Biting the Bulletpoint, Part Two: Flowcharts, Mind Maps, Memory Palaces, oh my…

Continuing from the last post, Biting the Bulletpoint: Scripts vs. Speakers Notes, let’s look at some of the alternative forms of speaker’s notes that presenters can use in order to

  • stay on track as a speaker
  • quickly glance at while speaking

..while not relying entirely on the ubiquitous — and frequently misused — approach of writing pages upon pages of bullet points. Please note that I’ve got nothing against bullet points per se… and, in fact, I incorporate bullet points within the three techniques that I’m covering here.  These techniques are:

  1. Flowcharts

  2. Mind Maps

  3. Memory Palaces

In addition to having all the qualities of effective speaker’s notes, these three types of speaker’s notes have the added benefit of (potentially) unlocking greater creativity in the writing of a speech or presentation.  Also, using these note-writing techniques have the potential of freeing the presenter from needing notes at all… not bad for something which often gets labelled as “crutch,” don’t you think?

Let’s begin with the most “social acceptable” (read: commonly used) approach of the three…

1. Flowcharts

Flowcharts have all the advantages of bullet points — namely, a concise set of key points arranged in an organized, hierarchical manner — without the constraints of strict linearity.

Bullet points are linear, flowing in one direction from top to bottom, thereby taking up a lot of space on the page/screen. As the content of a presentation gets longer and denser (hence, requiring speaker’s notes), bullet points can suffer some of the same issues as scripts: Presenters may get thrown-off, having to find their place within a long list of bullet points.

Flowcharts, on the other hand, provide a better navigational aid for high density information. They allow you to organize your thoughts in a two-dimensional manner, thereby using your paper space more effectively.

Let’s say I wanted to deliver this blog post as a speech.  Here’s a flowchart that I could use to guide me as a speaker:

What? You don’t use paper?  Well, you could build your flowchart using shapes within your favorite office software programs… but the truth is, the most efficient and effective things to do first is sketch it out on paper first.  Nothing stifles the free flow of ideas than wrestling with Microsoft Office shape-drawing tools, auto-snapping arrows and resizing text fields. Draw it on a piece of paper… the back of a proverbial (or literal) envelope…  or a (literal) cocktail napkin… whatever you’ve got available. Once you’ve done it by hand, if you still want something digital for sharing or reference purposes, you can scan it or redraw it within the computer afterwards. (Note: Redrawing your topic flowchart is rarely a waste of time… inevitably you end up understanding your topic better, as the act of drawing it out helps you organize your thoughts.)

Flowcharts help you think things through in ways that scripts or bullet points don’t, with a greater emphasis on how your ideas link to each other, and what the overall picture looks like, both in terms of the overall message and your timing.“Yeah, for this section, I’ll go for about 350 words / 3 minutes.”  

A good flowchart is like a mental “map” of your speech or presentation, keeping you on track by having you “stroll” from one section to the next, giving the freedom to speak in an unscripted “ramble” within each box of the flowchart.  In that way, a flowchart is the poor man’s Memory Palace, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with flowcharts, you can move down to the next level of socially-marginal-but-incredibly-useful techniques for speaker’s notes…

2. Mind Maps

Ah, mind mapping… if ever there was a note-taking technique that conferred “insider status” among fellow practitioners, mind maps are where it’s at. The strength of mind map culture is evidenced by the Wikipedia article on the subject, which includes a tellingly self-referential mind map of mind mapping and a robust discussion page.

What’s the difference between a flowchart and a mind map?  Unlike a flowchart, a mind map typically flows clockwise from the top, with a radial branching structure that contains words and graphics. For some types of information or situations, I use a flowchart. In other cases, I use a mind map.   Right now the difference for me is intuitive… check in with me a few years and maybe I’ll be able to explain it better then… in the meantime, here’s an example of a mind map… this is a future blog post which I’ve started drafting:

Mind maps are also a boon to the paper-averse:  Thanks to its strong cult(ure) of users, you can find all kinds of mind mapping software out there with easy-of-use interfaces. So yes, you can save your precious envelope backs and cocktail napkins, while not losing your free association of ideas and overall flow.

