The Real Art of Flip Charting

220px-Flipchart1-Asio

One of the physical meeting tools most misunderstood and misused by facilitators is the flip chart.

Wikipedia gives us a useful reminder of what a flip chart is and where it came from:

“A flip chart is a stationery item consisting of a pad of large paper sheets. It is typically fixed to the upper edge of a whiteboard, typically supported on a tripod or four-legged easel. Such charts are commonly used for presentations. The flip chart is thought to have been invented by Peter Kent who built one to help him in a presentation. He went on to found the visual communications group Nobo plc.” (Reference here)

As a presentation tool it can be used for writing ideas upon “as you go” in a spontaneous way. Pages can also be pre-set- written up, and then pages are flipped over, a bit like slides. As a facilitation tool, it is usually used to collect ideas in small groups, to post agendas, and to draw stuff.

Unlike a white (wipe) board, once you’ve committed to ink, you can only cross out.

Now, that’s the boring stuff out of the way, let’s dive merrily down into hell.

Flip charts are of a certain standard size. They are intended for smallish groups. There is no point in using them if the participants can’t read them. So, here are some of my favourites (and I’ve seen some otherwise very capable facilitators commit these crimes against humanity):

– using the flip chart in large rooms where people at the back have no chance of being able to read the words on them, or see the pictures and diagrams on them

– using the flip chart in a circle where people to the immediate left and right of the chart have no chance of being able to see what’s on them, or have to break their necks trying

– standing in front of the flip chart, blocking it for long periods of time, whilst writing on it and, sometimes, standing there blocking even after having finished writing

– writing illegible, over-small learning to the right scrawl that can’t even be properly read or seen by the facilitator

–  writing the last six ideas right at the bottom of the page, out of view, because the facilitator doesn’t want to flip the page over yet.

– flipping a page over because the facilitator has run our of space or wants to move on and thus consigning participants’ important written up ideas and feelings to invisible,  forgotten oblivion

– writing in lighter colours that can’t be seen from a distance in bright rooms – red, green, even orange, instead of black or dark blue.

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Flip charts are not intended for large rooms, They are also not intended for circles. Flip charts are intended for small groups, ideally in semi circles.

Flip charts require a unique skill in writing that is sensitive to see-ability and legibility.

Using them badly is the hallmark of bad facilitation.

Guilty? Read on…

Flip charts can be used in different ways

Flip charts are terrific ways to collect ideas or to present “work in progress” ideas to small groups of no more than twelve.

They work well in versions of a semicircle layout or in small groups where there are rows of raked seating (but beware of the angle of view – it is hard to see flip chart writing from too wide an angle).

They are often put in meeting and class rooms that they are not designed to be in.

They are very good with temporary, transient content. They are for content where you can easily flip the page without alienating participants by removing their contributed ideas from view.

Digital StillCamera

The danger of ripping each page off (this is usually done spectacularly badly with ripping and tearing that has no idea what a straight line looks like – use a long ruler) is that we then have to put them somewhere. That works well if posting them onto walls is later accessible and readable as needed. It works less well if we are parking them and they still need to be read by the participants on the go. Use movable boards on wheels to post them next to the flip chart. Here we can create a dynamic and see-able content well. But don’t just sticky tack them anywhere unless it is that “rough workshoppy” feel that you want to create.

Flip charts break the circle

Flip charts really aren’t much good in a circle of chairs. If you bring the flip chart into the circle so it stands where a chair might have been, you are excluding three of four participants on either side of it from  a clear view. Necks will start to ache as heads have to turn too far, and those people start to switch off.

Use a semi-circle layout instead and test out the view from each chair. Set just the right distance for people to see and read and give yourself ample space on either side to be able to stand without blocking the view of the flip chart.

When a flip chart breaks a circle, the power of the circle diminishes – so make a semi circle. People can still see each other, as well as the emerging content on the flip chart.

Write Artfully – Use the Flip Chart as it was meant to be used

Flip charts work well if you don’t write too much on them. They are good for capturing ideas – dynamic content owned by the participants. They are terrific for small group conversation.

It takes some skill to write onto a flip chart from the side, leading in. Text tends to change in size, start to sink down the page, and get smaller as you write further away from you.

It’s all about angles!

Most flip charts face a bit upwards, at an upturned angle. If the paper is a bit shiny it will more easily reflect strong light. So, be careful where you place it and be ready to turn off a light or two if there is distracting reflection.

