Want to tell better stories? Take better notes.

Technology communications can be dry; stories engage in a way that long lists of features can’t. Getting in touch with your inner campfire circle can be tough on a deadline, but you can make story-telling second nature by taking better notes.

There’s a little ‘brain magic’ involved in putting pen to paper. It creates built-in processing time. And there’s nothing like the freedom of a pen and blank page for creating stories while you capture information.

Two things make better notes.

First, make sure your research / interview questions include basic elements of a story arc:

  • what’s changed, what are the implications?
  • what’s the challenge facing us, and its impact?
  • what’s the solution, what would it mean if we could solve the problem?
  • how are we moving ahead, why do we think we can succeed?

Second, once you’ve captured the key points, start sketching pictures of the story in your notes. Before you object, let me say you truly don’t have to be an artist to do this. Most of us left school convinced we were not artistic. But visual note taking isn’t art. It’s “sketchnoting”, and the notes are for your use only. You absolutely have the talent you need to sketch your story arc and the important points.

Why visual notes?

If you’ve got the details in text notes, why go to the trouble of sketching them?

Sketching helps streamline a story. There’s a very real tendency when writing about technology to want to include every last detail. Technology seems to beg us to explain all the (admittedly often cool) aspects of a problem-solving solution. Many of the technologists you work with will feel descriptions are lacking if not 100% complete.

But audiences don’t have time, and maybe even the interest to hear all the details. Sketching your story helps you get to the elements relevant to your audience. (It also helps you become clear about whether you understand your topic well enough.)

Visual notes are tremendously useful if you’ll have to share your story in a presentation. You’ll find yourself sketching the structure and flow of a talk, as you create your visual story, with the added benefit that you’ll likely develop original diagrams you can translate to slides.

Sketchnoting helps you connect with the impact and the “so-what” of your story more easily. Compare “users experienced poor performance” with images of hair-pulling stick figures and traffic gridlock. Sketch it, and you’ll carry that impact into your final writing.

Here’s a simplified example.

Let’s say you’re interviewing your infrastructure group about planned investment in private cloud technology. Your goal is to help business partners understand why this investment should precede other things they want from IT.

Your text notes might include points like:

  • cloud technology’s becoming common, providing flexibility for competitors
  • today, we can’t always support high traffic volumes during sales campaigns, because our applications are contained on individual servers and it’s too difficult to add new ones on demand
  • cloud means computers can share processing; with it we could give our business partners fast, nearly unlimited scale — versus our current structure
  • we’ve spent 6 months testing and have seen great results, for example…
  • there’s an upfront investment, then cloud actually becomes cheaper than how we currently operate, because of freed-up capacity

In sketchnote form, the story might look like this:


The sketchnote version of these same notes lays out a simple 5 slide story, following the story arc elements.

Note that you gain nuances from some of the pictures that could take paragraphs of text to convey. The cost graph (3) for example, and the capacity drawings in (2) and (5). These pictures would lend themselves to simple, effective slides.

Need help getting started? Sketchnote resources abound.

Grab a pen, get started.