Note taking with mind maps
The antidote to hurried handwriting and tangential teachings
Recently, I was fortunate to attend an excellent evening seminar with world-renowned author Daniel Pink, where he discussed his latest research and new book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” which looks at the underestimated importance of timing in many areas of the modern world, including business, education, and healthcare.
Daniel Pink was speaking at an event organised by the How To Academy in London. View details and upcoming events
Throughout the talk, I was mind mapping continuously (as always) to capture notes for myself, and you can see the results in the MindMeister Mind Map below, which can be viewed in full on Biggerplate.com:
After the seminar, we were lucky to grab a couple of minutes with Daniel who revealed that he uses mind mapping techniques when he is brainstorming initial thoughts/ideas on a topic. However, he was not familiar with using mind mapping as a note taking method during presentations as I had just done. Hopefully by now, he’s had a chance to check out the mind map!
Judging by the interest of others during and after this event, it seems many people are unfamiliar with the use of mind mapping software for note taking, even though there are an ever-increasing number of laptops and tablets visible among attendees at any seminar or lecture in business or education (you have to wonder what exactly they are doing/using on those devices…?)
Whilst I’ve been reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Daniel’s When book over the last week, I have also found myself reflecting on why more people are not using mind mapping tools to help and improve their note-taking in business, education, and life in general…!
The (non-sensical) Notebook
I first started using mind mapping software for note-taking at university in an attempt to counter-act my terrible hand-writing and inability to keep up with what lecturers were saying for more than a couple of minutes when scribbling furious (and messy) linear notes for myself.
Before switching to mind mapping software, my note-taking performance was less than spectacular, but is probably representative of how many people still go about note-taking in business and education even today…
Note: You can see one of my “note mind maps” from University, and one of the first maps ever uploaded to Biggerplate here: International Aid & Global Violence
When writing notes by hand on lined paper, if I did manage to keep up with the pace of a seminar, the resulting “note” outputs would be a collection of messy pages containing a seemingly random selection of text, scribbles, and incoherent annotations on already incoherent notes. Occasionally I’d get really pro-active (and make my own life harder) by throwing in some arbitrary use of different coloured pens for good measure, as I’d seen girls doing that quite a lot, and they always seemed to do better in tests than me… surely that must be the secret of their success? The result was further incoherence, with random flourishes of red, green and blue in my otherwise black notes… did red mean this was important, irrelevant, or essential information…? And what did green star mean? I didn’t often remember.
More diligent students may have reviewed those notes shortly afterwards and written them up in a tidier and more coherent manner while the content was still fresh in their minds, but I was not that student. More often than not, the next time I saw these notes (if indeed I ever did) would be a week or two before exams rolled around, when I would furiously search for note-based evidence that I had actually attended some lectures, and then try (in vain) to interpret my scribbles. I was relying on a totally unreliable collection of information as the basis of my exam preparation.
My own poor habits aside, there were two additional problems with linear note taking that still exist whether you’re using pen and paper or a computer: Relationships and Relevance.
One of the key things that paginated linear notes take away (or at least make hard) is the ability to spot and clearly illustrate connections between points if they do not arise in immediate and convenient sequence and/or if they are spread over a number of written pages.
Without a diligent (and time consuming) review and re-writing afterwards, there is a total inability to easily see and show the connection between my note on page 2, and the quote on page 4 (assuming I made it to 4 pages of notes without giving up). What’s more, even if I did identify a connection between information on separate pages, I had no ability within my notes to make that connection clear, without making my notes more messy. “See note on page 3” scribbled alongside a notation on page 6 was about as good as it gets, but do that more than a few times and your page starts to look like… well… my notes. This is particularly tricky in cases where you spot (and try to illustrate) these connections in real-time, whilst you’re still trying to keep up with the presenter as they talk.
Most presentations do not follow a simple and structured assessment of one concept after another, and as a result, the same concept may arise in different forms, at several different points during the course of a 60 minute lecture. As a result, references to that concept may be spread throughout several pages in your notes, and a coherent view of that concept as a whole is also split up and potentially lost. This same issue happens all the time in reports and proposal documents in business, and of course, in powerpoint slide decks where key points are separated by 30 slides (and a disappointing lack of race-car transition sound-effects).
To put it politely, whether you are listening to a university lecturer, a speaker at a conference, or a colleague presenting in a meeting, it is fair to say that not all speakers and/or presentations are as coherent and well-structured as someone like Daniel Pink. Many ramble and wander off on tangents that result in totally confusing insertions in the chronology of your linear notes.
