The Whiteboard Essays. #2, “The Do-Over”

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Essay 1: Feedback // For the whole story, start here.
Essay 3: Bringing It
Essay 4: Training Montage!

[A few days after the previous episode.]

In a previous posting, I mentioned that I had done my first whiteboard talk at the new job, and it went… not as well as I would have liked.

The do-over was much better. Here’s what I did more/better/at all, in order of importance:

1. Control the conversation: Most of my friends are thinking: “Matt, isn’t some small integer percentage of your metabolism permanently committed to controlling conversations?” I’d like to think the answer is “no”, mostly because that percentage is useful for other things sometimes, but it is a skill I have. I just didn’t know that I had to employ it in the context of a whiteboard talk, the first time around. Here are a few things I did on the second try:

1a. Formalize the Interaction: Have an agenda, drive the agenda, stick to the agenda. Have opening and closing statements prepared and rehearsed. Setting the tone at the beginning and formally closing the discussion at the end (even if it’s just “Thank you all for coming. Have a good afternoon”) is something humans are really into. Just ask any spiritual leader.

[Note from the Present: Another thing about agendas is that you can blame them. That is, you can tell your audience to temporarily hold off on questions because there’s a lot on the agenda, and it’s important to cover the topics at hand. If the question is really important, the audience will hold onto it for later. If it wasn’t, it will be forgotten.]

1b. One Hit, One Kill: Some things will need detailed technical explanations, but for the most part, a Whiteboard is a high-level technical overview. Answering questions with accurate one-liners is preferable to diverting into a deep technical discussion which will detract from the topic at hand. The gotcha is that answering with accurate and satisfactory one-liners requires a large amount of knowledge, because it indicates comprehension of the material to the point where a concise explanation will suffice. Additionally, when I didn’t know the answer I admitted it quickly, noted it down, and kept the conversation moving.

1c. Bring Them Back: When the group started asking about specific technical details, I had to make a decision: was this specific point really important to them, or was there an overarching issue where they already decided on implementation, and the question was in their comfort zone? At a few points during the discussion, I said “So, I hear all of these questions, and we can answer them in specific in a future implementation meeting, but there appears to be a common theme regarding concerns about $subject. So, let me speak to that directly.” Hence, acknowledging the questions, showing comprehension of the larger issue, and keeping the discussion out of the weeds. I will admit that I didn’t make the correct call all the time, and I was dinged for tabling a couple of questions that should have been answered in depth, but in general I was making the right calls.

1d. Keep Moving: There’s a certain momentum in these kind of talks. I’m giving information, the audience is receiving information, and I’m able to answer questions quickly enough to keep everyone interested. Which is to say, there’s a tempo to a talk like this, and I break it at my own peril. It’s very similar to meetings where two people get bogged down in minutia and the meeting can not continue until they’re done; people stop paying attention, zone out, and everyone loses focus. I think the biggest challenge for me was keeping the meeting within a very narrow band of technical abstraction. Too high, and there’s no content. Too low, and I end up bogged down like the first time.

2. Time Management: This is a role-play exercise, and having a cheat sheet is verboten. However, everyone has a cellphone, and having it on the table with a stopwatch and/or a clock is completely allowed. Evidently, my audience/colleagues had never seen a new hire actively manage time during a discussion. This includes telling the audience how much time is left in order to set expectations for levels of interactivity in the rest of the discussion. I have a feeling that active time management is going to become part of the standard routine from now on.

3. Audiences Are People, Too: As mentioned above, it’s okay to say “I don’t know”. I kept a corner of the whiteboard for “questions to answer for people later”. Now in reality, this meant “homework for me to do”, but as a general approach, it means that your audience sees that you’re listening to them, and that what they asked is important enough to write down and recall for later. I can say in my own experience that I’ve been very impressed when a sales team committed to getting me information in an afternoon meeting, only to have relevant, non-canned information only a few hours later.

The next whiteboard talk is in approximately 14 hours.

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