I can honestly say there are almost no learning techniques from Jr. High that I have carried forward through my short academic life into business. However, there is one gift that a now nameless, faceless teacher once gave me. That gift was the ability to put my thoughts on paper first, and then dork with them and refine them. She (I think it was a “she”) called them “Bubble Graphs”, but the point was to brainstorm about a topic for a speech, a paper, or an argument and document things. Then go back and do the organization and structuring of those thoughts, with a final output being an outline.
Those of you who have conversed with me for more than a few moments know that my brain multi-threads pretty well when thinking, speaking, and typing. It doesn’t do so well with multi-tasking actual work, but it is highly optimized for thinking. This becomes problematic when my environment puts certain constraints on me, like for instance time, energy, and sleep. So, in time I developed a method of getting my rapid, fluid thoughts out of my brain and onto one of these “Bubble Graphs”.
I started using them in Junior High in Extemporaneous Speaking contests, and then used them at Baylor on almost every paper I wrote and every speech I gave as a Speech Communications major. This approach even helped when I entered the business world as I created Powerpoints, training documentation, technology proposals, project plans, and conducted audits of companies. For me, it was simply the best way to get the unstructured data that flowed rampantly in my brain onto paper, and then decide how the concepts were related, what was worth keeping, and how the final deliverable would be structured. I now know this method to be the same as a concept map.
About four years ago I stumbled on some software that would allow me to do “mind mapping”. The differences between a mind map and a concept map are subtle. Basically a mind map tends to be more structured in format and there is typically no direct grouping of concepts other than by what the structure and hierarchy of the mind map document provides. That said, the process for creating a mind map and a concept are essentially the same.
Mind mapping software enables a person or persons to quickly document ideas on a screen with almost no technical difficulties that would hamper the creative process. And yet, these ideas can be restructured very speedily by simply dragging and dropping an idea underneath another idea. This creates a very agile approach to document individual or group ideation, whether it be mission statements, business plan outlines, venture capital pitches, or things as abstract as meal recipe organization. It can even help with brainstorming about lengthy blog posts (see my mind map for this post below).
FreeMind Mind Mapping Software
After trying many different mind mapping software products over the last four years, I have finally settled on one that I can’t get enough of. FreeMind is the tool I have recommended recently to a number of other internet professionals. Regardless of the varying ways they think, they almost always come back and say “the more I use this, the more I use this”. Once you really “get” this process and this kind of tool, you begin to find heaps of other ways in which it will help you.
I recently used FreeMind on a consulting engagement where I was asked to make recommendations about how to turn their business around. I took notes of each stakeholder conversation in individual text documents, but then used the mind map to tie all the concepts, problem spaces, and solutions together. This aided me in understanding a large, complex problem at a single glance. It came in handy when it was time to draft the deliverable document of my recommendations.
Also, recently, I used FreeMind on a 150+ page web project to develop the navigation scheme (Information Architecture) that will easily expand in the future to more than 500 pages. The two freelance designers I was working with were able to collaborate on my work by simply opening my file and changing things up. On this same large project, 15 of us used FreeMind during a series of meetings to create a massive mind map that profiles our eight core audience member types. We included each of those profiles characteristics, needs, and the many ways we felt we could meet their needs based on what resources we have available to our organization. This was an invaluable tool in not only understanding our audience, but in helping us as a team to decide which of the 8 types of people coming to our website would be our core focus, which would be of secondary focus, and who we would try to serve as we could.
Why I Love FreeMind
- Free to use(yep, it’s open source)
- Cross platform
- Scalable for very large maps
- Easily installed and updated
- Has numerous export options (images, PDFs, outlines in various file types)
- Built with Java and XML
There seems to exist a little online community around the FreeMind software, which is maybe best illustrated in this online list of mind maps that you can explore for ideas on how to do your own. I am especially fond of this start on Calvinist “Sects”.
Mind Map for This Blog Post