As a student, you’re rarely equipped with sufficient knowledge to discern whether the start of a professors anecdote or train of thought was going to be pertinent to your learning, and so you diligently wrote whatever you heard, hoping that both it, and your notes, will make sense and be relevant in the end. It’s only after the professor finishes telling you about his bird-watching vacation in Albuquerque that you realise it’s totally irrelevant information. By then it’s too late and your notes (and mental flow) are now interrupted.
This type of tangent/interruption can be difficult to come back from. Not only are your notes now cluttered, but you just wasted mental energy keeping up with the tangent, and now need to get your brain back into gear to resume the original (and relevant) line of thought/discussion. However, while the speaker might resume with a simple “now, where was I…”, it can sometimes be difficult for the listener to pick up the original thread so easily, as the information (and current location in the overall narrative) is less familiar territory. This is where concentration drifts, and motivation to resume diligent note-taking starts to wane. Importantly, your linear note-taking won’t help you much in your efforts to pick the key thread back up at the pace required, and things may only get worse, particular if another tangent follows.
Discerning relevant vs irrelevant information in real time is difficult, and as such, by and large, we all have to follow the thread the speaker takes us on. If that thread takes unexpected pathways that turn out to be red herrings, then our notes (and our brains) are likely to struggle.
Moving to Mind Maps
My own move to mind mapping software for note-taking was more cold panic than coherent plan, but the impact was immediate, and the long-term implications significant (hence Biggerplate.com). I passed my exams (which had seemed highly unlikely only a few weeks earlier) and got my head around subjects and concepts that I had struggled with for some time.
The mapping process helped me to pick out the key concepts (rather than trying to record information verbatim), identify and illustrate how ideas fitted together more easily (in real-time), and provided an easy-to-digest record to review after the lecture (yeah right), or much later when preparing for exams. It also served to help me identify and record areas that I did not understand, and guided the research and studying that I did outside of the lecture hall to try and fill in those weaker areas (there were many).
There are many benefits to using mind mapping software for note-taking, but I’ve tried to articulate a few below, before then providing some practical tips towards the end of this article on how you might start or improve your note taking with mind mapping software.
1. Note Taking & Sense Making
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of note-taking with mind mapping software is the fact that it can help you to simultaneously take the notes, and also make sense of the information in real-time. Don’t assume this is happening normally in your linear notes.
Often we are so focused on trying to capture the information (take the note) that we have little or no time in the moment to try and make sense of what we’re actually writing, or how it relates to other information we have captured. As mentioned earlier, this often means a separate ‘sense-making’ effort is required after the event to try and understand the notes we have captured, and often this is not possible or probable.
When adding notes into a mind map however, every piece of information has to ‘fit’ somewhere, meaning that it it is added into the map as a subtopic, or sibling topic in relation to something else. This means any idea captured is immediately given some context and an inherent indication of how ‘important’ it is simply by what it’s attached to, and where it sits in the overall schematic of information. If the information is right out on the end of a branch as the final subtopic on a long string of topics, then it is a detail, whereas the ideas nearer the centre of the map (our MAIN topics) are more likely to be the key domains or concepts that everything else builds around.
As we listen to a presentation, often what starts off looking like a big topic can end up being a small note, and vice versa. One of the most basic but most powerful features of mind mapping software is the ability to move information easily, to quickly re-order and restructure it in real-time, so that the hierarchy of ideas is more accurate and logical. It is extremely easy to move topics in and around the map to indicate “this was a bigger and more important concept than I first realised”, or just as easily move information to indicate “this was not the major topic that I thought it would be”, or “this is actually a sub-part of this other concept”. Try doing that in your linear notes, and you’ll end up doing a lot of messing around, without actually getting much clearer on the overall structure of ideas and information.
This simple process of moving and re-ordering information is what helps you make sense of the information at the same time as you capture it, by helping to ensure that every piece of information in the mind map is given some context simply by virtue of how and where it is located in the overall structure of the map, and what else it is connected to.
In your linear notes, an idea can sit in relative isolation in a page, simply captured in the order that it was presented, without any obvious (or visible) connections to other information, which makes it hard to see that piece of information as part of a bigger picture. In a mind map, this is not easily done. To add an idea to a mind map means you are almost always attaching it to something else, either as an equal (sibling topic) or subtopic. The fundamental structure of a mind map means that simply by virtue of an idea being placed in connection to something else, it takes on some additional context, which is invaluable as we try to understand (make sense) of how these concepts all fit together.
2. Tackling Tangents
The fact that information captured in a mind map automatically has connections and context has a powerful side effect and additional benefit. It makes it far easier to identify and handle those moments when your presenter goes “off topic” and talks about things that are not fundamentally important to your understanding of the topic.
