Have you ever had the necessary skills to do something but failed anyway? Maybe you made the perfect cookie recipe… but then you burned them. Or maybe you’ve been playing soccer for 10 years, but missed the goal when it counted?
When I first learned to sketchnote, I felt like I grasped HOW to do it… but my execution was never as good as it was in my head. I was so frustrated because I felt like I had all the skills individually, but they just weren’t coming together how I wanted!
Even though sketchnotes look simple, it’s a balancing act of multiple skills that takes practice to master… REGULAR practice!
Start with the individual skills
Sketchnoting is just like other hobbies and sports: You have to practice each individual skill in order to master it as a whole. If you want to be a good soccer player, you have to practice running, kicking, dribbling, controlling the ball, and learning strategy and signals. Even the professional soccer players practice with drills! If you want to practice sketchnoting, start with these individual skills:
Many years ago I was on a road trip and stopped to visit a friend on the way. Things seemed fine until we sat down at a restaurant. Smart watches had just come out, so all through dinner she was constantly looking at her wrist as it buzzed and lit up. She’d “check out” and read her notifications while I was talking, simultaneously losing track of what I had just been saying and asking me to repeat myself or missing a question I asked her.This story is the perfect example of bad listening culture (at least in the US).
So… how do you practice listening? By doing it! Our default mode listening is pretty crummy. Most people don’t actually listen as much as they formulate what they’re going to say next, or get lost in their own thoughts, or stare off and get distracted by the environment. Listening is more than just hearing: it’s understanding, being attentive, and being fully present for the other person. Listening well is one of the most unselfish things you can do… so naturally it’s really difficult! Here are a few steps to listen well:
1. Remove distractions
2. Physically focus: Have an “open” body position (arms and legs not crossed, fully facing the other person if you can). Don’t fidget. Don’t look around the room- make eye contact as much as possible.
3. Mentally focus: Don’t get lost in your thoughts, come up with arguments, or let your mind wander.
4. Give them Feedback: nod your head and “uh-huhs” to let them know you’re still “with” them and following along. If you don’t understand, ask them to clarify before making an assumption.
5. Allow them to pause. Don’t interrupt, talk over them, or change the subject.
This works great for a conversation, but what about lecture-based sketchnoting situations where you’re sitting passively in the audience or watching a pre-recorded video? Is there a difference?
Nope! Listen to speakers and videos like you’re having a conversation with your closest friend.
If you want to practice the skill of listening, have a conversation with a friend or loved one, or start with watching videos online.
If you’re sharing your sketchnotes with others, you need to make your handwriting exceptionally clear. “Legible” is barely good enough… it has to be easy to read. Cursive isn’t a good idea for body text, and allcaps can be hard for people with Dyslexia. Write in Sentence case, and make your letters perfectly balanced.
If your handwriting needs a boost, you can purchase my Handwriting Practice Workbook pdf here for $7.
Hopefully you know that you don’t have to be an artist to sketchnote! Sketchnote drawings should be recognizable over realistic and as simple as possible. To practice drawing, you can take my FREE course, Beginner Sketchnote Drawing. If you’re more experienced and want to level-up, you can take the Intermediate Sketchnote Drawing class here.
“Design” is the word I use to describe the combination of layout, hierarchy, and color use. These skills may be a natural talent for some, but they can also be learned!
Layout is how you arrange information on a page. When it comes to sketchnote layouts, it’s important to remember that most people are going to read the from the top to the bottom, left to right. Using a layout that flows with the natural order of reading will help! Find sketchnotes you love the look of, and notice the layout. Is it easy to read? How can you use the same layout in your own style? If you want to learn more about layouts, check out pages 96-101 in my book The Art of Visual Notetaking. Also consider your page size and orientation in your layout.
Hierarchy is making things different sizes to add variety and clarify what’s important. Just like a newspaper, the largest thing (the headline) is usually the largest. Less important points are smaller. Again, look at sketchnotes you admire and make notes of what is large and what is small. Practice taking sketchnotes using different sizes of text and drawings to note importance or prominence.
Color can be tricky! If you want to master color, check out The Sketchnoter’s Guide to Confident Coloring. In this 40-page PDF, you’ll learn how to master the foundations of color theory, learn to create color palettes, use color psychology to choose the right color scheme, apply color using 5 different methods, and color digitally using apps and layers. You can use the worksheets to practice coloring the same sketchnote different ways.
How often should you practice?
If you wanted to be a pro soccer player, how often would you practice? Probably every day, right? Maybe even twice a day! If you want to be a confident, comfortable sketchnoter, you can’t just do it once a month and expect to be calm, cool, confident, and collected each time. You need to practice regularly. Weekly at the minimum, daily at best.
