Big picture idea maps – a new concept

I am working on a blog post about ‘big picture idea maps’, a new concept I have recently developed. My current working definition for them is “graphical summaries which show the key elements or categories of a field/area and how they are linked to each other”.

According to Google, the only person to have used this exact term before is Millie Ho, a Canadian writer and illustrator.  In a September 2014 blog post, she writes about ‘big picture idea maps’ in terms of getting lots of micro-ideas down on paper when developing thoughts about a new web comic.

The blog post, which will describe the ways in which a big picture idea map can be used, should be ready in the next week or so.

 

Multi-level summaries – Part 2: The benefits of a new approach to non-fiction books

Are you a keen reader? If so, I would like to interview you to find out how you use non-fiction books to make progress in your work and/or personal life. More details here – www.makingideasvisual.com/interviews.

Introduction

The purpose of this article, which has been separated into two blog posts, is to show how multi-level summaries can make non-fiction books easier to understand, remember and act on. (Note 1)

Click on the image above to see a visual summary of the article.

Part 1 looked at the problems with the current structure of most non-fiction books. Part 2 now looks at how multi-level summaries can help to solve these problems.

A pdf of the whole document can be downloaded from www.makingideasvisual.com/multi_level_summaries.pdf.

Multi-level summaries

In Part 1, I explained that:

  • most non-fiction books have more of an implicit meaning structure
  • having an implicit meaning structures causes problems with cognitive load and retrieval practice.

The alternative to an implicit meaning structure is an explicit one and one way of providing them is through multi-level summaries.

To recap, an explicit meaning structure looks generically like this.

This structure can also be simplified into a pyramid.

Multi-level summaries show the big picture at different levels of detail in the book and how the different elements of content are connected to each other.

The most effective way to do this would be to create the following:

i) a whole book summary, showing how the book is structured and giving details of the key ideas and concepts
ii) individual summaries for each of the chapters, which show the structure of the chapter and provide a summary of the key ideas/concepts and the supporting topics in that chapter
iii) visual elements within individual chapters. Diagrams, tables, flowcharts, timelines and other visual elements are a very effective way of summarising complex ideas and most non-fiction books could use more of them.

There are potential variations to this:

i) If the chapters are divided into parts or the book is made up of very short chapters, it might be better to summarise linked chapters together.

ii) If a chapter has a great deal of content and is particularly dense, it might be better to add summaries within chapter sections as well.

It is important that each summary is contained on a single book page (or across a spread of two adjacent pages, if absolutely necessary) so that the relationship between the different content elements can be seen in a glance.

Multi-level summaries give readers the ability to zoom in and zoom out in a similar way to Google Maps.

Using Google Maps as an analogy

A good analogy for multi-level summaries is Google Maps in that it also provides the opportunity to view information at different levels of detail. (Note 4)

Let’s use Green Park in London as an example. One can choose a detailed view to see its position in relation to other landmarks in central London such as Westminster Abbey or St James’s Palace.

Zooming out to a wider view, Green Park can then be seen in relation to areas of London like Kensington, the City of London and Canary Wharf.

Zooming out even more, Green Park can be seen in the context of southern England and its location can be viewed relative to places like Bristol, Brighton and Ipswich.

While Google Maps has eighteen levels of detail from its most detailed view all the way out to a map of the world as a whole, most books will have just three or four levels of detail.

Multi-level summaries give readers the ability to zoom in and zoom out in a similar way to Google Maps. Readers can zoom in to focus on the detailed explanation in the text. They can then zoom out to the chapter summary to see how that detail fits into the context of the chapter. They can then, if they want, zoom out even further to the summary of the book to review the book’s key ideas.

Multi-level summaries – Part 1: Current problems with the structure of non-fiction books

Are you a keen reader? If so, I would like to interview you to find out how you use non-fiction books to make progress in your work and/or personal life. More details here – www.makingideasvisual.com/interviews.

Introduction


The purpose of this article, which has been separated into two blog posts, is to show how multi-level summaries can make non-fiction books easier to understand, remember and act on. (Note 1)

Click on the image above to see a visual summary of the article.