Where your linear notes (and thought processes) would be interrupted and messed up by a presentation tangent, a software mind map will enable you to follow the tangent, without getting derailed by it. As noted earlier, you don’t always know that a tangent is a red herring when it starts, and as such, you need to be able to follow along at the start, or at least as long as it takes you to see that this particular anecdote is not actually as relevant as your presenter thinks.
Within a software mind map, this is easily done. You can continue building your mind map notes, but importantly if/when you realise this is an irrelevant tangent, you can simply hide the information (close the topic down) so it’s captured but not in your way. Or you can even delete the information, by clicking and deleting the topic where the tangent started (thereby automatically getting rid of all the subtopics that followed the tangent). Whichever option you choose (hide or delete), the important thing is that no matter how far you followed (and mapped) the tangent, you can always follow the structure of the mind map back to the relevant stuff to pick up where you left off (when the speaker returns to the subject at hand).
Furthermore, having all your ideas and information captured in a structure that helps you see/understand their context also means you will more easily spot when something is a distraction/irrelevance because you will see (and feel) that it does not really ‘fit’ anywhere in the map that you have built thus far. In essence, as you map the tangent, you will see and feel that the information does not easily connect up to anything else, or actually provide additional useful context. The ability to spot tangents earlier, capture a couple of notes (but not follow all the way down the rabbit hole) is invaluable in saving your mental energy, and ensuring your notes do not get bogged down and cluttered with irrelevant information.
3. Easy Annotations
My misguided attempts at using different coloured pens in my written notes were essentially an attempt at annotating the information for extra clarity. While that approach was highly ineffective (and achieved the opposite effect), mind mapping software made it extremely easy for me to clearly mark something as ‘important’, ‘not understood’ or any other signals I wanted to save for myself.
All good mind mapping software has icon functionality that enables you to put unobtrusive markers into your maps to add extra meaning. For example, in the example below, we use a green flag if we want to identify something as a key concept, and a book icon to identify a book title or article that the speaker has referenced perhaps. We can also use icons to identify information that requires further clarification and/or research, as illustrated with the yellow warning sign icon below.
Adding these markers into mind maps as you capture notes is extremely easy, and won’t break your stride at all, particularly once you decide what your icons are going to be, and how/when you will use them. It’s a good idea to try and stick to regularly using the same defined set of icons, so that you are always clear what you meant with a green flag (for example). In the early days, it may be helpful to insert a ‘Legend’ into your maps to remind you which ones to use, and for what.
In most cases, your mind mapping software will also have powerful filtering and/or search functionality that will help you to see a refined (filtered) view of your notes based on these little icons. For example, by the end of a 60 minute lecture, you might have a very large mind map of notes, but within the map, have marked 2 or 3 specific items with the yellow warning triangle (as above) to illustrate that you did not understand what was said, or needed to look into it further. Using the ‘filter’ function within software means you can hide all everything else, and laser focus in on these specific topics, to see if you can either make more sense of them afterwards, or (if necessary) seek help from others. As an alternative example, your blue book icon (as above) gives you a clear record of what you need to go and find from the library, and filtering your mind map for this icon gives you the reading list for next week. Simple!
4. Dissect & Deep-dive
One final benefit of the mind mapping software approach for note taking is the ease with which you can start with one mind map (captured live during a presentation for example) and eventually build out a connected set of mind maps that give you both the high level overview of a subject, and the details.
While your first mind map (captured live during the session) contains lots of information, it will never contain all of the information on a particular topic, and in some cases, you might need or want to ‘dissect’ this first mind map and go deeper into a particular topics for your own understanding. For example, in the talk by Dan Pink, he talks about identifying your ‘Chronotype’ in order to understand when you are at your best (and worst) performance levels during an average day, and you can see in the map snippet below that I captured notes as he talked about this.
If after the presentation I decided that I really wanted to look into the whole area of Chronotypes and Chronobiology (the science of this stuff) then I could simply select the topic in the map that says ‘Your Chronotype’, copy and paste it into a totally separate new mind map, and start to build out my notes and research into this specific topic. Importantly, the original mind map remains largely unchanged as a reflection of the notes captured in real-time, and does not get weighed down with too much additional detail from deep-diving on a particular topic. My original map notes may therefore start to represent a collection of ‘jumping off points’, which I can link to specific ‘Deep Dive’ maps that I might create.
In a university setting, perhaps you used those blue book icons to indicate a book that was referenced during a lecture, and you may link off to a specific mind map with notes on that particular book. You therefore start to build a comprehensive and connected schematic of the subject matter, without any one mind map becoming too huge and overwhelming. Your maps are starting to develop into a coherent set of sign posts — helping you to find and easily navigate connected information — which will be invaluable when exams come around.
