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Want to Capture Ideas So They Stick? Draw Them.

Take notes in a way that helps you remember details, and that improves your ability to communicate them. And don’t be afraid to doodle.
How to take visual notes during your business meetings
photo by Helen Harrop

"Blah Blah Blah"

“Between information overload, globalization, and the sheer complexity of modern business, we’ve got to be more visual and less language-dependent in communicating ideas,” notes Dan Roam, a visual consultant who has advised Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart.

Designer Mike Rohde would agree: He recently published his sketch-notes from a presentation at a Chick-fil-A leadership event (bang the link in our “plus” section to see the sketch). Another consultant, Sunni Brown, has gone so far as to redefine doodling. Instead of the dictionary meaning – to dawdle, to monkey around, to make meaningless marks – she proposes a new one: “to make spontaneous marks to help yourself think.”

So why doesn’t everyone just bring sketchpads to meetings? Brown traces it back to school days. “I’ve heard horror stories from people whose teachers scolded them for doodling in classrooms,” she says in a TED presentation. “And they have bosses who scold them for doodling in the boardroom. There is a powerful cultural norm against doodling in settings in which we are supposed to learn something.”

How to take visual notes during your business meetings

Okay – but what if you have limited artistic talent, and the prospect of doodling is daunting? As it turns out, it doesn’t matter: Sometimes the plainest visual effects can improve your note-taking. Charlotte Hillenbrand, owner of Made by Many, a design and high-tech consultancy based in London, is a self-described “word person.” But after a session with Rohde, Brown and two other visual consultants, she came away believing that she, too, could draw her way to better note-taking:

“[Brown] took us through how it’s really simple to use things like dividers (dotted lines, curvy lines) to separate big ideas; how you can get creative with bullet points so that they reflect the subject you’re noting e.g. red crosses for medical, $$ signs for monetary; and how you can use comic-book frames (the flashes you see around ‘Kerpow’ when Batman schlocks the Joker) to draw the eye to key points.”

If sketching is still scary, we recommend the YouTube video “Visual Notetaking: Why What You Draw is Good Enough,” by Jeannel King of Big Picture Solutions, a consultancy based in San Diego whose clients include Shell and Lockheed Martin. “Not drawing particularly well can work in your favor,” she says. She illustrates that what matters is not artistic accuracy, but your recognition of what you’ve drawn. A stick-figure person works just as well as a detailed rendering; what matters is that you can look at it and instantly process that it’s a person. “Draw just enough for the concept to come through,” instructs King.

The upshot: Take notes in a way that helps you remember details. And don’t be afraid to draw, even if your jottings barely qualify as “drawing.” Verbal or visual, notes mean nothing if they don’t jog your memory.


Jeannel King’s video on YouTube – a supportive, how-to guide for rookie sketch-noters – is the best instruction video we found.

You can read a larger profile of Roam’s work in Fast Company and learn more about his career at his personal site.

He has some terrific downloadable tools to assist the visualization process. Roam’s newest book – due out Nov. 1 – is called Blah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don’t Work. And the cast of characters he uses to illustrate when words don’t work will pique your interest: Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart failing to recall how many sides a pentagon has; and Conde Nast CEO Chuck Townsend’s confusing memos.

As for Rohde, you can view his sketch-notes from the Chick-fil-A presentation and get a sense of what his consultancy is like. He’s also posted a compendium of all his sketch-notes, including those from the 2007 SEED conference in Chicago.

In addition, there’s a wonderful YouTube video of how he became such a sketch-note enthusiast. And if you’d like to watch a slideshow called “Visual Note-Taking 101,” you’re in luck. Another sketch-noter – a poet based in Austin, Texas named Austin Kleon – posted it on Slideshare.net. The slideshow includes Kleon, Rohde, Dave Gray and Brown. In Kleon’s latest note-taking work, he drew pictures on his iPad and posted them to Twitter during The Economists’s Human Potential conference.

Gray’s primer on visual language is must-read, and Brown’s talk on TED about the stigmas of doodling is must-watch. Hillenbrand’s post in praise of this quartet is at the Made by Many blog. And a few of Hillenbrand’s readers recommended the Mind Mapping examples of Tony Buzan.


  1. Thanks for the mention Ilan — I’m encouraged in sharing these sketchnoting and visual thinking techniques with more people, so they too can capture and share ideas more effectively.

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