“Meetings move at the speed of the slowest mind in the room,” wrote author Dale Dauton once. That might be true, but when the thoughts and opinions are flying around the room, who can keep up? In our experience, in particular the note taker might become overwhelmed when meetings become messy. The issue isn’t their mind, however: it’s the way they take their notes.
Linearity meets non-linearity
In a productive mood, thousands of thoughts, ideas and feedback are fired around in the meeting room. When the creative juices start flowing during a meeting, we’ve got to keep a tab on all the contents. But: it can be a challenge to keep up with the speed of it all for the note taker. For many people, the usual approach to taking meetings notes or minutes would be to just sum up what is being said. This is also known as linear note taking: starting from the top and writing everything down in chronological order until the page is filled. Linear note taking, however, is simply not the best solution to a meeting in which the contents are usually… not so linear. After all, in many meetings thoughts are exchanged on one topic, only to switch to another and right back to the original topic – not chronologically, at all.
Linear note taking has got the author mindlessly transcribing everything that’s being said: in one ear, out the other – or out the pen, in this case. Not only that: taking notes in this way is also monotone and requires a ton of physical work, which takes you out of the ongoing conversation. But that’s not where our list of complaints on linear notes end: in hindsight, it might also be tough to get a clear overview of what’s actually been said during that meeting. There’s no real structure to these notes except for the chronological aspect. Next to this, making changes on your fully filled sheet of paper is not always as easy, because there simply is no space unless you make it messy.
For us, the solution to meeting note taking lies elsewhere. These issues don’t exist when we create a map. When we take notes in this way, we have to actively pay attention to what is being said around us, so that we can catch its essence and take note. With its colors and web-like structure, we can also make important connections quickly.
But why would we prefer mind maps for meeting notes anyways? Most importantly: mind maps radiate information, just like our minds do. According to British psychologist Tony Buzan, our thinking process is not linear but instead originates from a center focal point. Linear note taking does not facilitate this thinking process. Mind maps, on the other hand, stimulate both our analytical and creative brain hemispheres.
In doing so, we become way more efficient in taking meaningful meeting notes. Because we have to actively listen to the conversation, we can also write down what’s actually important. Maps have got us collecting our thoughts in real-time. This also makes it possible for us to engage in the conversation better than when we take linear notes. An additional aspect that we really enjoy in maps is that it’s easy to quickly add things and make changes where needed on the go – not unimportant when the thoughts and ideas are coming at you like a rapid fire. And when the meeting ends, even weeks later, we still understand our notes. With maps, it’s much easier to have a general understanding than with linear, scribbled down sentences.
Getting insights into complicated matters
That mappings make it easy to see the bigger picture has been demonstrated by the works of American neo-conceptual artist Mark Lombardi (1951-2000). A master of examining complex situations, Lombardi made elaborate concept maps that document the ‘uses and abuses of power’. He called these maps ‘narrative structures’. In the diagrams, he described what conspiracies and scandals such as the BCCI scandal consisted of: important actors, corporations and other references. Writing his narrative structures by hand, they originally were a tool of support to make sense of all the index cards he kept of the scandals he researched.
Lombardi’s work finds a middle way between art and well-done research. His work proved quite meaningful to others as well: according to exhibit curator Robert Hobbs, professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, even the FBI was interested in examining some of Lombardi’s hard work.
The artist learned to love complexity, just like we describe here. Journalist Patricia Goldstone, who wrote a biography about Lombardi (‘Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi’), describes why Lombardi’s work is so mesmerizing:
“It’s a kind of visual Wikileaks Lombardi made, long before Julian Assange and Ed Snowden came along, and it’s enormously empowering. You don’t have to be a quant analyst to figure out what’s going on. The narrative takes over, and makes sense out of the mystification of numbers. He’s even recognized for doing that in the computer science world, where he’s considered a pioneer in social network analysis and visual narrative, the technique by which supercomputers like those used by the NSA can, in theory, make huge data sets comprehensible.”
Although of course Lombardi did not take meeting notes and create maps from there, he did manage to take incredibly complex topics and demonstrate their context visually through a map-like model. Within a short period of time, we are able to understand what is going on through the way he portrays his work. So why not apply his approach to our own work-related activities?
A visual approach
While we can of course make our own variations to how we make a map based on our preferences, there are some basic guidelines that might help you out. But in the setting of a meeting, we might take some additional tips into account.
Making sure you step away from the linear approach completely, first and foremost. Pieces of information usually fly around pretty quickly at meetings, so don’t try to write down full sentences. Instead, stick with keywords and phrases in order to create some sort of visual summary. The mapping approach doesn’t attempt to catch each word verbatim, something which you can use to your advantage during meetings with many attendees.
Several approaches are possible when creating a meeting note mapping. You might for instance prefer creating a mind map which branches out into the different attendees and their opinions and ideas. On the other hand, you could branch out into several topics, for instance when the meeting might be focused on solving a certain problem.
“The magic to a great meeting is all of the work that’s done beforehand”, said former professional basketball player Bill Russell. The perk of meetings is that they’re often structured: beforehand, you know what topics will be on the agenda and who will attend. Use this information to your advantage, and create a mind map draft that can support you during the meeting. This also makes you familiar with the existing information, ensuring that you come to the meeting well-prepared. You might also choose to not be the sole note taker, proposes David Pollitt, news section editor of Career Development International:
“Set up a large white board on which, during the course of a week, all people who will attend the meeting can contribute to a mind map outlining the main issues for discussion. Ask team members to send in miniature mind maps with their own agenda items. Aggregate these at the end of the week, and make a copy for everyone. This becomes the agenda.”
In following Pollitt’s approach, the meeting can remain structured and the contents of it are clear to everyone participating. At the same time, mind mapping together can also serve as a way to progress through the meeting together, for instance when trying to resolve a particular issue.
When the meeting finishes, this does not automatically mean that your map is done. After getting together with your colleagues or client, go over the mind map and see if everything is included. You might consider using colours to capture the essence of the map better. It could also be useful to go for a fully digital approach, making it possible to share your notes with your colleagues quickly and to store them in a safe place which you could access at all times.
- Pollitt, D. (2003). Mind mapping your way to a better career. Career Development International.
Feature image: Scott Graham.