Beware, however, of high-density mind maps created by software (or even by hand) that look like glorified flowcharts… albeit hard-to-read, high-resolution, radial flowcharts… like these:

These may be useful for the thinking/discovery/writing process, but may not hold up as well as speaker’s notes.

Remember, while flowcharts and mind maps help you organize your thoughts in a more spatial, hierarchical,  interconnected manner, when using them as speaker’s notes they also need to be an easy visual reference.   Once you’re oriented to your flowchart or mind map, you should be able to find your place within your speaker’s notes at a glance.  Therefore, after sketching it all out, for your final speaker’s notes you may also need to redraw your flowchart / mind map to make it more legible and usable as a visual reference.

Finally, when you get comfortable with using flowcharts and mind maps (and get comfortable with both, since each has its place), you’ll find that you have something visual which may be more easily committed to memory.

In other words, by using these techniques properly you can take the notes out of your hands and put them into your head. 

This brings us to the third and final technique… a way-out-there-on-the-fringes-of-socially-sanctioned method of creating speaker notes…

3. Memory Palaces

Strictly speaking, this technique does not result in the creation of speaker’s notes that a person can hold in their hand… it’s much more powerful than that.

The Memory Palace, aka The Method of Loci, is an ancient, time-tested and neurologically proven way to organize your thoughts as a series of rooms/spaces/events within an imagined building/place/story that unfolds in your mind.

By using vivid sensory hooks that are both memorable and symbolic, you can store and retrieve a massive amount of information with great detail in a specific order.

You can also cue yourself to have greater emotional content and delivery within your presentation, depending on what kinds of sensory images/sounds/feelings/tastes/smells that you embed within designated spots in your “walk-through” of your imaged place.

People who use memory palaces often use their own homes or other familiar places, weaving their speech together by placing notable (and often absurd) objects and events within each room along a set pathway.  A looser approach is a “memory story” which does not involve a sequence of spaces, but rather, a chain of events that lead into each other.  I have some strong opinions about how to do memory stories well (vs. memory stories that suck) which I’ll save for another day.

You can physically write out the “notes” of a memory palace as a series of (yes!) bullet points… or as a part of a flowchart or mind map…  or even (no!) as a script…  but the whole point of a memory palace is that it’s easy to remember… so if you do it right, you won’t likely need anything written to look at.   You can look at your audience instead, as the images of your fantastic palace flash before your eyes and as you feel the sensations of your story unfold.

The key to unlocking a good memory palace is to make sure it clicks — that the vivid imagery within it is both memorable and appropriate to the ideas you’re looking to convey.  To demonstrate this, let’s construct a “room” within a memory palace that will remind me, the speaker, to discuss a central theme of this blog post:

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

The idea here — one of my recurring themes (cf. here and here) — is that the tool/medium we use to express ourselves will have a massive influence on the nature of our output/message.

Scripts, notes, bullet points, flowcharts, mind maps, whacky memory palaces… each of these changes the way we work and think… each of these is useful for different types of tasks.

Now, let’s say I want to remember to mention this We-Shape-Our-Tools-And-Thereafter-They-Shape-Us idea within a larger presentation.   For that spot in the presentation (a designated room within a larger sequence of rooms), I might decide to place a blacksmith shaping a tool out of hot iron using a hammer… bang… bang… bang… I can hear the sound of the blacksmith, feel the vibrations, see the glow of the hot iron, smell the furnace…  yes, it’s pretty memorable…

..pretty good.  Let’s make it better, though.

If this blacksmith is competing with a few dozen other vivid images and ideas, being memorable may not be enough.  In addition to being memorable as a image, the scene in this room would ideally be self-explanatory in its meaning as a symbol. Yes, with the blacksmith there’s a person shaping a tool…  but where is the tool shaping the person?

