Why Do I Have To Use Keywords When Mind Mapping? How To Use Keywords in Mind Maps.

After my last post on Jamie Nast and Idea Mapping, I have had a flurry of comments about the importance (or not) of choosing single key words for your mind maps branches.

The Importance of Keywords in Mind Maps

It is one of those things that Tony Buzan stresses as being vitally important to the technique and his point relating to the associative mechanism of the brain is one recognised and acknowledged by pretty much all those who share Mind Mapping with the masses.

Where people start to differ is on how easy it is to actually put into practice and those who struggle with it the most tend to discount it as too rigid and stick to using phrases when a keyword isn’t immediately obvious.

Before I go on I must stress that if someone moves from taking conventional notes in the old linear way to organising short phrases in a mind map type structure then that is significant progress, especially if they have started to use colour for the first time too.

I will also point out the using phrases is not the end of the world.

The Mind Map police won’t come and arrest you and Mr Buzan and his cronies won’t come and hunt you down.

The important thing for you if you are getting used to Mind Mapping is for you to use it as you see fit to help you achieve what you want to achieve.

The aim is for you to get your result, not worry about the process of getting there and so if using phrases works for you then continue to use them.

However, I always come from the perspective of trying to get the absolute most from Mind Mapping and I do feel (based on my own experience admittedly) that getting to grips with the single keyword is the most important (and probably most challenging) part of the process.

I want to share this with you because if you do use phrases instead of developing the discipline of choosing key words then you still have some unrealised potential and benefit left in the pipe for you to squeeze out of the tool.

In all of this try and forget the Mind Map for a second because it is really incidental to the point.

Conventional note taking would have you “copy” information you are reading or hearing.

The way we were taught to write encourages us to gather content.

Note taking has for generations simply been an information gathering exercise.

Then along comes Mr Buzan with his flashy coloured picture and starts telling us not to write everything but to use key words instead to summarise what we are considering to allow the single words we choose to freely associate with the next word – something he claims sentences won’t allow you to do as easily.

He suggests (and I have to support him on this from my own experiments in these matters) that on a page of text we only need 7-10% of the words to convey the meaning .

Now the last word in that statement – MEANING – is the most important.

I can spend hours explaining that in a moment I want you to consider shifting your weight in a direction perpendicular to an axis that runs parallel to your shoulder by becoming aware of the weight distribution between you right and left legs and then when you feel comfortable I want you transfer your weight from its even distribution of 50% in each leg to one of 100% in one leg (and you have the choice of which) and as you do that contract your hamstring on your leg with no weight in it and drag it back, bending the knee so your foot does not drag against the floor, placing first your toes of that foot then your heel of the same foot onto the floor about 12  inches behind  where it currently hangs, shifting your weight once more so that it is evenly distributed between your two legs.

Or I could say “Step back”.

That long (and grammatically incorrect)  paragraph can be summarised in those two words.

Of course this is rather a forced example to make a point but if you are working your way through some information as you consider it, you should look to identify a single key word that will remind you of that information within the context you found it.

In the above example I would choose “step”.

I could easily have chosen “back” and both would work but I have chosen to use “step”.

Now in the context of where I chose the word that word “step” has meaning.

In isolation and about 20 minutes before I started writing this piece step could be a concrete step, it could be a rung on a step ladder, it could be a shortened name of an exercise class, it could be a single pace forward, it could be a marked change in something.

There are so many meanings it could be BUT in our context it has a very specific meaning.

Now in order to get to that keyword choice, I have had to analyse the text, synthesis the meaning and summarise it in a single key word.

I then have to choose where I am going to place it on my map so in essence I am also organising the information and establishing its relationship to other concepts on the map.

Now I must stress that all this is going on subconsciously but we are forced to go through that by trying to choose the keyword.

It is that process that is the Mind Map’s power – we are forced to THINK.

Now compare that to the conventional way – COPY – just gather what is there.

Of course it is not black and white and there are shades of grey so writing a phrase is better than copying out it all – but that still ain’t as powerful as choosing a keyword.

The discipline of the keyword selection will always continue to focus our mind and hold us true to the principles and benefits of Mind Mapping but with using phrases, it is so much easier to drift back to more wooly and looser thinking.

So that’s my first point about the single keyword – the very process of its selection engages us far more in the analysis and processing of what it is we are Mind Mapping.

It still surprises me that so many people have missed this particular point and it is in my opinion one of the reasons why Mind Mapping has still yet to achieve a critical mass – there has been too much of the blind leading the blind.

Anyway don’t get me on that one or I will never shut up.

And so I come to my next point and one which I also reckon to be the cause of so much misunderstanding surrounding Mind Mapping.

Many people will try using Mind Maps, they go to the trouble of choosing key words and then 6 months later they come back to the map and can’t remember what it all means…”step….is that on a ladder…maybe it is an exercise class or something…”

Well that is only to be expected if they have not conditioned the meaning into their mind but they don’t know that and the easiest thing to blame is those pesky Mind Maps.

It is sort of the same thing as millions of people thinking their memory is poor because they can’t remember what they have read – well that is because you have not memorised it…again don’t get me on that one either (but check out my Speed Reading Blog for more information on that).

