How Doodling Can Help You Get Ahead at Work

It turns out that your scrawls can help close a deal—even if you can’t draw to save your life

A flowchart created in Paper by 53

A flowchart created in Paper by 53

Fiftythree, Inc./Bloomberg

Ah, the blank whiteboard: The ultimate canvas for unfiltered creativity, where ideas pour out of your brain just as fast as you can move a marker. Such a shame, then, that even the best-drawn ideas are likely to elicit yawns the second they migrate over to PowerPoint.

Research backs this up. A study conducted last year by a Stanford Graduate School of Business researcher found that concepts have more impact when presented as whiteboard-style drawings than when photos are used. Observers watching hand-drawn slides were more engaged and more likely to remember what they saw, and they perceived presentations to be of higher quality and more credible.

So if stick figures beat stock photos, how do you apply this to your presentations—especially if your own skills result in drawing that resembles the work of a third-grader during an earthquake?

A few companies have designed tools to let you improve your scribbling game without enrolling in an art class. Paper by FiftyThree, a free iPad sketching app, has become popular for its ability to let us non-artists produce passable sketches. The app recently rolled out a “mobile whiteboarding” feature set called Think Kit that is designed to automatically transform hand-scrawled flowcharts and diagrams into presentation-ready designs. These can easily be exported to PowerPoint, Keynote, or PDF.

At left, a hand-drawn diagram. At right, the same drawing after being polished in Paper by 53.
At left, a hand-drawn diagram. At right, the same drawing after being polished in Paper by 53.
Fiftythree, Inc./Bloomberg

Even if you could not draw a straight line or satisfactory circle if your life depended on it, the app can detect what shapes you are trying to produce, and it effectively smoothes out rough edges.

“Basically, we’re building an Auto-Tune for diagramming,” says Georg Petschnigg, FiftyThree’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

I tried it out and found my rough hand-drawn shapes and lines instantly polished. I could fill diagram boxes with solid colors via a few taps and then easily move discrete elements around the screen. Within a few minutes, my hastily drawn boxes and lines looked like professional flowchart diagrams. The process was fun, to boot—more like casual doodling than real work.

“Working with most presentation and diagramming programs is a tedious exercise in picking shapes from an overloaded list of icons,” Petschnigg says. “Contrast that to working on a whiteboard: You only need one marker to write, draw shapes, lines, and tablets. It’s that feeling of working in the flow that we wanted to capture.”

According to Petschnigg, the software utilizes an “intention engine” that attempts to gauge what even the most artistically limited user is trying to put on the screen. As an example of how this works, the FiftyThree team discovered that speed of motion is a good indicator of how complex a shape somebody is drawing: Slow hand movement implies a more detailed drawing, while fast motion indicates a straight line or common shape. This information allows the app to figure out what, for example, is supposed to be a solid box and what's supposed to be a small bit of artistic expression.

Still, if you want to really infuse your presentations with the best of whiteboard drawing’s chaotic creativity, there’s only one option: Do it live. A study (PDF) by the Aberdeen Group found that interactive whiteboard sessions are far more effective than staid, static Powerpoint when it comes to closing sales. 

And while premade presentations are often a necessary aspect of business life, beaming in-progress drawings is a pretty simple process that requires nothing more than an iPad, an Apple TV (turn on AirPlay Mirroring to wirelessly transport your live drawing to a TV or projector), and a stylus (the FiftyThree-made Pencil stylus is pretty decent). No matter what presentation setting you find yourself in, you’ll be amazed at how people respond to the novelty of watching somebody build boxes and doodle drawings in front them—even if you really can’t draw to save your life.

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