About a year ago I started using mind maps to help me organize presentations, meeting topics and blog posts and I’ve found that it works really well for me. Mind maps help me take broad, abstract ideas and turn them into concrete, real world examples that I can use to help tell a story.

What is a mind map? It’s basically a branching diagram. From wikipedia:

A mind map is a diagram used to visually outline information. A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea.

I first learned about mind maps in a book called Presentation Patterns which is a fantastic read and a great reference to keep around. If you speak about technical concepts to groups of people, you need to read it.

Around the same time I also saw several examples of sketch notes created by artists at conferences, and heard a talk about them as well. There’s a lot of crossover between sketch notes and mind maps, as you can see from a google image search.


I use an open source tool called Freeplane. I explored several open source options and Freeplane was my favorite. It is designed at its core to be specifically for creating mind maps. It only takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the interface and keyboard shortcuts.

My coworker Nick uses a more general purpose charting tool called Lucidchart. It’s an online tool rather than an installed app, and it’s free for limited use. He strongly recommends it.

Or you can go old school and use paper or a whiteboard. This method is easier when diagramming a group brainstorming session.


Usually I have some kind of broad idea of what I want to present but don’t have a clear enough outline to start building slides or setting up the scaffolding of a talk. I open up a blank map in Freeplane and put my topic in the middle, and then I just start vomiting ideas onto the page without any concern for the structure of them.

Once I have a good amount of random thoughts on the page, I start loosely grouping things or drawing associations between topics that might have some interesting relationship. This is one of my favorite parts of a mind map; I usually end up linking a couple nodes together that I previously would not have seen a connection between.

Once I’ve got my mind map organized and I have an idea for a narrative arc for my talk, I switch things to an outline view and start on a rough draft of my slides.

Here’s an outline view of one of my mind maps, with all the nodes collapsed:

And here’s what it looks like with the nodes expanded:

Not all of those branches end up as slides; some of them are things that go into my presentation notes or that become part of a discussion. From that point on I am usually done with the mind map; I might change the order of a few things on the outline view but the rest of my work will usually be in the presentation software.

Give mind maps a try the next time you are trying to organize your ideas into something that you can more easily present to a group, or if you already use mind maps let me know your process in the comments.

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