Also they are flat on. So, unless someone is directly opposite the flip chart, a bit like watching a TV from an angle, the text will skew a bit. So, ensure it is located, theatre style, in a way that everyone can easily see it. And, as mentioned earlier, create a clear space for you to stand that doesn’t block the view.

Flip charts are potentially good or bad theatre. Place them well. When you enter a meeting space for the first time, take command of that space as much as you can; walk into and about the space. Move chairs and be prepared to relocate the flip chart to a place that optimises participant engagement and access.

There’s an art to it. Placing the flip chart, choosing the pens, the style and way of writing – all can be done consciously, deftly and eloquently, or they can be done clumsily, clunkily and lazily. It’s up to you.

But there is an art to it. There is a skill to it.

You’ll need to practice and adapt. Try these:

– sit in all of the seats and do a sight test. How big does the writing need to be for participants to be able to easily see it?

– practice writing from an angle – it’s a skill you can develop

– write larger rather than smaller and avoid joined up writing unless it is very clear

– practice writing a key phrase clearly then step back and to the side and stand always in a place where participants can all see the entire flip chart page

– don’t use the white space near and at the bottom of the page – it is always a bit hard to see – leave a bit of white space

– create a movable content wall next to or near the group for parking and posting pages you want to flip over, but still be on view

– use colours to underlines and put boxes and bullet points but always write in a clear, thick dark colour or it won’t be seen

– have plenty of spare pens and don’t writing with fading ink. And don’t use white board pens – they aren’t made for flip charts and quickly run out

– get used to flip charting, get comfortable with them and used to being in command of them, placing them consciously in the room

Crap charting

Unconfident facilitators do a lot of crap charting. Crap charting is writing up crap on a flip chart. Crap includes irrelevant information, writing up too much, phrasing participants’ ideas in language that is more your own than that of participants.

Flip charts are made for capturing participant ideas that they feel ownership of. It is made for simple diagrams and short phrases. It isn’t made for writing up a lot of crap, for detailed note taking (though a lot of people use it for this).

Flip charts are great for emergent content. They can help open space for people’s ideas,  capturing important issues, questions and actions. They are good for temporary ideas and should be labelled so. Or they can be good for drafting ideas before they are later typed up.

Examples of crap charting include:

– writing that is too small or illegible

– diagrams that are too complex, hard to understand or see

– collecting ideas for their own sake (bad brainstorming)

– writing up stuff so you don’t have to look participants in the eye (because of nerves or because you are at a loss at what else to do)

– writing up stuff that will be binned soon after and no one really feels ownership of

– writing up others’ thoughts but framing them in your own words or editing them so that what appears does not truly reflect what was said (crap rendering and crap summarising)

Finally…

Facilitators often flip charts lazily and unskilfully in ways that alienate, exclude and switch off. Yet with a bit of practice and awareness, they can be very useful and vibrant tools. I love paper and pens. Flip charts let you use big paper and big pens! What joy!

They are best used with conscious care and for the right reasons. They are theatre.  Make it a five star show.

Use them consciously. Use them well. Or perhaps, use something else?


Visit the Facilitation Zone.

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5 thoughts on “The Real Art of Flip Charting

  1. Nice thoughts on the humble flip chart Paul. I never knew there was so much to it.

    When I get a minute I will write an essay on the other aspect of flip charting – the unconscious:

    – the power of the pen holder
    – the flip chart as parental figure in the group
    – projection and the flip chart (no not that kind of projection, the psychological kind)

    🙂

  2. Hi Paul
    Really helpful – thanks, am definitely guilty of one or two of the things you mention, but like you have always had a fondness for big pens and big paper!
    Thinking about it, these days I am more likely to use flipchart pens and paper as a way of helping small groups document their own thoughts – paper table cloth style I suppose…Do you have any hints and tips on the “feeding back to the group” bit at the end if I do this? (summarising it all on a flipchart again seems a bit lame!)
    One last thing – I always take photos of my whiteboard and flipchart stuff with my phone (often comes in very handy later).

  3. Hi Joanna

    I’m a huge advocate of never taking photos of flip charts (as facilitator). Let the participants claim them if they must by taking snaps of them. Even better, they are made for either ripping to shreds (as ephemeral thoughts) or posting onto walls for later playing back. I always replay by inviting the group to to walk over to the galleried pages tacked onto wall space) – for here we have our outputs, our exhibits, alongside each other, arranged as a narrative or as a collage. Here is what me have collectively made.

    But best of all, let them pass either into the ownership of the participants there and then, or into the damn fire.

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