This part looks at the problems with the current structure of most non-fiction books. Part 2 looks at how multi-level summaries can solve many of these problems.

A pdf of the whole document can be downloaded from www.makingideasvisual.com/multi_level_summaries.pdf.

Problems with reading books

Many readers don’t seem to get as much as they would like out of their reading of non-fiction books. Here are some of the problems they encounter.

1. Getting started with a book

  • finding it hard to get started. We all know the experience of excitedly buying a book and then having it stand unopened on a bookshelf for months, years or even for ever. Being confronted with hundreds of pages of text combined with the knowledge that they will take many hours to get through can make it hard to get started.

2. Giving up on a book.

  • losing interest. Many books are not finished because readers lose interest. A common experience is enthusiastically starting a book and then running out of momentum in the midst of Chapter 1 or 2.

3. Problems when reading a book

  • drowning in detail. When books don’t have a clear structure or summaries of the main points, it’s easy for readers to get confused as they start drowning in too much detail and losing sight of what the key ideas are and how they relate to each other.
  • returning to a book after a break. It’s easy to forget the thread of a book’s argument after putting it down for a few days or weeks. Readers then either have to carry on reading superficially without remembering the outline of the book’s argument or spend time struggling to identify the key ideas from the pages they have already read.

4. Problems after finishing a book

  • forgetting a book’s ideas. Many readers complain about how little they remember of a book’s ideas even after they have spent hours reading it. That’s to be expected. Cognitive psychology teaches how easily facts and ideas are forgotten. It is difficult to revise the ideas in a book without taking time-consuming notes which most readers don’t have either the time or the motivation to do.
  • struggling to work out what action to take. Many books suggest new behaviours and strategies for the reader. If these strategies and behaviours aren’t summarised adequately, it’s easy for a reader to move on to another book without taking any action on the previous one.
  • returning to a book. When readers want to remind themselves of the ideas in a book they have read in the past, a detailed re-read is often needed in order to get to grips with the book again.

A visual description of the reasons for Brexit

Are you a keen reader? If so, I would like to interview you to find out how you use non-fiction books to make progress in your work and/or personal life. More details here – www.makingideasvisual.com/interviews.

In my last blog post, I explained the concept of causal landscapes, which has been developed by the US research psychologist Gary Klein. In this blog post, I am going to provide a causal landscape of the reasons for Brexit and to show the power of causal landscape diagrams to summarise complex multi-causal explanations.

Developing the causal landscape

I have taken the different causes from the Conclusion chapter of Tim Shipman’s excellent book All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class, which is almost universally accepted to be the best book on the Brexit campaign.

I have obviously had to edit, combine and compress his points. If he were doing this process himself, no doubt he would produce a diagram with different emphases.

I haven’t tried to create a definitive causal landscape of Brexit by drawing on other resources, although that would be a valuable thing for someone to do. The purpose instead is to illustrate the potential of causal landscapes.

The Brexit causal landscape

The Brexit causal landscape can be found here – www.makingideasvisual.com/wp-content/uploads/brexit_causal_landscape_pt1.pdf.

I have categorised the causes into four main categories:
– the wider political and economic trends
– the strengths of the Leave campaigns
– the weaknesses of the Stronger In campaign
– the contributions of key figures, both positive and negative.

Clearly the explanations have had to be summarised so please go to the Conclusion and the other chapters of Tim Shipman’s book for more detail.

Understanding what might have changed the result

The second part of a causal landscape is to identify which of the most important causes were open to change and therefore could have affected the outcome.

I have drawn on Tim Shipman’s Spectator article The seven moments that lost the referendum for Remain for this.

Tim Shipman lists seven things that might have led to a Remain victory:
1. Cameron asking for and getting significant changes from Brussels
2. Having a ‘Yes/No’ rather than a ‘Leave/Remain’ referendum question
3. Dominic Cummings being sacked as the Campaign Director of Vote Leave
4. Michael Gove supporting the Remain rather than the Leave side
5. Vote Leave not winning designation as the official Out campaign
6. Stronger In having accurate polling data
7. Cameron making a campaign commitment on immigration.