When I first learned about sketchnoting in April of 2015, I was so excited to learn! But six months later, I didn’t feel like I had progressed very far. I felt frustrated at my lack of progress. I sketchnoted once every week during church but I still felt like I was falling short. I felt like I had to knowledge of how to do it right, I just needed more experience to make all the skills align. So, I challenged myself to do one sketchnote every day. Some were small in a mini notebook and some were 2 page spreads, but I practiced every day. I became familiar with listening, writing, and drawing at the same time and the practice became like a second nature to me. I don’t think my notes improved that much visually, but my confidence and comfort with sketchnoting skyrocketed. That confidence and comfort allowed me to keep going and improve my skills. You ARE making improvements, even if you can’t see them. Keep going and practice regularly.
What should you practice sketchnoting?
Step 1: Experience-based sketchnotes
If you’re a brand new beginner with sketchnotes, I think the best place to start practicing is with experience-based sketchnotes. These are sketchnotes with content that YOU create and are in control of. Experience-based sketchnotes are easier to practice with because there’s no pressure regarding external/unfamiliar content, a time limit/rushing, or comparison with others. You can freely explore and create without much pressure. Once you’ve become comfortable sketchnoting your own stuff…
Step 2: Familiar/Interesting content
…Try moving up to lecture-based sketchnoting. This is where you’re capturing content delivered by someone else. I’d recommend starting with videos. You can pause or rewind if you need to, just don’t make a habit of it! You can’t rewind in real life! When choosing a video, pick one that is personally interesting to you. Whatever your interests are, pick videos on that. Cooking, travel tips, sermons, gaming, vlogs… doesn’t matter! Just be personally interested in it. Practicing with content you’re personally excited about and familiar with will be easier to jump into, rather than an unfamiliar video on quantum theory and particle physics (you know, unless that’s your thing!).
Step 3: New/unfamiliar content
One of the best ways to practice sketchnoting is to watch TED talks. The speakers are very well rehearsed, professional, and the audio quality is great. TED talks do tend to be more fast-paced and content-dense which can be a challenge to capture. But, wouldn’t your rather practice with the hard stuff now so it doesn’t seem as hard when you’re doing it in real life? If you can sketchnote a TED talk comfortably, you’re doing great!
When you visit https://www.ted.com/talks, you can filter by topic and length.
Note about length: You may think that shorter videos will be easier to practice, but that’s not always the case! Short talks are sometimes more information dense and fast paced than a normal talk, and therefore harder to capture. Try starting with talks that are in the 12-18 minute category.
Find inspiration and/or mentors
Who is #GOALS to you? What sketchnotes do you see and think “I want mine to look like that!”?Study your heroes! How do they write? How do they draw? What are the layouts like? Engage them on social media. Ask Questions. Take their classes and read their books.
Another way to practice sketchnoting is to do it with others! Find other sketchnoters similar to your skill level and ask if you can create together or become learning partners. There are sketchnoting communities and groups online, worldwide meet-ups, and you can also connect with sketchnoters in workshops and programs. Having someone else involved in your learning process will help you stay accountable to keep improving.
Hire a coach
A soccer player can watch soccer skills videos on youtube videos all day or learn by playing, but they might need an outsider’s perspective to improve. Like the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Consider asking a sketchnoter you admire if you can do a coaching or critique session (or few!). Many professional sketchnoters also teach and will be able to ask you the right questions, call out areas to improve, and give you advice or tips.
Share Your Work Publicly
“Wait… how does publicly sharing my work help me practice?”
There’s just something about sharing your work for all the world to see. When you share your work, it feels like you’re publicly being held accountable. It’s like hiring the world to be your coach. You’re now opening up your work up for critique and that can be a huge opportunity! By sharing your work, you can literally see your progress and improvement. You can ask your followers what they like and what they think you could do better. Sometimes people will automatically comment what they like without ever being asked. And sometimes… people want to hire you. I’ve seen it myself and time and time again: When you share your work with others, it’s inspiring! You stir their soul and they want more, so they ask to hire you or if you do commissions. You might not feel confident enough to “do this professionally,” but rest easy! People don’t pay people to do things they don’t like or aren’t impressed by. Take the compliment, and say yes!
When I first started taking visual notes professionally, I actually felt MORTIFIED. I felt like I had more potential than what I was able to execute, and the shortcoming of my own expectations made me feel embarrassed. I couldn’t believe people were paying me for my work. “My work isn’t good enough!” “That portrait is awful!” “I missed something!” Nothing motivated me to improve more than to have people pay me. I wanted to please them, but more than that I wanted to be pleased with myself!
Get out there and see if you can get paid to sketchnote, no matter what level you’re at! Ask your boss if you can take the meeting minutes in sketchnotes. Ask a conference you’re interested in attending if they want to hire you. Tell people online that you’re available for commissions. Ask your heroes if they have anything you can sketchnote, like a podcast or a video.
I hope these methods help you as you grow in your practice as a sketchnoter! Have other ideas? Shoot me a DM on Instagram and let me know how YOU practice!