So at this moment in time (assuming you have read all of the above) you know the context that the word “step” has been chosen in.

You will recall that there was that rather long winded explanation of what to do to take a single step back.

Now unless you do something with that information, it will fade pretty quickly until it gets to the point where it has pretty much not contextual meaning for you at all.

Unfortunately, as a result of some experiments Mr Ebbinghaus did a few years ago, we know that we are likely to retain less than 20% of that context after just 24-48 hours.

If you then look at the same information in say 30 days, it is just one tiny part of the billions of bits of data you will receive and process in that time and so it is no wonder it is easily forgotten.

So what do you do about this?

Well the first thing to get clear on is whether or not you want to be able to recall it in 6 months time or whether you want to understand the summary in 6 months time.

If you want the former, you have to practice recalling it (recreating from memory) after 10 minutes, a day, a week, a month, three months and then 6 months.

If you do this, the memory will stay strong in your mind until it is permanent so when you see “step” in the context of this article, its meaning will come flooding back to you.

However if you want to have a good summary of it is 6 months time and not have to rely on your memory, then you should make so explanatory notes that will give you its meaning when you read them.

But doesn’t that defeat the point of Mind Mapping?

No because you use Mind Mapping to THINK about it to the extent that you can express it back in your own words (for memorising if you so wish).

By just copying the information you miss out on the THINKING.

So there are my thoughts on this often contentious topic and I do go to great lengths to make the point for two reasons:

1.  You are not getting the most out of Mind Mapping if you relax on this guideline

and more importantly

2.  If you are being sold on the benefits of this tool and someone doesn’t encourage you to go down the single keyword route then I think you are being short changed.

But at the end of the day, there are more important things in life to worry about……

Let me know your thoughts and thanks to my Mind Mapping buddy Vic Gee at http://www.mind-mapping.org for his comment that prompted this post.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Vic Gee September 5, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Hi Michael,

    You wrote the above as if mind mapping is only about note taking. Well I use it for that sometimes, but more often by far it’s for generating business ideas, initial scoping out of business process analysis, and project planning. Complex areas for which, in the course of 30 years mind mapping, I’ve found single keywords very inadequate.

    Here’s a fact: Buzan’s own software, iMindmap, comes with 76 templates. On 67 of those the mind maps have multi-word branches – that’s 88%.

    We have to assume he approved the mindmaps delivered with his own software. So maybe in reality he doesn’t find single word branches so adequate either!

    Guess we’ll have to disagree on that one then.

    Best wishes,
    The master list of mind mapping &
    information management software

  • Michael Tipper September 9, 2008 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Vic,

    Once again thanks for your comment.

    Yes the post was written with note taking in mind as it is the easiest way to make the point about focussing the thinking but the argument and principle applies to all aspects of Mind Mapping.

    I too have used single keyword maps for generating business ideas, analysis, planning as well as a wide range of other applications etc and they work equally as well for me.

    I don’t think we are actually disagreeing here (in fact I think we are in violent agreement).

    Mind Mapping is beneficial if you use it as a way of organising your thoughts that you capture in “short phrases”.

    [Years ago as a militant Mind Mapping Purist I would never have said that but opinions do shift as I have realised you need to meet people where they are at :-) ]

    The addition of colour, use of images and laying them out in the nodal branch structure will significantly enhance someone’s thinking ability over and above the “old way” of writing everything down as we were taught.

    However, I firmly believe that the discipline of using keywords takes the thinking to an even higher level because of the extra thought and focus necessary. It also saves time, adds another level of efficiency and is far easier to conduct an ongoing review to condition it into longer term memory.

    I only harp on about keywords because I believe people will benefit more from relaxing back from getting used to key words and then drifting back to short phrases than if they just shorten their current note format and apply the Mind Map structure.

    If you use a musical analogy, we can both practice a piece on our respective instruments. One of us might practice it until we finally get it right. The other might practice it until we never get it wrong. In our practice we both arrive at the same point – a piece played right – but when it comes to the big opening night, I know which approach I would choose to be certain of a great performance.

    Using phrases in Mind Mapping is fine as long as you get the result you are after but I think people should understand that the use of just keywords is not a constraint but a liberation and that it is an option that if taken will add to the technique and therefore the benefits the user will receive.

    You mentioned that the recently released iMindMap Software from Buzan himself has multi-word branches on most of the example Mind Maps and suggest that Tony may be be moving away from that point.

    That is an interesting observation but I suspect Tony has not got that far involved that he has personally approved all of the example Mind Maps.

    When we get onto the use of Mind Mapping software however, the keyword debate does take on a different hue because of the different advantages and uses that computer generated mind maps provide.

    Whilst I will always stand by my point that the discipline of keyword selection tightens up the thought processes, the importance of doing so and indeed the necessity to do so lessens in the software environment, primarily because one of the biggest benefits of using software is its ability to manipulate and organise data rather than just process it.

    So I think we are both right, just looking at the same issue from differing points on the same path.

    Thank you for stimulating this conversation and giving me an opportunity to clarify my thoughts on this topic and the way I express them.