It has been written that "an expert just needs to know a little bit more than everybody else". In my opinion there is a litte more to being an expert, but the statement has some truth to it. This article features my favorite short-term and long-term techniques for knowledge acquisition.
Table of Content:
- Deep understanding of a single topic (eg oral exam)
- Broad understanding of a domain (eg initial workshop with client)
- Long-term Memory using digital flashcards (spaced repetition)
- How to commit books to memory (key concepts)
As a consultant you will find yourself in a position where you have to acquire knowledge (eg. about your clients industry, a new framework, tool or product).
Here are some of the techniques I have acquired over the years - they are powerful as in:
The key principles are spaced-repetition and free reproduction.
Short-term techniques (overnight)
Here are two techniques to either dive deep into one topic to prove your expert status (like you would in an oral exam at university) or to get a working knowledge of what exists in a certain domain, so that you can ask the right questions.
Deep understanding (you need to be the expert in the room for something specific)
- Research phase
- Search for (visual) summaries, quick introductions, scientific papers (read the excerpts and conclusions), common mistakes, white papers etc.
- Refinement phase
- reduce the material you gathered to what you want to learn and present (most of the time this ends up to be a visual summary which I adapt to my problem)
- Sketch out what it is you want to say and present, if you have the option to use slides, this is where you make them. If you can't use slides, prepare a visual representation (or multiple).
- Practice phase
- Put your finished visual representation in front of you, take a blank piece of paper and start drawing from scratch while presenting to an imaginary audience. Repeat this until you don't need to look at the finished drawing and you remember all the important points.
- If you have multiple concepts (eg A,B,C) you need to have ready, mix them up to make best use of your time: AA BA BC BC AB CC has been working for me.
Broad understanding (you don't know what exactly is coming so you need to know the vocabulary of the field)
- Research phase
- Search for (visual) summaries, quick introductions, scientific papers (read the excerpts and conclusions), common mistakes etc.
- While reading: Highlight concepts that appear to be relevant.
- Mapping phase
- Use sticky notes (for concepts and key vocab.) and a large piece of paper to build a mind-map. At first I cluster the concepts using the sticky notes on the paper and then draw the connections on paper once I got the layout 'right'.
- Refinement Phase
- Inspect the map thoroughly, write down any questions that arise and then go back to 1. to find more connections and understand them better. Repeat until you have a thorough understanding of the domain.
- Practice Phase (optional)
- Repeating points 1-3 a couple times has proven to be enough most of the time. If you want to prepare 110% add a practice phase and repeat 1-4 as often as you deem necessary.
- Work towards free reproduction of your final map.
Sometimes there is information you need to commit to longterm memory. If you are a certified SCRUM Master like me, you will want to know the SCRUM Guide by heart. If you use other frameworks that holds equally true for those.
If you have a longer project within a new domain or working on a new product it can be very helpful to have the information about it ready.
Knowing where to find the information is good, having the information readily available is what distinguishes a good consultant from a great one.
Flashcards - Spaced repetition with Anki
This is my go-to software tool for anything I have to learn. From getting my sailing license to learning french. With a little bit of creativity you can even use Anki to learn physical skills like juggling, dancing or playing the guitar (but this is not within the scope of this article).
The benefit of Anki, is that it can learn how quickly you learn and adjust the frequency it presents the flashcards to you appropriately. This is a huge timesaver. It also has a very accurate prediction on when you are "done" learning a subject.
As there are so many amazing tutorials about Anki, I don't think I could anything new to it. The official documentation is very good, so start from there: https://apps.ankiweb.net/docs/manual.html
What I have learned with the help of Anki:
- Spanish pronunciation and basic vocabulary (using Fluent-Forever)
- Many Computer Science courses at university like
Software engineering, Databases etc
- Some Physics and Math courses (to save a couple seconds looking for the correct formula, or if there was no cheat-sheet allowed)
- Design Thinking
- The "Major System" for remembering numbers
- Theory of sailing for SKS - the german equivalent of Yachtmaster Coastal
Incremental reading - sort of.
To get the most out of any book (or any other long form content) I like to write my own summaries and revisit them to get the concepts into my longterm memory. I have been using an approach derived from incremental reading for many years - maybe you'll find it helpful.
When reading a book I usually use a pencil or marker to underline important concepts. I don't limit myself to words, sometimes I underline paragraphs or even pages.
After finishing the book I go back to page 1 and flip through the book and write down everything I have underlined - usually I use Freeplane (a free mind-mapping software) for this. The root is the name of the book, to one side I attach the chapters and write down what I underlined. To the other side I write down the meta-concepts I have discovered.
When ever I re-read the same book, I use a new color for underlining and annotations.
So these are my 4 favorite techniques for learning just about anything.
Please feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org - I'd love to hear your thoughts!