The Real role of the Flip Chart in Unonferences and Workshops


Flip charts are powerful workshop tools.

They don’t work well in a large room with a large group if they are being used by a presenter to present information to an audience. Just a few rows of seats back and people will struggle to see and read what is on them.

I’ve sat in many a conference and workshop room and found a facilitator or presenter misusing a flip chart. Their tiny, illegible writing seems to serve little purpose. People in the audience soon switch off or zone out.

Even when a facilitator is being more interactive in their style, using a flip chart at the front of a room rarely works well. There is a skill to it:

– writing clearly and big enough using dark ink pens (Red is impossible to read in a large room)

– writing less rather than more

– capturing ideas from a group in ways that truly reflect what they are saying

– not blocking the view of other people as you write

It is hard to get these things right and there are better ways to do it.

When the Facilitator or Leader Grabs the Pen

When a facilitator locates a flip chart at the front of a room and grabs a pen, he or she is claiming status and setting up the flip chart as a tool for presentation. Even when they collect ideas from the audience, it is a status driven activity (“I’ve got the gun!”).

I’ve noticed that when, later, in the same meeting, a large group breaks out into smaller groups, then can be a reluctance to use the flip chart as the facilitator has modelled control and not empowerment earlier. When they do use it, many mimic the facilitator’s behaviour – one person grabs the pen, stands up, and then leads the group, often writing their own ideas or versions of others’ ideas on the flip chart paper.

This stifles self-organisation and undermined group collaboration. It unbalances the group.

Don’t grab the pen. Don’t lead from the front at the start if you are hoping for the group to self-organise the conversation in an unconference mode. Leave the flip charts to the groups. If you must present ideas, be direct about that – either talk or use as few slides as possible. The best self-organised conversations I have attended have no formal presentation, and the conversation begins in a circle.The facilitator is humble, speaks for as little a time as possible and then aims to disappear. When we head to our group conversation, the flip chart is a tool belonging to the community, not the organisers.

A pile of pens on the floor or in a box is better than pens already set out on the flip chart shelf. Let people get what they need, choose the colours and numbers of pens they want. Don’t do it for them. In one unconference, the flip charts were an option not a default. A group  could go and get one from a corner of the room and had to assemble them themselves! All of this modelled self-organisation.

A Tool for an Unconfence

A flip chart is a much better tool for group work, in the self-organising hands of a smaller group. We gather around the flip chart and pens are readily available to all of us. There may be temporary facilitation or leadership but ultimately the form is one of a circle, gathering around the paper of the chart. What we create, we create together, it belongs to us, and it serves our conversation. When we reach the end of a page, we rip off that page and put it on a wall or lay it on the floor, depending on our needs.

Flip charts are tools for informal, emergent conversation. They can be used for a small group briefing, as long as the proper skills are employed – white paper ready for anything to be written or drawn on it. By anyone. At any time. For an reason.

In my experience, flip charts serve self-organised conversation much better than organised conversation with pre-determined content.

The Flip Chart stands ready and waiting…

In an unconference, flip charts stand waiting for each group. Or they can even be stacked in a corner and only used if needed by the group. In a workshop, flip charts should never dominate the space but instead serve that space. We should be able to move them aside or not use them at all. We need wall space for used pages if captured content is key to the meeting. So the flip chart needs to be placed in a well designed physical space, to get the best out of them. Pens need to be easy to use, not smudgy, and not white board pens that will run out of ink quickly. They should not stink of chemical and we should be able to move the flip charts around easily. They should not fall apart or stand at weird angles.

Flip charts can be lovely pieces of furniture or clunky, annoying ones. It’s all about treating them seriously, with care and skill.

For a small group, they can be a perfect blank canvas for ideas and decisions.

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