast, this is the beauty of whiteboards. They wipe clean. The incriminating element can be replaced with something more palatable. Indeed, since that ‘interview’ meeting, I now use whiteboards a lot more in my presentations and, especially, pitches. PowerPoint hasn’t disappeared, but it plays a supporting role to the body of the conversation happening at the whiteboard. Here’s why:

1. Everything is a draft
Whiteboards can be erased, and that means that everything is ultimately a draft. If there’s a word that causes upset it can be changed immediately and you all move on. Psychologically, PowerPoint – subconsciously or not – can set up an ‘us and them’ dynamic, as it has the potential to provide an alternative, antagonistic viewpoint. This casts you, the presenter, as the outgroup. Different from the client, and so easier to disagree with and harder to find common ground. Whereas, whiteboards provide the opportunity to collaborate. By erasing contentious ideas and replacing them with more palatable ones you are connecting with the client, becoming part of the ingroup. A place from which it’s easier to foster agreement and partnership. 

2. From observation to participation
PowerPoint creates a presenter/observer scenario. One in which the client doesn’t have to do anything, which can lead to apathy and lack of commitment. A whiteboard, though, fosters participation. It’s easy to hand the floor, and the marker, to someone else and immediately the meeting becomes more dynamic and constructive. By having the client participate and add to the whiteboard they are investing themselves in the discussion, triggering a sunk-cost bias, where they are less likely to counter what they themselves have spent time creating on the board. This leads to greater buy-in and stronger endorsement and commitment. 

3. Capture a common, unique vernacular
Due to the shorthand nature of whiteboard writing, words are truncated. And commonly, an idea is represented by an abstract drawing. Customer satisfaction might become a smiley face, for example, or the customer a stick figure. The point being, you are creating a common understanding and language together, captured in the external memory of the whiteboard. And it’s a language that no one else outside of the meeting will understand. After all, how many times have you walked into a room with a drawn-on whiteboard and had no idea what it meant? But the authors did. And in that moment, you are fostering a common bond of a unique language, like an in-joke, which helps to bridge the gap between you and the client. 

4. Keep the point in focus
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality suggests that members of an organization will give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. And this is true for PowerPoint. I know I for one have got distracted when listening to someone present a slide by critiquing the design. How I might have changed the wording, or the colour, or the layout. Trivial matters that distract me from the point in hand. It’s also the same for the author, how often have you spent too long fussing over the design of a slide? In contrast, whiteboards don’t allow for perfection. So, they force you to hone onto the key point you want to make, avoiding triviality and distraction. 

5. Maintain lean in
PowerPoint meetings trigger a common mental script for the client, one where the presentation will likely be overly long, mildly interesting, the key points at the end. The audience knows what’s coming too well, which leads to them checking out. Not so with a whiteboard. There is less likely to be a common psychology script, or schema, for this type of meeting, meaning you achieve more buy-in. The client doesn’t know what’s coming next and so keeps paying attention. There’s an excitement to creating new content live that is plain missing from a PowerPoint. It creates an energy and interest that is unique and keeps engagement and interest throughout. 

So, the next time you head for a client meeting, think about creating fewer slides and spending more time at the whiteboard. You might be surprised by the impact it has – fostering better rapport; stronger engagement and more likely to lead to agreement and action.