The best ways to show OneNote to others

I often hear from fans of OneNote that they are frustrated because they can't explain to others what it is they love about it. they explain for a few minutes and then their friend just says they can’t see why it is better than Word, or Notepad. (Notepad!)


It is tough with a new product in a new category because people have no frame of reference. They are used to asking "which is the best word processor/browser/OS?"', but with an information management tool, most people have no experience so they can't do the comparison. They just see the part that looks like a word processor and they think that is all there is.


For those who are frustrated trying to explain to others what makes OneNote different and exciting in a concise, coherent way, let me share a few ideas since obviously we end up doing that a lot ourselves.


Demo using your own notes

My first tip is to try to demo the product using your own notes if at all possible. Talking about it is very difficult, but using your own notes makes it immediately obvious to people the huge variety of things it is useful for - things they didn’t think there was software available for (like trip planning, or research, or password management, or any of the many other things OneNote does).  So save your breath and open the product to show them.


Show them how you are effective with it - this is much more successful than talking about how they can be effective with it.  I showed a lot of people my wife's hand-drawn plan of our back yard, with loads of little pictures of plants she copied off of various web sites as she planned our landscaping (shade garden!). She had all the links back to the sites next to the images so she could read more about the plants. The main part was that she had a visual of the garden to try various arrangements of plants by color, etc. It's hard to think of other software that makes garden arranging easy (!). She also has a great section on research for baby paraphernalia. And lots of people can relate to that one. I have a similar section for that car I keep hoping to buy...


I also show how I plan trips - links, itineraries, maps, phone #s, etc. Copying pictures of places you want to go with links back to the source is useful. You can keep all this in a page group with a set of subpages, one for each destination. This is especially effective for showing someone else (such as your spouse or friend) what you plan to do. Having all the random things like hotel reservation confirmation numbers, flight times, trains, tel #s, etc. in one place makes you feel good. It's also worth pointing out that you use OneNote in an ongoing way. You work on something, drift way, come back, etc. With a word processor you lose your place when you close the file, plus you’re forced to have everything in "story" format, rather than tabs, which makes it hard to randomly access any part of your trip notes.


Of course I also show meeting notes, but to many people these just look like simple Word documents so they won't get excited at first. So if you show meeting notes, show how you can search all of them easily, and how you can use note flag summaries to see all the important items, or the To-Dos, etc. Show how you can file them in meaningful sections with meaningful titles. Show how you can suck in meeting details from Outlook.


I also show people my Blog section, where all my previous posts and posts I am still working on are kept. This really shows off how a OneNote section is like a project, and can hold many different things in it in various states of completion. I can jump to any post topic immediately, without having to scroll way down in a document, or open and close files.


How is OneNote different from a word processor?

This is a common question, and fortunately the answer is pretty easy if you don't get caught comparing which features each program has, which is a mental trap since that way you end up describing OneNote as a document creation tool, and not as an information database.


One way to think of OneNote is that it is a place to put all the stuff you want to keep track of but don’t have a good place for in your computer. Then you can find it again later when you need it. It is the software equivalent to the stack of paper on your desk, a scrapbook, the post-its on your monitor, the stuff in your head you keep trying not to forget, your favorites in your browser. Each factoid you have can be dumped on its own page in OneNote or grouped together on a single page as a kind of dashboard, and you can keep all those factoids organized as you might in a three ring binder with colored tabbed sections and so on. Nothing gets lost. With a word processor, all this stuff has to go in a column from top to bottom, or you have to split it across several files which makes it really hard to search and browse. A phrase I often use is to say that OneNote lets you do a "web search", but across all your own stuff.


Another difference is that OneNote has this two-dimensional page surface, so if you think two lists make more sense side by side, just drag one beside the other. If you have a main thread of content on the left, click over in the right to add annotations to remind you of what thoughts you have about the stuff on the left. This is all so easy in OneNote and so restricted in a word processor.


What if I already have a way of managing notes that I like?

There are lots of ways people try to organize with a computer, with the most common being a bunch of folders with text files or documents in them. These people usually say they are fine with this system. But there are several weaknesses they often aren't thinking about. For example, searching that stuff is hard. Even with the new desktop search tools coming out, you don't have an easy way to browse from hit to hit and to view the hits in context. You also can't flip through pages like you can in OneNote - trying to open all the files and closing them one after another looking for the right one is tough. Often people are reduced to developing some cryptic code for filenames to try to get the right file the first time - but there is no way to recognize a page of notes visually like you can when you browse in OneNote.


Moving from this sort of system to OneNote isn't all that hard either. It does require sitting down and doing a bunch of copying and pasting, but it gives you a chance to re-organize which most people want anyway. If people have PDFs or PPTs or other docs, show them how they can drag/drop those files onto note pages and get a link back to the original. Also tell them how to use the OneNoteImageWriter powertoy to print documents into their notes to easily browse them all together without having to open different apps. If they don't want change the folder structure, they can also just create a OneNote section in every folder they already have - that will cause OneNote to reflect their same folder structure in their notebook.


I just need scraps of text - not a fancy program

Often people say they just need plain text and that's it. But show them how search works. Show them how note flags work to help them find that text, group it into categories using the note flag summary, etc. Also dropping in pictures and HTML from the web is great (screen clipping from the system tray icon alone sells a lot of people), and can't be done with plain text only tools. Show the highlighter (text or ink) and highlight text in copied web pages, or circle the interesting bits of a web clipping to highlight why you copied it.


Qualitatively different

One of the hardest things to communicate is that OneNote just feels different. To many people it is a very personal thing, "my OneNote" if you will. People don’t feel that way about their Word documents in folders. Why is this? I think it is because the nature of the program lets you express your own thought patterns and work/organization methods. If you think hierarchically, you'll organize your notebook with hierarchy. If you think in projects you'll have a different section for each project. Your stuff gets laid out the way you think about it, not the way the program wants you to organize. Another difference is that OneNote seems very tolerant of incompleteness and work-in-progress. That lets people relax and be comfortable with dropping more stuff into their research section without having to make sense of it until later, or to have a lot of half-written stuff they'll get back to later. This ability to have multiple ongoing projects is what draws a lot of people into relying heavily on the application.


Another qualitative difference is that OneNote allows new ways to work. I posted earlier about shared sessions - with this OneNote is doing something totally different from being an information mgmt tool - it is a communications tool - and after you finish the shared session, because it is also an information management tool you already have a record of what went on and it is in yours and everyone else's notes. Same thing with shared notebooks, such as a folder on a file share that multiple people have opened into their notes. Working with a small team and having a  repository where you can all share and see what others have added or see how they have organized the research makes OneNote into is a new kind of lightweight team project tool.


Recording audio and video is another OneNote thing that blows people's minds. Many people think they don't have a reason to use these features because they think of traditional recording and how it has to be for "official" things. But they might be surprised since with nearly infinite audio recording capacity there is no cost to simply recording a lot of normal stuff. Record brainstorming sessions, focus groups, team meetings, etc. and play back later to see how much you missed. You can also do entirely new things with recording that you didn't consider before. For example, BYU law school decided to use video notes in OneNote to record law students doing presentations, with a person taking critique notes (synced to the video of course). Then in review, they can click on each note and the video will jump to the point where the presenter was making the "error'. Makes showing people how to improve much easier than verbally trying to coach them, or trying to fast forward and rewind video tape. Check out the details here.


I'd love to hear about your success stories with convincing other people of the value of OneNote. What worked for you?