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THE MAGAZINE      May/June 2002
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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY WITH STEPHEN J. HARHAI

Do You See What I See?

Our communications could greatly benefit from visual tools that clarify the relationships between concepts.

As a child, I attended a two-room school in Pennsylvania (walking barefoot through the snow). There were two ways to learn things: The teacher talked to the class while writing words or numbers on the blackboard, and we read or wrote words or numbers on paper. The only concession to different learning abilities was that kids who couldn’t see very well got to sit in front.

Because reading and arithmetic didn’t come easily to me, I was considered a "slow learner." I managed to survive the first few years of school with some help from friends. Then we took a standardized IQ test and my elementary school teachers began to take a different view of me (after making me take the test over because they couldn’t believe the result).

It wasn’t until many years afterward that I learned my brain functions in a way that prevents me from readily absorbing information through drills or rote memorization, the mainstays of my early education. Instead, my learning style—read "interaction with the world"—relies heavily on visualization. I literally see the relationships between things and ideas and can reorganize them at will. It is both a disadvantage (it’s harder to take in some abstract concepts, such as arbitrary spellings or phone numbers) and an advantage (it’s easy to grasp large bodies of complex information once I understand the structure). This isn’t better or worse than the more typical linear-textual style of learning. It’s simply different.

More than Words Can Say

While I’m fairly far out on the visual learning continuum, everyone has a visual component to his or her learning style. Words are hardly the only devices that convey meaning—far from it. After all, we were a thinking, planning, organizing species long before we had written, or even spoken, language. There is a very basic, deeply connected link between our eyes and our brains that uses spatial relationships as its fundamental organizing paradigm. That’s why using tools that visually clarify the relationships between concepts can bring greater clarity and impact to our communications with clients, judges, juries and other audiences. Visual input helps deepen learning and communication for everyone.

In fact, we may make it harder on ourselves and others to master information by neglecting the visual learning path when we communicate. But why, when technology makes it easier than ever to add visual components that will help convey ideas?

Think, for example, of how well-done computer presentations can aid in the learning experience. You probably see PowerPoint presentations regularly in CLE programs. They are, however, less common in client meetings, settlement conferences and the courtroom. And you have to wonder why, when the same benefits of attention focus and visual learning apply in those legal communication settings. The software and hardware components are easy to use, and they’re increasingly affordable to boot. The next time you need to convey a point to an audience (be it one person or many), think of how you might benefit from the visual impact available through presentation software like PowerPoint. Anyone will understand you more easily when assisted by visual input—and it may make all the difference in reaching visual-focused learners.

A Layout for the Mind’s Eye

But even PowerPoint is still primarily linear and text focused. It does make it easier to understand the information that is presented, but it still organizes information linearly, placing one element after another, so that your eyes move down the page from one point to the next. It does not truly represent the relationships between the points, in a multidimensional way. For greater visual-spatial emphasis, you want to turn to the tool known as mindmapping.

Developed in the 1970s by Tony Buzan, mindmapping uses a spatial layout of information in combination with graphic elements to convey meaning. In essence, it facilitates the organization and comprehension of ideas by graphically representing the relationships between those ideas. It’s hard to picture what that looks like from my text description, isn’t it? Or it would be, if your eye hadn’t already been drawn to the top of this page and the illustration of an actual mindmap, in this case a summary of a speech on legal technology.

The technology tools are laid out on the left. The computer’s benefits and strengths are on the right. The spatial arrangement helps to organize the relationships between elements as the eye and mind need to add, change or refer to specific information. It’s like having key documents in a complicated case laid out on a large table. The physical location of the information becomes part of the organizational scheme.

My firm has tried major cases, with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of thousands of documents, relying exclusively on mindmaps as our organizational tool for arguments and witness examinations. It’s amazing how simple it is to keep track of massive amounts of data when you can see the structure laid out spatially in a mindmap. And when you are temporarily diverted from a case by the press of other business, you can get back up to speed in minutes rather than hours with a clear, concise mindmap. (Check out my Web site, www.COdivorce.com, for a more detailed discussion and links to mindmapping software.)

Try the visual approach to learning and communication. Visualization may make your life, and the practice of law, easier, more understandable and more fun.

Stephen J. Harhai (steve@harhai.com) practices family law in Denver, CO. He is the author of the Colorado Divorce Handbook site, www.COdivorce.com

The mindmap here was created in MindManager. If the concept interests you, go to www.mindjet.com to download a free trial version and find pricing options.