PowerPoint® is a wonderful tool. Some time ago I was shown a presentation that a colleague had prepared. The first bullet point of the first slide flew in from the right and landed with a "ker-ching" sound. So did the others. By the third slide, I was doing my best "you cannot be serious" expression. I felt there was every chance that the audience would be distracted or even irritated by the effects. Not only would the animation fail to add meaning, it could actually become a barrier to communication. Emotional responses get in the way very easily. I am not a complete philistine about form over function, because first impressions do influence interpretation. But the threshold at which decoration interferes with content is quickly reached, and you find yourself wondering if the decoration is a substitute for content. PowerPoint, like most technology, is loaded with features, yet the "rules" for using it effectively are embarrassingly simple and rarely used.
The same is true of mind mapping software. So what should we do?
To create a good impression with a style, you don't need to be an accomplished designer - you merely have to be consistent, and develop brand recognition. Repeatedly changing styles orphans any previous associations that you might have built up with your audience. (Personally, I still liked the Mindjet dolphin the best). Beyond style, decoration must pass a simple test - does it carry any information? If it doesn't, then don't be tempted to use it. Decoration must reinforce messages, clarifying groupings or associations. Like style, it must be used consistently.
The original "laws" of Mind Mapping are somewhat less than useful when using maps for communication. If you like "laws", the ones I would suggest for using maps in a business environment are:
- Ignore "one word per branch". Use as many words as are needed to summarise a concept clearly. Ideally, your map should be coherent when viewed at different levels of detail. Level 1 is your "elevator pitch". This is difficult to achieve using headings alone. Short statements are better than subject headings.
- Only use graphics and colours either as part of your basic style, or to consistently reinforce meaning. The more decorative your basic style is, the less room you have for using colours or images to convey information.
- Agree a vocabulary of information-bearing colours and graphics with your audience, and stick to it. This applies even if you are the only audience.
- Design your map to achieve a purpose. If you know what you want to achieve with it, your audience stands a chance. If you don't, they don't.
- If your map has a progression (a beginning, a middle and an end) then use a consistent layout. Clockwise starting at noon seems to be the norm.
If you have a choice, use symbols or images that already have externally defined meanings. Road signs are a good example. It is curious that there are well-established sets of symbols for complex subjects such as safety hazards and roadside information, yet we don't use a consistent set for the basic building blocks of business communications. The goal of a symbol is to be recognised quickly, subliminally, and without ambiguity. A basic set of a dozen or so symbols for idea, risk, decision, fact, opinion, action, problem, opportunity and so on should not be too difficult to achieve. Gerry Rhodes pioneered something similar with his "Thunks" but the designs were a little over-stylised and not very intuitive.
It's not a bad idea to regard every map you create as a presentation, even if nobody else will see it. Selling a concept to a critic is a sobering experience, and usually empowers or fatally wounds it. Don't underestimate your capacity to misremember things in the future; a good design objective for any map is to be able to clearly review an issue in a year's time, when your current thinking has been erased by the unexpected.
And lastly, bear in mind that the participants who are still entertained by the twenty-fifth "ker-ching" are probably the ones that you will least want to find yourself bonding with afterwards.