Practical Tips for Note Taking with Mind Maps
Over time, what started as me mind mapping my university lectures actually turned into a successful service offering at Biggerplate, where we help event organisers capture visual records of their conferences/meetings (see here). As a result, we feel relatively qualified to give you some basic tips on how to develop your note-taking skills, or simply get started…
1. Concepts over Chronology
Sometimes a presentation will flow both chronologically and conceptually, and your mind map will practically build itself, as the speaker moves logically through concepts, in a chronological sequence that is easily and accurately reflected in your mind map notes. However, this is sadly not always/often the case. As mentioned earlier, many presentations are not well structured, and as such, building your notes in the order that concepts are presented may not actually be the most coherent way to do this.
I therefore advise people to focus on trying to capture and represent information based on the concepts, rather than the order they were spoken about. This means if your speaker dips into a topic at the start of a session and then doesn’t mention it again until the very end, it doesn’t matter. You capture the concept, and build off that topic any time it is referenced.
This is not a hard and fast rule by any means, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind, particularly if you have a speaker who is jumping around a lot, and not necessarily following a very coherent narrative. Don’t let their jumpiness affect your note-taking. Concentrate on building out a map of the key concepts, rather than the order in which they discussed them, and you’ll come out with something pretty useful.
2. Practice ‘Active Listening’
While there are some practical motor skills needed when note taking using mind maps such as relatively good typing speed, and familiarity with your chosen mind mapping software, perhaps the more important skill is ‘Active Listening’.
A key benefit of the mind mapping approach is that you do NOT try to capture every word verbatim. Instead, you listen carefully, and capture only the key words and concepts that matter in a few keywords (not long sentences). This takes a little practice, but is liberating for both your hands and your mind once you become more comfortable with the approach. As you become more adept at picking out the information that matters, your typing fingers and your brain will have more time and capacity to do the simultaneous ‘sense-making’ that we discussed earlier, as you will be capturing fewer words, but with more meaning.
The best way to build the skill is practice, and if you don’t quite feel brave enough to ‘live map’ your next lecture or business meeting, you can easily practice this (and learn some interesting stuff in the process) by watching and mapping TED talks for example. (If you do start mapping TED talks or otherwise, be sure to share your mind maps on Biggerplate afterwards!)
3. Continuously Move and Re-order
As you take your notes in mind maps, don’t accept that where a topic is at first is where it belongs. A key part of the ‘sense making’ aspect of this process is moving ideas and information around the map until they find their logical place within the overall structure context of the content.
As you get more comfortable with active listening and capturing key information, you will free up time and brainpower to think about how the information fits together, and you should use it pro-actively to move things around, and keep testing what belongs where.
4. Practical over Perfect
Unless you are providing live mind mapping services to others, there is simply no need to worry about whether your mind map is a perfect representation of what has been discussed. It’s supposed to be a useful reflection of the topic, not a perfect record. If at first it feels difficult, don’t be discouraged. It takes a bit of time (but not too much) to get familiar with this approach, and once mastered, you will not go back.
If in the early days you feel like giving up on this approach, simply look back at some of your linear notes from a previous lecture or event, and see how far from ‘perfect’ they are… then think about the fact that you stuck with that approach for years!
5. Utilise the Second Layer information
When we train people and companies in the use of mind mapping, we advise them to keep the surface layer of their mind maps relatively clean and keyword focused, then utilise the ‘second layer’ functionalities of mind mapping software to capture additional depth and detail where needed. What this means in practical terms is making use of the notes, hyperlinks, and attachments features in mind mapping software, rather than trying to capture or show LOADS of information on the surface of the mind map.
These functions will help you keep your maps tidy, manageable and clear, whilst ensuring additional detail and depth is captured (in context) and easily explored within the software at a later stage. The ‘second layer’ information is particularly helpful if you are diligent in reviewing your mind map notes afterwards, where you might want to add additional thoughts to the key information without cluttering up the notes that you captured. These functions are also helpful when it comes to connecting up different mind maps as part of the ‘Dissect and Deep-dive’ approach outlined earlier.
There’s a lot of information here, and I hope you were taking notes.
For more information about live mind mapping for events, visit the following page on Biggerplate: Live Event Mapping
This article was not in any way endorsed by the Bic 4 colour biro. Other brands are available. (Dear Bic… if you read this… please send pens… and beer)
For more mind maps about Daniel Pink and his excellent books, take a look at the results from this search on Biggerplate: Daniel Pink Mind Maps