The tyranny of flipcharts

Flipcharts.  Let me count the ways that we are tyrannized by them:

1. Power accretes around a flipchart. The next time you are in a meeting, see if you can tell where the front of the room is.  It’s likely that, even if you are in a circle, the “front” will be where the flipchart is.  As I wrote this I am in an Open Space meeting where people are gathered around flipcharts, and rather than organize in tight circles, several groups are arranged in semi circles facing one person holding a marker and writing on the flipchart.  This defeats the purpose of a conversation in which every voice is equal.  Who controls the flipchart, controls the story.  Be very careful about having an easel stand in the room.  People are easily silenced and controlled by them at a deep unconscious level.

2. We have to write everything down.  Having a flip chart in a meeting seems to demand that everything spoken gets written down for all to see.  This does not facilitate a good flow in a conversation, and it is rarely a useful harvest of a discussion.  In free conversations, not everything is useful, not everything is weighted the same, not everything matters.

3. Flipcharts are linear beasts. Unless you use a flipchart creatively, such as by mind mapping or the way Jim Rough does it in Dynamic Facilitation, flipcharts are useless linear beasts.  Most people simply write lists of points on them, in sequential order and when the page is full, they flip it over and keep writing.  Wisdom disappears over the fold, every point is given equal weight and conversations tend to proceed in linear ways rather than emergent ways.

4. Renting easel stands is a scam. Hotels charge exorbitant rates to rent a flipchart stand.  It is not un common for these things to go for $50 a day and at one hotel I worked at, the Sheraton in Atlanta, they charged $170 for a flipchart stand with half a pad of news print paper on it.  NEVER rent them.  (Look at this scam!)

5. Post it flipchart pads are a bigger scam. If you use flipcharts in any kind of creative way you will have already discovered that the overpriced post-it flipcharts are incredibly confining.  You can only hang them one way, it is difficult to cut them into smaller pieces, it is awkward to roll up notes at the end of a meeting because everything sticks to everything else.  Give me a pad of 75 sheets of large white paper, and I’m happy.  I can cut them into quarters for Open Space topics, or tape them on a wall together to make large murals, or cover cafe tables with them. Seventy-seven dollars for a pad is plain wrong.

So what is a GOOD way to use flipcharts and easels?

1. Put the paper in the middle.  In small meetings, say in a board room, take the paper off the easel stand and put it flat on the table.  If possible, allow everyone access to the paper so that multiple notes can be taken.  Putting the harvest tool in the middle of the table allows everything we are doing to be directed towards the centre.  This is the basis of the way we harvest in World Cafe and it is brilliant.  It democratizes the harvesting tools in a powerful way.  Your conversations WILL be different.

2. Make a mind map.  Get used to taking notes in a non-linear way.  Mind maps are much better ways to capture the essence of a conversation because the group can see linkages and watch the emerging whole of the conversation.

3. Use easels to make signs.  Easels are useful for static signs pointing out times and places, instructions and so on.  The moment they become the focus of attention, you will notice that they play on different levels.  The note taker is above the group, and the notes are elevated.  In improv we call this a status game.  So neutralize the status.  Use easels for signs.

4. See what you can do with tape, scissors and paper. Tape helps you make flipchart pads bigger by taping several sheets together.  Scissors help you make flipchart pads smaller.  In these three tools you have everything you need to scale your work.

5. Learn how to do graphic recording. The Grove teaches this skill.  And what I love the best about the graphic recorders I work with is how they quietly listen and create harvests without being a dominating presence in a room.  even though the murals they create are huge, their presence is small as they are working, allowing groups to focus on conversation and listening rather than “speaking to the record.”  Also, learning to use basic graphic recording tools such as icons, diagrams and pictures helps make your own notes less linear, more meaningful and more useful in general for a group.

So, banish the easel, liberate the pads, be creative, be aware of power.  Have fun.


  1. Yay! I’m with you on this Chris (getting rid of the tables was the first big step) – getting rid of flipcharts the next, and I’d go even further and get rid of all the paper and pens in a meeting (whoever picks up a marker pen makes a status move, conscious or not, like it or not). Although I’d be happy to experiment with crayons. So what’s left, if there’s no tables and no recording? Conversation, that’s what – hopefully deep, meaningful, probing conversation that leads to greater awareness, understanding, new ideas – a skill we all need to rediscover. This, I think, is the new challenging role for facilitators.

  2. Exactly!
    Putting the paper into the middle of the circle has become my favorite use of the pen and paper – mapping the ideas quietly whilst the group has a conversation can capture the non linear links between ideas (once my knee is better, kneeling and squatting to floor level will again be possible!)

    On Friday, I ran a Knowledge cafe with David Gurteen and was relieved to see that his way involves no tables or marker pens – he let’s the free flowing conversation reign.

    My piece at the end was to use Open Space to converge to the ideas that mattered most in cafe conversations. Participants created the agenda for ‘small actions’ without fuss, they self organized into small groups and embarked on 25 minutes of “what if we did this …” conversations.

    Most interesting in this “Knolwedge management” Cafe was the realization (of the group) that free flowing conversation is the best was to share ideas and knowledge. Many of the actions were about ways they can create the conditions and space for MORE conversations and less formal meetings.

    Very timely post again Chris!

  3. Querido Christopher,

    I translated some of this blog post and linked to it on the Russian-speaking Insight Ning (for trainers, consultants, and well yes, facilitators)–

    and well, it has generated some interesting discussion:

    google translate should give you a taste of this…


  4. great! glad its helpful…

  5. Really found this post interesting as I’ve never really thought of the impact of flip charts before. Or I should say I’ve never consciously considered the impact. My unconscious reaction is to tense up every time I see one and panic that I will be asked to scribe. I hate taking minutes of meetings or scribing on a flip chart because I feel I cannot disconnect myself enough to do a good job…not do I want to disconnect myself from a meeting and be an outside observer. But now I understand why I feel this way.

    Just yesterday I was at the TEDx Philly event where they used a graphic recorder. It is the first time I saw that and when looking at his drawings later in the day I was amazed at the amount of information, the essence of the talk he was able to convey and so well.

  6. You raise some interesting an valid concerns about how flipcharts can be less than positive, but I don’t know that some of your suggestions don’t also come with drawbacks.

    It has to be a favor small meeting for the paper in the middle to work so that everyone can contribute and also easily see what others are noting.

    Flipcharts don’t have to be the focal point of a conversation. If I am recording for a group I often have them circle chairs and I stay outside the group, capturing key points. People stay focused on each other and turn to the chart as needed for a point of reference, a reminder of what has been said, etc.

    Powerpoint ins’t evil. Flipcharts aren’t evil. Handouts aren’t bad. They are just possible tools to support the type of conversation an learning we want to experience. if we start by defining those outcomes, we which tools (and how to engage them) that we need to incorporate. if any of them are used by default and on autopilot, we’re likely to find them less than desirable.

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