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How to get started with mind mapping

Mind mapping is easy and intuitive, and although there are a lot of guidelines and tips out there, all you really need to know to get started are a few basics:

1. You start off with a blank piece of paper, a clear board or an empty digital map editor. In the center you write down whatever your mind map is about: the subject of your brainstorming session, the title of your project, a keyword from that essay you’re trying to write...

Circling your subject will make it more prominent, and by adding an image to it you can make it more memorable.

2. Now you can start adding topics, also known as “nodes”, “keywords”, “ideas” or “branches” to your map.

If you want them to be read in a certain order, start at about one o’clock and go clockwise around the center - this is the direction mind maps are generally read.

Your first-level topics (the topics closest to the center) are basically main categories or key ideas. Here are some examples:

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Note that there are two distinct ways of adding topics: You can either write your topic right onto the line that connects it with the center, or you can write your topic into a new circle/bubble, which is then connected with the center through a line. If you want to follow Tony Buzan’s guidelines, then the former version is for you. He also suggests writing your first-level topics in colorful capital letters and drawing curvy lines, as your brain supposedly gets more excited about these than straight lines. Buzan also advises against circling your topics, since a circle can function as a kind of barrier, obstructing a free flow of associations.

So, according to Buzan, this is what a perfect mind map should look like:

Buzan map

3. The next step is to add what we like to call child topics or child ideas to your first-level topics. Simply draw another line from your first-level topic and write your child topic on the line or into a circle at the end of it. These child topics should be a little less prominent than your first-level topics to convey a clear sense of hierarchy. Every new topic can again have its own child topics. There is no limit to the number of child topics or hierarchical levels in a mind map.

All topics that are on the same level are called sibling topics or sibling ideas.

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Final map

Should you use single keywords, phrases or whole sentences?

Generally, you should use whatever works best for you and is the most appropriate for the situation. If you’re holding an online brainstorming session to get a flow of ideas going, single keywords are a great way to spark associations and not waste any time jotting down unnecessary words. Short phrases are a good way to go in most other cases, especially when you’re not the only one who is supposed to understand the mind map. If you’re using your map to create presentations, you could even consider using whole sentences, though mind maps are generally not made for those kinds of long explanations.

In MindMeister, you can simply add any longer explanations to the notes sections of your topics. This way, the clear image of your map is preserved, but you can view the additional information any time you want via mouseover.

How important are pictures, symbols and colors?

Again, it depends on what kind of map you are creating and what you are using it for. Pictures, symbols and colors are all memory triggers. The more personal, special and unique your map is, the more likely you are to remember it (and its contents), which is why it’s not so important that your drawings are beautiful in the traditional sense, they just have to be memorable. Besides that, pictures can carry a huge amount of meaning and thus spark lots of associated ideas (remember the old saying, “A picture is worth a 1000 words”). In the following map, we’ve used one simple picture as the central image of our map and jotted down any associations it sparked in us. Take a look:

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For the above mentioned reasons, including pictures can add a lot of value to your mind map and you shouldn’t dispense with them just because you’re insecure about your drawing skills.

Many mind mappers also like to use a different color for every main branch of their mind map, which can result in a clearer distinction between the branches and thus in an even better overview of the entire subject.

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