A while back, I attended a very interesting seminar given by a couple of consultants in Toronto. The seminar was an overview of various techniques to help kick start your creativity. It was an interesting experience, and I learned a number of interesting techniques.
One of techniques that I really dove into mind mapping. While mind mapping isn’t new to me, in the past I wasn’t really as comfortable as I should have been with it. During the seminar, something clicked and I finally saw how I could use mind mapping to effectively plan my writing. Not just the freelance writing that I do but any kind of writing, including technical writing.
A brief overview of mind mapping
Confession time: I’m not an expert on mind mapping. I’ve been doing it for a while, and am getting more and more familiar and comfortable with the techniques and tools. But the explanation that follows will undoubtedly contain several omissions and an error or two. Or more. But it should give you an idea of what mind mapping is and how mind mapping can help you.
Mind mapping is a way of building out an idea from a word or concept by associating other words or ideas with it. It’s brainstorming, but in a very graphical and non-linear way.
With a mind map, you start with a central concept. You build out from that central concept using keywords or phrases or concepts. Some of them will be linked to others, and some will stand alone. You’ll wind up with a diagram that looks like a funky spider’s web.
A real-world example in a moment.
Using mind mapping in technical communication
Here’s how I do it. Your process may wind up being a lot different from mine. Basically, I use a mind map when I’ve loaded up on information but ideas actual solutions aren’t flowing from my brain. Creating a mind map (or three) helps to dislodge what’s jammed in my head and get it to come out.
I usually start with a mind map if I can’t get an outline or a solution to a problem going. The idea for whatever I’m trying to figure out is either too broad or it just won’t flow out of my brain. So I start with a central concept or keyword or phrase. I then think of any other words or phrases or concepts that I can relate to the idea. A bunch of tendrils appear, which may branch out even further.
Eventually, I get to a point where enough is enough. I look at the mind map I’ve created (like the one above) and try to find links between the various branches. Some branches get trimmed, while others stay. But what comes out of it all is a flow that I can usually translate into an outline, a table of contents, or a solution.
Sometimes, I get on such a roll that I’m seeing a bunch of potential variations on a theme. So I create two, even three mind maps. That gives me a broader view of the problem I’m trying to tackle and sometimes gives me more options to pick and choose. I can then fit the solutions together like certain popular brand of building blocks.
A quick example
And, yes, I do use mind mapping in my consulting work. Take my current gig, for example. At the moment, I’m doing a mix of updating, harmonizing a document. It’s a bit of a mess, and the process so far has involved quite a bit of analysis and thought.
On the first day, I loaded up on a lot of information. So much information that by 5:00 p.m. my brain felt like it had partly melted in my skull. The next day, I was still fuzzy as to what I wanted to do. But I needed to make some progress. So I decided to grab some paper and start mind mapping how to:
- Approach the problem as a whole
- Tackle specific tasks
For the first item, I did three mind maps. Each was a variation on a theme. For the second, the mind map detailed the approach that I wanted to take. By mind mapping, I came up with several ways of doing what I needed to do.
Here’s an example of a mind map that I created. Yes, I know my handwriting is horrible. But I can read it!
You’ll notice that I circled certain elements with yellow highlighter because I wanted to make them stand out. I’ve been told that when mind mapping, I should use different coloured pens. But I usually only have a black pen with me …
There are many of them. I usually use pen and paper. But if I need to collaborate with someone on a mind map, or I don’t want to kill trees, I use a Web-based application called Mind42.com. It’s simple but effective.
I don’t use mind mapping with everything technical communication (or writing) task. Usually, I reserve it for longer/larger projects and when I just can’t get what’s in my head out through my fingertips and on my computer. Mind mapping isn’t always effective but I’ve found it can clear the log jam.
Do you mind map? If so, how do you do it? Share your techniques and tips by leaving a comment.