Brainstorming Tool Puts PowerPoint to Shame

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2004-07-23

Brainstorming Tool Puts PowerPoint to Shame

Its an accepted fact that using Microsoft PowerPoint during a meeting immediately lowers the IQ of all present by about 20 points. Average people confronted with a .PPT presentation seem to go simple—with their IQ eventually ending up around room temperature. Recovery takes several hours in a PowerPoint-free environment, at the end of which sufferers are often heard to exclaim, "How did we make such stupid decisions during that meeting?"

OK, not everyone accepts that PowerPoint makes normal folks stupid. But many people have noticed that the longer a PowerPoint presentation lasts, the worse the decision making becomes.

In fairness, this really isnt PowerPoints fault; its just a tool, after all. But Microsoft can be faulted for making it much easier to create bad presentations than good ones. (First rule: Get rid of animations, builds and other movement!)

I wont spend this column talking about the problems with PowerPoint. Anyone who questions its mind-numbing effect should check out an essay by information presentation guru Edward Tufte titled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint."

Rather than complain, I want to introduce you to a tool that both fights the lazy thinking so common to business presentations and allows you to present more complex information in a graceful manner. Even better: It builds meaningful PowerPoint decks automatically based on input.

The software is called MindManager X5, described by its publisher as a "visual tool for brainstorming and planning." The program costs $199, or $299 for the "Pro" version. A free trial version is available on the companys Web site.

MindManager has been available since the mid-1990s and is now up to Version 5. The program is based on a technique called "mind mapping"—which sounds like something aliens do to the earthlings to find out whats on their minds. Mind mapping depicts a flow of ideas radiating from a single key idea. All the ideas can then have branches, which can have branches, and more branches. What MindManager does is translate something that used to be done on paper charts and whiteboards into electronic form.

This makes the MindManager "business maps" considerably more functional. They are easy to edit and change, allow graphics and other objects to be embedded, can be distributed electronically, include RSS or XML data (using the "Pro" version), and as Ive already mentioned can be easily turned into a PowerPoint presentation that carries the viewer down the various branches that emanate from the central idea.

The downside of all this is something mentioned earlier: MindManager wants to change how most people think. What Ive seen of this is that its for the better, but you can play with the free trial software and decide for yourself. Think of the process as Stephen Covey (of "7 Habits" fame) helping people be more effective in a more technical and less moralistic way. And like Covey followers, the users of MindManager are also bit of a cult.

Next Page: An unimpressive first impression.

Page 2

It took me a long time to get interested enough in MindManager to actually play with it. First, mind mapping looked and sounded like so much psychobabble to me. Also, the graphics in the earlier versions made the maps look silly to my eyes. OK, if that makes me shallow, so be it. It was only with the previous version and especially with the current release that MindManager started to make sense to me. And while I dont use it every day, its a great tool to have available when I am trying to wrap my hands around something complex.

For example, Ive used MindManager to develop an organizational chart that included details of specific tasks. Ive used it to capture a complex business process from a brainstorming session. I then used the automated PowerPoint presentation builder to create something I could show to co-workers.

Rather than reading the slides, which is the death of any PowerPoint show, I used the branches as jumping-off points for discussion. MindManager also created an excellent leave-behind for the troops.

The process of creating the mind map also improved my thinking, so I went into the meeting much better able to communicate my ideas. And how many times does a $199 software package have to do that to earn its keep?

It helps to have a specific problem in mind when you start using the program. There are wizards and templates and lots of online help, and all these are useful and even fun, but they dont communicate the real value of the program. And some of the samples create what to my eyes are silly-looking maps.

That may not be a problem for you, especially forewarned, but it was for me. I didnt really start liking the program until I had a problem I needed to brainstorm and remembered the program was loaded on one of my machines. It was that experience that made me a convert.

Still, MindManager is not for everyone. You may look at it and completely miss the point, or merely not be interested in finding out what the point actually is. But if you invest some time with the program, your investment will be repaid many times.

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