How to write legibly on a whiteboard or flip chart

I, like many people, used to have a shameful penmanship skill when standing at a whiteboard or flip-chart. However I wanted to improve this as I was beginning to facilitate more groups and I didn’t feel my scrawl was acceptable.

I had the good fortune to mention this to someone on a training course I was on who taught be a very simple and easy to implement approach to improve your writing style.

There are two rules:

  1. Don’t write in CAPITALS
  2. Think 1-3-1

Don’t write in CAPITALS

This can be the default for people who have bad writing. The reality here is that writing in capitals can give better results because it slows you down; which means if you slow down with your normal writing, it too could get better.

Not only this, but the bigger reason not to use them other than in titles, acronyms etc is that it’s harder to read for the people who are trying to read what you’ve written. If you want to write in capitals because it’s better for you, you are putting your desires over that of those you are trying to communicate with. What is more important, what you want when writing, or actually getting the message across?

Think 1-3-1

This is the really powerful rule. Simply put, you write using the proportions 1-3-1, i.e. the body of a letter like “a” or “o” should be 3 units of size, compared to the tail or neck of letters like “y” or “h”. The best way to describe this is this picture, where I’ve added the 1-3-1 lines to demonstrate.

a marked up page with the 1-3-1 dividers and some sample letters

1-3-1 writing on marked up paper

By making the core body element of the letter larger and reducing the other parts, it makes it easier on the eye to flow along the word. Also writing single letters and not joining them up makes it easier to read and again slows you down slightly, which gives you time to take more care.

Putting it in to practise

Even when I first was taught this, and in line with the shortness of this article, it’s a five minute discussion, I saw immediate improvement. With a little practise at my desk and in front of the television at home one evening, I improved massively. Now using this every day it only gets better. If I compare what I had done before to now they are poles apart.

Example of my improved writing before I learnt the 1-3-1 and then after

Before and after I learnt the 1-3-1 rule

If you follow the rule to the letter, you’ll cut short some of the tail to keep within the rules. While I don’t follow this exactly when I’m writing now, I am generally within the rules, particularly keeping the body large and clean.

Over time I have improved my speed and maintained the quality. Not as fast as my default scrawl across the page, but the value gained is higher and this is what is important. I am no longer ashamed of my writing working with teams.

Live and Die By Your Sword

It’s funny how sometimes something you do all the time are so obvious that you don’t even see them. For the last few months I have been beginning to build up a list of articles I’ve had ideas to write about. Some sharing stories of what I am working on, others talking about issues I’ve seen that I feel I have a new take on, or a new analogy that I want to share to help teams be more agile.

What is funny about this is that so far after pulling together a list of ideas for articles, I’ve not until now actually written any. My excuse was that within my large reading list was a book by Barbara Minto, entitles The Pyramid Principle. My logic being that if I am going to start writing articles on my business blog I wanted them to be as good as I could make them and making sure there is structure to them so the readers enjoyed them and wanted to come back for more.

The reality with this approach though is that time was ticking by and I have not written anything. Then I saw the light, while I coach teams not to procrastinate, push the idea of “good enough for now”‘ and make sure they don’t fall foul of analysis paralysis I was doing exactly that; and it was staring me in the face.

So in one fell swoop, not only did I realise that actually starting writing articles was important, I had a good starting topic to use, I didn’t actually need to read that book. Yes, I am sure if I had read it, this article would be better, but I might not be writing it for some months yet while the book bubbled up to the top of my reading list and I then made my way through it.

It made me remember how hard it can be for teams to improve when they are focussing so hard on doing the day job. They are busy getting on delivering a product and then before they know it their company wants to become agile and people like me turn up to help them reach their goals. It can feel that we’ve turned their world upside down, with new processes and ways of working.  While still focusing on delivering and “doing the day job” they might overlook the improvements needed that are often ingrained in them to are actually needed and more important to making the transition work.

It is the role of Scrum Masters and coaches like me to remember this and to work with the teams so these improvements are not overlooked. Irrespective how we do this, by either convincing their heads or hearts, it’s important to not overlook the fact that they will not be necessarily focusing on this. Don’t get frustrated when you’ve mentioned it time and time again, they like me sometimes just won’t see the wood for the trees and if they don’t have the epiphany like me, it’s your role to tease this out and make sure they do see the bigger picture.