I have added a red dot to the relevant category on the causal landscapewww.makingideasvisual.com/wp-content/uploads/brexit_causal_landscape_pt2.pdf – to show the seven points.

Understanding these points is interesting in itself but is also critical for politicians and political strategists who will be fighting future referendums.

The power of causal landscapes

There are two main reasons why I think causal landscapes can be a very useful tool.

i) the visual nature of causal landscapes makes the causes of a complex event much easier to understand than when the same information is distributed within long pages of dense text.

ii) causal landscapes can improve the quality of thinking about the causes of an event. One of Gary Klein’s insights about the human brain is that humans like to plump for single explanations. This means that the aftermath of major events will often have many people giving their preferred interpretation.

The beauty of causal landscapes is that, once a number of causes have been added to the diagram, a discussion can then begin about the accuracy of the different explanations, which were the most critical causes and whether any have been left out.

This discussion is much easier and more fruitful when everyone is focusing on the same diagram rather than when people are bringing up lots of different points that aren’t collected in one place.

Explaining events with causal landscapes

Are you a keen reader? If so, I would like to interview you to find out how you use non-fiction books to make progress in your work and/or personal life. More details here – www.makingideasvisual.com/interviews.

Last year was a year of unexpected political events like the election of Donald Trump and the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU.

Momentous events demand explanation but often the reasons provided don’t get to grips with the complexity of what has happened. This is partly due to a human preference for not having to deal with excessive complexity but also because columnists, bloggers and TV journalists often have limited space and time to get across their ideas.

What is a causal landscape?

Gary Klein, a US research psychologist well-known for his work in the field of decision-making, developed the concept of causal landscapes in order to get away from the common tendencies to provide excessively simple explanations for events and to assume that the eventual outcomes were always inevitable.

In his article on why Hilary Clinton lost the 2016 US Presidential Election, he writes that “most of the accounts I have read zero in on a single cause for Clinton’s defeat, which is a tendency Robert Hoffman and I encountered in our research on what constitutes an acceptable causal explanation. People like to have everything boiled down to a single cause, which almost always is a great oversimplification.”

The first stage in developing a causal landscape is to identify a wide variety of causes and to group them into relevant categories. The second stage then involves working out which of the most important causes would have been easiest to change and could therefore have affected the outcome.

The 2016 US Presidential Election

In his causal landscape, Klein has identified the key categories explaining why Clinton lost such as Personal Issues, the Gender Issue/Sexism, Strategic Decisions, One-off Events, the Trump Effect and Lower Turnout and Support by Key Demographics. Most of the categories also encompass a collection of sub-explanations. For example, the One-Off Events category comprises the James Comey letter and Clinton’s ‘Basket of Deplorables’ comment.

He then goes to consider what could have made the result different by asking “which of the causes shown in the diagram would have been the easiest to reverse, and which of the causes, if reversed, would have had the greatest impact?”.

He suggests that there were four causes that might have swung the election for Hilary if they had been reversed or not happened: three of the campaign’s strategic decisions (taking Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for granted, having attitudes that alienated lower-class whites and an emphasis on Trump’s negatives rather than developing a positive vision) and the ‘Basket of Deplorables’ comment.

Introducing complexity and then making it simple

Gary Klein is of course entirely right that many explanations of events are overly simplistic. Not only does this impede an understanding of the complexity of reality but it also prevents the development of effective strategies in response.

What I find interesting about causal landscapes is that Klein introduces more complexity by insisting on the inclusion of multiple causes but then, by summarising these causes in a diagram, makes the explanation easier to grasp.

The beauty of diagrams is that one can compress a number of concepts into a small space and then show the relationships between them through their spatial positioning.

At a glance readers can see in a causal landscape all the different causes of an event and how the causes are categorised. They can then go to the text to find more detailed explanations of each of the different causes.

Summary

Causal landscapes are an excellent way of explaining complex events. By providing a visual description of the multi-dimensional causes of events, causal landscapes can help to deepen understanding without unnecessary simplification.

A causal landscape of Brexit

I have developed a causal landscape to explain the causes of the UK’s decision in 2016 to leave the European Union. See here – www.makingideasvisual.com/brexit-causal-landscape.