If you've spent any time in a business environment, especially at a startup, you know that whiteboards rule. These are the blackboard replacements that have thronged the workplace in the past decade or so, substituting dry erase markers and a ubiquitous squeak for chalk and that whole horrible fingernails scraping thing.
Whiteboards come in many sizes, markers in many colors. Sometimes, they literally take over the entire office. I worked at an ad agency in New York for several years where the walls were magnetized whiteboards. If you had an idea, any idea, your grabbed a marker and just starting writing on the nearest wall.
Yesterday, Mitt Romney brought the whiteboard into presidential political campaiging for the first time. Mind you, the whiteboard has been a part of political communications for a while now. The White House has run a "White House White Board" series starring mainly Austan Goolsbee, the former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.
But as a campaign trail prop, Romney's use of the whiteboard to, um...clarify? the Medicare debate that's broken out since he named Paul Ryan to the ticket was...well, you'd like to call it an innovation, an advance over that moment back in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan used little charts on easels during broadcasts from the Oval Office. Charts that looked as if they were designed so that a second-grader could interpret them.
It was less an innovation, however, than a shining example of how weak Romney's whiteboard skills are. He can be forgiven for this; the whiteboard is a staple of the management-consulting world that he came out of, but there were probably a lot fewer whiteboards (if any) in use at Bain when Mitt was developing his skills than there are now. Besides, he was the boss. His underlings would be writing on a whiteboard for him, not the other way around.
Whiteboards are typically not at their best when they're used for presentation purposes (although they can be incorporated into presentations), but Romney was outside in South Carolina, hardly ideal conditions for throwing up a PowerPoint deck on a projection screen. Also, the campaign may have thought that a whiteboard — even a rather crummy little one with a wood frame, scrawled upon with a basic black marker — would show that Romney can think on the fly, express his views succinctly and with a visual element. Obama makes speeches! But Romney works things out — with a whiteboard! Just like a business guy at the office!
The whiteboard also links the ticket on a critical aspect: both Romney and Ryan are men of data. And anyone who has seen Ryan in action knows that he loves his charts!
Graphically, Romney's chart was simple to a fault: two vertical and two horizontal columns. Romney set it up this way to present the Medicare debate as an "either/or" choice. Romney makes no changes and keeps the plan "solvent." Obama makes massive cuts and render the program "bankrupt." There are two problems with this. First, Romney, following Ryan, proposes to covert Medicare into a voucher system, relying on free-market competition to drive down costs. Second, a government social program can't go bankrupt — it can only cost more or less, depending of expenses and incoming revenues.
The Obama campaign promptly responded with a whiteboard that looked exactly like Romney's whiteboard! (See above.) Except that the opposite story had been Photoshopped in, copying Romney's scribbling printing. This was clever, but the Obama whiteboard looked equally awful.
The "White House White Board" series whiteboards look a lot more professional, but nobody at the White House is all that good at rocking the board. Goolsbee has a cool voice, but all he ever did was scribble numbers and stuff on a board that someone else had already set up. Whiteboard FAIL Goolsbee!
Here's an example of what's possible in the modern world of whiteboarding. It's from Sunni Brown, a noted "graphic facilitator" who collaborates with clients to capture their ideas in a visual way. It's a bit cartoon-y for my tastes, but it gives you an idea of the vast gulf, the yawning chasm, that exists between Romney's whiteboard and the state of the art.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is the only person in politics I've seen who rises to this standard. That guy can draw!
Excuses aside, Romney, of all people, should have a greater awareness of effective visual communications, which are everywhere in the business world, far more so than a generation ago. What's troubling about his whiteboard exercise in South Carolina is that he seems to think he can declare himself a successful business leader — which in many respects he is — then dash off a few dry-erase points and matter-of-factly call it a day. This would be okay if you were hashing out ideas with your team before doing the client presentation or laying out your restructuring plan for the board of directors. But on the campaign trail when you're running for President?
Romney might want to out his whiteboard away. Or at least turn over his marker to Paul Ryan.
Or maybe just stick to charts.