If I forget that particular pattern of words “shaping tool” and remember only the blacksmith, I might lose the symbolic meaning and forget how to interpret the image when it comes time to present.  (well, if I repeat the words enough times and/or permanently and exclusively “anchor” in my mind the idea of blacksmithing to this one concept of we-shape-our-tools-etc… I might be okay… but if there are 19 other things floating around my memory menagerie, who knows how I’d interpret that blacksmith in the moment… anyway, just roll with me on this….) So, as I’m sketching out this memory palace room in my mind, I’m thinking now more along the lines of Escher’s recursive Drawing Hands as a metaphor for tools get shaped by us and then do the shaping of us…

This one works a bit better conceptually, but unlike the blacksmith, the drawing hands image lacks the strong auditory sensory hook, the percussion of a metal tool hitting a hard substance.. and also that underlying timeless/tried-and-true “ancient world” feeling that I want to connect with emotionally…  so now I’m thinking of one of my favorite old paintings, Pygmalion and Galatea, an allegorical self-portrait by Jean-Léon Gérôme…

The artist is transformed/rescued by what his tools produce. Yes… my final mental image will be some Escherized blend of this painting and Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss…

..with both characters emerging from the stone that they (the collective “we”) are carving, each holding a mallet and a chisel… there will be splintering shards of marble everywhere as one’s mallet hits the other’s chisel…. in this particular presentation the scene is happening in my kitchen… next time it might be in the basement… once I’ve got a good idea-symbol, I can reuse it (or recombine it with other symbols) in other presentations, placing it in different memory palace rooms as needed, altering the image just enough to make it fit perfectly within that particular palace/presentation….

..and you can bet that my vocal delivery of this message — we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us — will carry some of the aspiration and passion seen in the painting/sculptural mashup.  I’m no longer talking through memorized words… I’m emoting feelings and ideas.

(Just to be clear: when presenting I don’t say: “Hey audience, imagine a self-constructing marble statue of two lovers embracing…”  Unless I want to share a particular image or story that I’ve embedded within my memory palace, these scenes are just internal cues for me to remember which ideas to present and in what order.) 

Going from there, my next idea may be this:

As professionals we need to be adept at using a wide assortment of tools, which means knowing the unique way that each tool interfaces and interacts with our brain when we use it.

(You can start to imagine the visual imagery associated with that idea, somewhere near to the shards of marble in my kitchen…)

Yes… this is all way out there, as far as speaker’s notes go… and yes, it takes practice…. but does it work well?  You betcha.

The more you use flowcharts, mind maps and memory palaces; the more you interface with your brain in a high-bandwidth multi-sensory manner; the more powerfully efficient and effective all of these methods become.

Using These Methods for Writing a Speech or Presentation

You can see (and hear, feel, taste, smell) how well these tools work for delivering a speech or presentation… they help you be a better speaker who can focus on your audience, instead of your notes.  You also have a good sense of how these tools can improve your writing process.

When drafting a presentation, one trick is to be willing to use all three — flowcharts, mind maps and memory palaces —  either in sequence or as a blend.

By “sequence” I mean something like this:  Start with a quick mind map of the ideas (big picture thinking), then imagine a symbolic image or metaphor for one or two key ideas (lateral thinking), then do a detailed flow chart of a particular area (drill-down thinking)… you might even write out some bullet points or (gasp!) scripted sentences before cycling back to the mind map… the point is, keep your process moving.

What’s a “blend?” It could be a mind map with nodes that contain memory palace symbols which in turn “open up” into their own miniature flowcharts…

..or  a flow chart that maps out the rooms of a memory palace…

..or a Palladian villa-style memory palace housing Quintilian with a central dome that is actually Tony Buzan‘s brain with vines coming out of it, forming a mind map…  but hey… let’s not get carried away…

Here is a simple blended approach, a.k.a., a “doodle:”

This was my first draft of this blog post, sketched onto a single 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper. There’s nothing arcane here… it all flows pretty naturally…  you can see elements of all three previously-mentioned methods… plus plenty of bullet points. This is not speaker’s notes material, but I can redraw it more “cleanly” if I need to, as I did with the example flowchart shown earlier. Also, this initial sketch contains content there that will feed some future blog posts, which is part of the power of lateral thinking… or rather, the power of doodling.

As a communicator, you can use all of these tools and techniques to free up your hands, your eyes and your mind.

With the right tools shaping your thoughts, there’s no limit to how far and fast you can take yourself.

More importantly, you speak in a manner that takes your audience along with you — farther and faster — for the ride.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 27, 2011, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Productivity, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The best article on presentation and mind mapping I have come across
    ” we shape our tools….our tools shape us.. ” has been installed in my mind palace

  1. Pingback: Taking the Edge Off: The First 60 Seconds of Public Speaking « Meme Menagerie

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