Hand-drawn mind maps have a rich history and are widely used today, thanks to the pioneering work of people like Tony Buzan, who has written many books and speaks widely on the subject. They are a powerful, colorful and memorable way to represent ideas and information. But they only scratch the surface of what’s possible with today’s mind mapping software – an electronic form of visual mapping that utilizes many of the rules and conventions of mind mapping as a foundation, but adds some powerful new capabilities, including these ten:
1. Mind mapping software enables you to arrange information in expandable and collapsible topic trees. This makes it possible to store much more information in a software-produced visual map, without overwhelming you. Because of this, you can use it to create sophisticated knowledge models that wouldn’t be possible on paper.
2. Mind mapping software enables you to embed documents, links, notes and other data within the structure of your map, transforming it into the equivalent of a powerful visual database. What this means is that you can create a project map that contains shortcuts to a wealth of supporting information. Whether that’s stored in Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, web pages or even individual e-mails, it’s all just a click away. That’s a big time saver! In addition, to avoid visual clutter, many programs enable you to sub-divide large maps into linked sub-maps. That enables you to capture all of the details of large projects in a manageable format.
3. Mind mapping software enables you to re-arrange the topics in your map at will, until it perfectly represents your ideas. In contrast, unless you have a really big eraser, it’s hard to move topics in a hand-drawn mind map. Your topics are more or less “anchored” to the paper. Every time you move a topic within a software-produced mind map, you “re-factor” it. In other words, the parent idea to which you attach a topic changes its meaning and context. That enables your brain to generate new ideas, and to see connections between existing ideas.
4. A software-produced visual map isn’t just something you create once and forget about. Because you can update its contents as needed, it can become a powerful tool for managing your projects and tracking their progress on an ongoing basis. At the completion of a project, you can also create a branch or sub-map that captures the lessons your team learned – which will help you to streamline future projects. Seen in this context, mind mapping software can be an immensely powerful management tool!
5. Mind mapping software enables you to export your ideas to other types of software, such as word processors, presentation and project management software. This enables you to use your visual map as a creative “front end” to almost any type of project – a place to give form and structure to your ideas. For example, if you’re a writer, you can create a detailed visual outline of your article or book, and keep track of everything from character profiles and plot points to potential publishers and a marketing plan for your prose.
6. Mind mapping software also opens up new opportunities for collaboration that don’t exist with hand-drawn maps. You can e-mail a map you’ve created to others on your team or upload it to a shared workspace, where they can annotate or add to it. Several mind mapping applications also enable multiple people to work on a map at the same time.
7. Another powerful advantage of mind mapping software is that you can utilize it to present your ideas, which makes it a powerful alternative to PowerPoint. What’s more, you can even update your presentation with comments from your audience, which helps to increase their buy-in to your ideas. That’s something you couldn’t even dream of doing with PowerPoint!
8. Another unique capability of mind mapping software is that it can be used with an LCD projector and screen to record and display ideas during a group brainstorming session. There’s something very powerful about seeing your ideas recorded in real time, and placed in context with all of the other ideas the group has brainstormed, that just isn’t possible with flip charts and colored markers.
9. Another unique capability of mind mapping software is that you can utilize it to create your own “information dashboard” – a map that consolidates a wealth of data that you need to manage into a single, visually-oriented screen.
10. Finally, what makes mind mapping software unique is its flexibility. The number of different things you can do with it – from a business, education or personal standpoint – is amazing. You can use it to plan a meeting, develop a business plan, manage a project, write a book, track your personal goals, create a database of ideas, create lists of tasks and track your progress on them, and much more. You can do many of the same things with hand-drawn maps, of course, but not to the level of detail (and the collection of related, linked resources and files) that’s possible utilizing mind mapping software.
In closing, please don’t take this list to mean that I am criticizing hand-drawn mind maps. There are still many occasions when nothing else will do – such as when you want to create a unique, colorful and very personal visualization of your ideas. With mind mapping software, users have a tendency to use the default settings for topics, lines and fonts, resulting in a black-and-white map that isn’t very memorable or visually stimulating.
It’s also more difficult to add pictures to your map that convey your unique ideas. In most cases, you’re limited to photographs, clip art or the artwork that came pre-installed with your software. For many users, that’s just too difficult, so they don’t bother with it – and the uniqueness of the resulting mind map suffers as a result.
Also, it’s not always possible to have a computer or laptop handy to produce a mind map. A piece of paper and pen or pencil (preferably a set of colored ones) are the only highly portable tools you need to capture your ideas in visual form.
Finally, mind mapping software, like most other types of computer programs, places constraints on what you’re able to do. For example, many programs limit you to only one central idea. Also, you may have some ideas in mind that just can’t be adequately conveyed using mind mapping software. In contrast, what you manually draw in a mind map is limited only by your imagination!