How can note takers go visual? Why will that help? What will change?

My favourite editor Helen Williams asked me some great questions about my upcoming visual thinking Bootcamp / World Tour. Above are three of her questions and my answers follows here:

The easiest way to go visual with your notes (assuming that you already write notes) is this:

1: before you begin, fold the page gently down the center to divide it into two columns. In the left column you take notes in words as you normally would.

2: after the meeting/lecture/event you take some time (for a 1 hour lecture I would take 10–15 minutes) to read through your notes, and highlight anything that has some kind of visual element. If the speaker mentions an example with an increase in ticket prices for busses then tickets and busses are obvious objects that you can draw simple stick-man versions of.

3: Draw a bus and a ticket in the right hand column next to where the highlighted words are.

This process will help you because it (initially) splits the visual stuff from the rest and allows you to piggy back on your existing note taking routine.

What will happen?

At first you might feel embarrassed that you have these strange looking little drawings in your notes. You might try to hide them discreetly so nobody notices. But when they eventually do they will most likely congratulate you and say things like “wow, that is so COOL!” And often they will lecture you for minutes on how incredibly effective it is to take notes with visuals (like you do) citing some study they heard about.

Your drawings will quickly get better. Just a bit of practice will go along way. You will soon begin to feel proud of your notes which are still 80% text with a visual column next to it. You will show them to folks. Maybe you will even begin tweeting or instagramming photos of your notes.

All of this is relatively unimportant but useful because it encourages you to keep going. You may even buy better pens and splurge on a real notebook.

After a few months of doing this your thinking will begin to shift. You will begin to take notes and draw at the same time. You will see images in your head before you draw it. More importantly: you will remember it all better since you process the information on many more levels.

Finally, your idea about what is visual will change. In the example above you will initially focus on the bus and and ticket since they are obvious objects. But later you will realize that the price increase is actually the important detail and you will make a simple graph that shows just how big that increase really was. And a quick doodle of a bus will help you remember the context.

I can personally recommend this, but it does have a few downsides. Since you will have a new found appreciation for ideas and plans and communication which is simple and clear, you will also become increasingly annoyed when people are not simple and clear. You will be keenly aware when someone is only talking abstractly or being vague since you can’t immediately see the images that grounds it and makes it specific.