chalk talk

I’m not a big fan of elaborate facilitation techniques, but I’ve had two good recent experiences with a method called “chalk talk.” Here’s how it works. You write a few significant and relevant words on a large expanse of paper or a blackboard. You distribute markers or pieces of chalk to everyone in a group. You tell them that there are only two rules: 1) No talking. 2) It’s over when it’s over.

There is then a brief period of embarrassed silence until someone writes a word or phrase (or possibly draws a picture). Others join in. They pose questions silently and draw lines connecting other people’s ideas. Everyone concentrates intensely, the board fills up, and then the pace slows. Finally, you say, “It’s over.”

This is an efficient way to get lots of comments “on the record.” It would take hours for people to say the same things in a standard conversation. The method encourages everyone to pay attention to everyone else’s thoughts. It can empower shy people to participate from the beginning. And it’s a good way to think about connections and disagreements.

This page shows the results of a “chalk talk” exercise from last week, at which social activists from eight countries silently discussed “participation” and “deliberation.” (To see the whole thing, scroll right and down.) I’m not sure that the image makes much sense unless you were there, but it’s a good conversation-starter and a great resource for anyone who wants to summarize a meeting (in a more linear style) afterwards.