Listening with Intent to Doodle

One of Perrin's professionally scribed notes from Science Online 2012.
I’m a doodler. It doesn’t matter if I am absolutely captivated by a topic or bored stiff–I doodle because doodling helps me listen a little better, and I’m not the only person for whom this holds true. When I am working with adult learners in workshops, I find I have greater success if there are “stress balls” and other things to keep the hands busy, so that the minds of the participants can focus. Many knitters claim that knitting helps them focus better on speakers as well. How many of you fiddle with pens and pencils while you are listening?

So, I was intrigued by the Science Scribe 2.0 workshop at the Science Online 2012 when I read its description and saw the links that provided examples of the output that results from “sketch noting” a seminar. As science communicators, we are constantly seeking fresh ways to communicate complex topics quickly to an audience that is busy.

The session was led by Perrin Ireland, who immediately put us all at ease by asking us: “Who here thinks you can draw?” A few participants willingly claimed their talent. “Who here thinks you can’t draw?” Some of us raised our hands high, eager to lower expectations. “Who here doodles?” Hands went up. Nods and smiles of recognition abounded. “Then you can do this. Sketch noting is ‘doodling with intent to communicate’.”

Take that Mr. Smith, Mrs. Robinson, or whoever the teacher was who told you “quit doodling and pay attention.”

I doodled while Perrin led us through some tips and tricks for doodling with purpose. She suggested practicing and playing with fonts until we found a few that felt really natural for us. She also suggested that we have some “icons” at the read that we could draw quickly, like eyes, lightbulbs, warning signs, maybe a few specific for the topics you typically scribe (science, business, economics, etc.).

One particularly useful tip that I have already put into practice at this conference: if you know the title of the talk, go ahead and have that sketched out ahead of time. Another tip: get the content down and add directional features like arrows, frames, and dividers (color, lines) at the end.

There are several ways to play with organization and layout. You can try a traditional left-to-right layout or start in the center and have a web of connected ideas.

She said some speakers will provide clues to the organization of their talk (We’ll cover three main issues with….) while others will be more free form. Sometimes those cues will be in abstracts. Sometimes at an unconference like Science Online, you’ll be capturing discussion.

We even did an exercise to help us over come our fear of drawing the character and I am pleased to say, I feel confident that if I needed a crowd for my notes, I could do it. I think there may be real power in adding human characters and emotions to notes about science stories, because scientists have emotions when they are telling their stories.

I can doodle peoople!

You can scribe on an iPad or iPhone using tools like Brushes or DrawPad. And there are some great styluses available (Nomad and Pogo are two I learned about at this workshop). But the scribing that worked best for me was the scribing I did with watercolor crayons and pencils. Others had crayons and markers. It’s all good and works incredibly well.

The neat thing about Science Scribe 2.0 at Scio12 was that it was contagious. Even as I made my faltering attempts at scribing, other attendees would say, I wish I had attended that session. That is so neat. What a great way to capture a session.

My first "scribed" session.

And it is. What a great way to suggest students take notes. What a great way to present basic science and important science about nutrition, exercise, immunity.

So, the next time you attend a conference or seminar. Take your box of 16-count crayons and a blank piece of paper and doodle with the intent to communicate. Or, if you really want to have fun. Instead of PowerPointing people to death at the next journal club, sketch note the paper, take a digital photo of your sketch notes and use that as your presentation. Your colleagues will thank you.

Some links from Science Online Related to the Science Scribe 2.0 Session:

Michele showing off one of her Science Scribes:
A Flickr slide show of the many Science Scribers and their work from Science Online 2012:

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Michele Arduengo

Social Media Manager at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele is the social media manager at Promega and managing editor of the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys getting lost in a good book, trumpet playing, knitting, and snowshoeing.


  1. I’m so sorry we didn’t end up meeting! I love this post. And I definitely wished I’d attended the ScienceScribe session. Thanks so much for sharing what you learned. Your sketchnotes are fantastic.

  2. Hi Meera,
    I’m sorry we didn’t meet as well. It was such a terrific conference. The Science Scribe session was awesome. Thanks for the complement on the sketch notes. They are a lot of fun. There are more posted on the science online 2012 web site. All of them are amazing.

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