“Drawing conclusions on the wall”

No, this is not a post about Bob Dylan lyrics, much as I love and admire Dylan’s lyrics and music, and this line is from one of my favorite songs. It’s about what I consider unusual behavior on the part of entrepreneurs and mentors.

Virtually all MIT VMS meetings are held in conference rooms painted with whiteboard paint and supplied with markers. Yet over years of meetings virtually no entrepreneurs and very few mentors every step up to whiteboard to illustrate their thoughts. And yet you can’t go into any tech company without either seeing more whiteboards than the average sports bar has TV screens or whiteboard painted walls – all filled with diagrams, equations, to do lists, etc.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now talk to anyone at VMS about this – perhaps they need to write ‘Please feel free to draw, scribble or write on this wall!” in large letters on the walls as perhaps the entrepreneurs don’t realize they can.

Virtually all my mentees come armed with pitch decks, which they want the mentors to review. And often times these decks are well done and spark valuable discussion, though often that discussion tends to derail the slide presentation and we don’t get to the end of it even in a 90 minute session.

But I was really was impressed the other day when I mentored the head of a team working on a complex agricultural technology product. He came to the meeting without any deck or handout, but was very articulate. When I asked a specific question about data flow and capture, he simply took out a pen and drew me a diagram which he explained as he drew. Believe me, he shouldn’t give up his day job as an MIT scientist to become a graphic artist, but his simple sketch was worth at least 1,500 words if not the canonical 1,000 credited to a picture.

Why is that? Because startups and product development are by their nature dynamic processes, the operational definition being that discrete actions take place over time, and time is a very significant variable. Why then show it in a static slide? Step up to the whiteboard or pull out your notebook and diagram the process. Or if you’re skilled with presentation software use its animation tools to demonstrate the flow of your product or how your business will develop over time or how different elements of the product or service interact.

IMHO the plethora of business plan competitions and pitch contests have gotten entrepreneurs into a “canned” presentation mode. Many of these events don’t have any time for Q & A, as they have as many as eight or more companies pitching back to back. As a result the skill of thinking on your feet, and better yet, explaining and persuading on your feet, is not getting developed as it should.

So yes, I realize you need your pitch decks for contests and for investors, but when it comes to a mentoring session try leaving that deck on your computer and discuss your business, stepping up to the whiteboard or drawing in your notebook to illustrate your points. Or for those of you skilled with drawing tools on your laptop or tablet, use those.

The key point is that mentoring is about interaction, it’s a dialog, not a monolog. It’s not a pitch contest. We are not there to judge you, but to give you advice, feedback, and the benefit of our experience. And most of all, to help you to succeed. One step in becoming successful is learning how to communicate visually and in real time, because that’s what you’ll be doing once you are actually running your company rather than just pitching it.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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