Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

13 November 2009

Who are mindmaps for?

Clark @ 10:12 AM

In response to my recent mindmap of Andrew McAfee’s conference keynote (one of a number of mindmaps I’ve done), I got this comment:

Does the diagram work as a useful way of encapsulating the talk for someone who was there? Because, speaking as someone who wasn’t, I find it almost entirely content-free. Just kind of a collection of buzz-phrases in thought bubbles, more or less randomly connected.

I’m not trying to criticise his talk – which obviously I didn’t hear – or his points – which I still have no idea about – but the diagram as a method of conveying information is a total failure to this sample size of one. Possibly more useful as a refresher mechanism for people who got the talk in its original form?

Do mindmaps work for readers?  Well, I have to admit one reason I mindmap is completely personal.  I do it to help me process the presentation. Depending on the speaker, I can thoughtfully reprocess the information, or sometimes just take down interesting comments, but there are several benefits: In figuring out the ways to link, I’m capturing the conceptual structure of the talk (really, they’re concept maps), and I’m also occupying my personal bandwidth enough to allow me to focus on the talk without my mind chasing down one path and missing something.  Er, mostly…

Then, for a second category, those who actually heard the talk, they might be worthwhile reflection and re-processing.  I’d welcome anyone weighing in on that. I don’t have access to someone else’s example to see whether it would work for me.

Then, there are the potential viewers, like the commenter, for whom it’s either possible or not to process any coherent idea out of the presentation.  I looked back at the diagram for McAfee’s keynote, and I can see that I was cryptic, missing some keywords in communicating. This was for two reasons: one, he was quick, and it was hard to get it down before he’d moved on.  Two, he was eloquent, and because he was quick I couldn’t find time to paraphrase.  And there’s a more pragmatic reason; I try to constrain the size of the mindmap, and I’m always rearranging to get it to fit on one page.  That effort may keep me more terse than is optimal for unsupported processing.

I will take issue with “more or less randomly connected”, however.  The connections are quite specific.  In all the talks I’ve done this for, there have been several core points that are elaborated, in various ways by talk, but each talk tends to be composed of a replicated structure.  The connections capture that structure.  For instance, McAfee repeatedly took a theme, used an example to highlight it, then derived a takehome point and some corollaries.  There would be ways to more eloquently convey that structure (e.g. labeled links, color coding), but the structure isn’t always laid out beforehand (it’s emergent), and is moving fast enough that I couldn’t do it on the fly.

I could post-process more, but in the most recent two cases I wanted to get it up quickly: when I tweeted I was making the mindmap, others said they were eager to see it, so I hung on for some minutes after the keynotes to get it up quickly.  McAfee himself tweeted “dang, that was FAST – nice work!”

I did put the arrow in the background to guide the order in which the discussion came, as well, but apparently it is too telegraphic for the non-attendee. It happens I know the commenter well, and he’s a very smart guy, so if he’s having trouble, that’s definitely an argument that the raw mindmap alone is not communicative, at least not without perhaps some post-processing to make the points clear.

Really valuable to get the feedback, and worthwhile to reflect on what the tradeoffs are and who benefits. It may be that these are only valuable for fellow attendees.  Or just me. I may have to consider a) not posting, b) slowing down and doing more post-processing, or…?  Comments welcome!


  1. I’m a HUGE fan of mindmaps. It’s an essential part of the author training we do. With that said, I tend to think of mindmaps as being most useful in the early stages of content development, and not so much as a way to ultimately deliver content. In other words, mindmaps are a great way to take notes during a presentation, but I probably wouldn’t publish one.

    Comment by Bert Bates — 13 November 2009 @ 9:42 AM

  2. I use mindmaps a lot. Whenever I want to capture a topic or develop a concept (for an article, a presentation or a conversation with a customer) I find mindmaps very helpful. And even for work in a team I find them great, at least at the stage of brainstorming or elaborating an idea.

    Comment by Tanja — 14 November 2009 @ 3:34 AM

  3. Clark,
    It’s funny, but the reader comment that your mindmap is “Just kind of a collection of buzz-phrases in thought bubbles, more or less randomly connected” is often pretty much what we hear from critics (or, perhaps more accurately, confused observers) of the weekly Twitter #lrnchat sessions. Some find it messy and frustrating; I find it exhilarating and thought-provoking. I don’t subscribe to the “learning styles” myths, but I am starting to wonder if there really are groups of learners we might call “linear thinkers” and “other”.

    What I find especially interesting: I don’t see your mindmap as a “visual” at all. Looks like an outline to me, and where there are phrases I can fill in the blanks. I understand it perfectly even though it’s spiderweb-shaped. Good work.


    Comment by Jane Bozarth — 14 November 2009 @ 4:58 AM

  4. Clark,
    I loved the mindmaps you published for the conference. I spent my time tweeting during these sessions, so they are really
    helpful. I always thought mindmaps were BEST used by participants. The connection of main points to the center and the
    connected thoughts off each shoot help me remember the points McAfee was making. I am planning to use your maps as well
    as the ones I did myself to debrief the conference with my team.
    Thanks again

    Comment by Cheryl Hall — 15 November 2009 @ 2:47 PM

  5. The comments above just tell me what I had already guessed; they _are_ quite useful for other folks who had seen the talk.

    I didn’t mean for the original comment – yes, that was me – to be scathing (which I hope you know me well enough to know, but perhaps needs explaining to other readers here because I appear to have been a little “pointed” with my language that day…) I was (and to the extent to which the question remains unanswered, still am) genuinely curious as to whether it was a useful tool for communicating content to non-audience members. Just because I haven’t learned to use it yet doesn’t make it useless; some of the best tools require training and practice to use, and perhaps I just need to do my homework. On the other hand, if its primarily used as a mnemonic for yourself or others who saw the talk, then I can perhaps afford to feel a little less behind, and should just seek out some of McAfee’s content via a different media.

    The “more or less randomly connected” quip was purely about its appearance to an outsider. I know you well enough to know you weren’t just doodling lines, I just couldn’t follow the connections without more context.

    Comment by Rob Moser — 17 November 2009 @ 9:26 PM

  6. Mind maps are personal since they can be made with personal choices. Concept maps, on the other hand, have strict structure and can be understood by anyone else. Take a look at CmapTools for an excellent free (as in beer) Java based concept mapping tool.

    Comment by Tarmo Toikkanen — 23 November 2009 @ 7:40 AM

  7. I used to use mind maps to summarize web based discussions. My co facilitator would look at them and say USELESS. Many of the participants – not all- would say fantastic. Upon some probing, we came to the conclusion that mind maps are one of those things that are or are not triggered by our learning preferences (if you want to call them that.) I suspect this has something to do with basic cognition and brain function. Like some people get a great deal out of listening to a podcast, and others (like me), don’t.

    In my practice, mind maps have been useful in these contexts:

    * organizing and pattern seeking – and the mapping is usually of most value to the mappers.
    * pulling out key words and phrases (even the buzz ones!)
    * summarizing of material that benefits from chunking (vs linear, etc.)

    My two bits — rather late in the convo!

    Comment by nancy white — 2 December 2009 @ 7:35 PM

  8. Any suggestions for useful mindmap tools? What are you using in your blog posts?

    Comment by Mark Fidelman — 13 December 2009 @ 6:51 PM

  9. Mark, I use OmniGraffle. Mac only, but brilliant for diagramming. I redid a number of my diagrams in it, just because it was literally fun. Collaboratively, MindMeister works for mindmapping, I’ve also used Gliffy a *wee* bit for diagramming.

    Comment by Clark — 14 December 2009 @ 1:36 PM

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