Category Archives: sharing

Thinking about how virtual assistants can help me with learning and writing

I’ve been challenging my assumptions about what I have to do myself and what could be better with help. It would be a waste of time and talent to limit virtual assistants to just data entry or transcription. People can do so much, and they can learn even more.

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

2014-02-26 Thinking about delegation and projects

Writing is one of those tricky tasks. I can’t stand generic link-building, keyword-stuffing articles. You know, the ones bashed out by SEO robots or humans doing a reasonable simulation thereof. Hasty writers hodgepodge snippets from various places. They may change words just enough to avoid plagiarism, but how can they add anything to the conversation? They don’t have the experience you have. They can’t tell the stories you can. They have a surface understanding of your field.

Still, I’m curious. Can I outsource part of my writing without feeling like I’m breaking the promises of my blog? Can I use people’s strengths instead of bumping into the weaknesses of outsourcing?

I have a personal blog, not a corporate one. I have no problems filling every day with things I’m learning. People find my writing readable. I don’t need help… but maybe I can learn how to make the most of it anyway.

For example, I’ve started making myself delegate web research tasks. This is tough. I keep thinking, “It’ll take me five to fifteen minutes to do this research myself.” I read at a blistering speed, and the research process helps me reformulate questions. It’s faster. I don’t have to wait.

But it turns out that delegating research means I have to be clear about what I’m looking for and how important it is to me. I can learn from other people’s search keywords and summaries. And each little bit of knowledge leaves its traces on two people: the assistant and me. Before, I was the only one who learned from any research I didn’t capture as blog posts. With delegation, the two of us learn, and the summary becomes something I can share.

Example web research tasks:

So web research is one thing that might be worth delegating, even if I think I can do it faster myself.

What about drafting and writing? One of the challenges of writing is empathizing with people who are new. When I write while I’m learning, this is easy. I struggle with the same things people struggle with. But what about the things that people ask me about, the things that I already take for granted? This is where other people’s questions and words can help.

I’ve assigned people to write about a topic I’ve outlined or sketched. I like the way that my outline becomes something both recognizable and different. Here are a couple of examples:

I really like the way people go beyond what I might think of doing or asking on my own. For example, this Trello tutorial is funnier than I probably would have made, and I like it.

What’s beyond that? Maybe more conversation. Speaking can be faster than writing. I struggle with speaking because it feels so unstructured. I’m not used to dictation yet. Maybe I’ll grow into that, in time.

I’ve been practising through interviews and transcripts, but not a lot of people host shows. Maybe I can ask my assistants to interview me about topics. That way, we’ll get a recording out of it as well (for people who prefer to listen or watch). They may ask follow-up questions that I wouldn’t have come up with.

Writing through other people also helps me learn more about my individual style. When I edit their work and give them feedback, I get a better sense of how I say or organize things. Maybe the differences will inspire me to pick up tips from them, too.

$20-30 seems a lot for a blog post that I can write myself, especially if I also invest time to outline and revise it. Still, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of learning from other people’s perspectives. I like the way that I can assign topics of mutual interest, so that both my assistant and I grow through writing. It’s worth exploring.

What would wild success look like? During this delegation experiment, I think it would be great to get to the point where I can make a list of questions I’m curious about. Assistants dig into those questions further. They interview me and other people along the way. I review their drafts, experiment with the ideas, and enrich the drafts with stories and results. We all learn.

I think some of the promises of my blog are: I will post things that I care about. I hope some of them will be useful for you. I won’t clutter your feed reader or inbox with bland, impersonal articles that you could find everywhere else. I won’t resort to clickbait headlines. I’ll share what I’m learning.

Maybe delegation is compatible with those promises. We’ll see. Here are two posts I’ve written with some help:

What do you think? Can there be an authentic way of blogging with other people’s help?

Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay!

Summary: You can now grab a print copy of Sketchnotes 2013 for $30 + shipping from CreateSpace.

2014-03-24 Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay #publishing #packaging #createspace

2014-03-24 Sketchnotes 2013 in print, yay #publishing #packaging #createspace

I like organizing my sketches into collections so that people can flip through them easily. It’s a good archive too, just in case I lose files. I put together a PDF of my sketchnotes from 2012, and I recently put together one for my sketchnotes from 2013. For added flexibility, I started with a ZIP and shared Dropbox folder for Sketchnotes 2013.

Paul Klipp suggested that I look into CreateSpace as a way of making a paper version. CreateSpace is a print-on-demand publisher, so we can order copies one by one instead of stashing inventory. Paper is easier to flip through during casual moments, and it might be a good alternative. Besides, it’s handy as a personal backup, too. A lot of the sketchnotes are me thinking through stuff, so I’m not sure how useful they’ll be to other people, but you can check it out online for free to see anything is useful. =)

2014-03-24 17.15.56 2014-03-24 17.16.12

It turns out that CreateSpace’s pricing–even considering the cost of shipping–is cheaper than what it would take for me to get color prints at the local print shops, and the results are neatly bound and professional. My proof arrived today, and it looks decent. I had reduced my landscape sketches to a little less than half their size so that I could fit them two to a page. That makes reading easier because you don’t have to turn the page sideways. I was worried that the letters wouldn’t be readable, but they turned out fine. =D

End result: I can “back up” my sketches in a much more compact space, and you can get your own copy if you want. For comparison, here’s the stack of sketchbook pages I drew on and scanned.

2014-03-24 18.22.06

Sketchnotes 2013 ($30 + shipping)

Geekier details: LaTeX

I wanted to make a PDF collection, but I didn’t want to work with a gigantic Microsoft Word or Powerpoint file. I’d done that before with Stories From My Twenties and Sketchnotes 2012, and that was not fun. Anyway, I had folders of images to combine. At first, I tried using ImageMagick to tile the images into pairs and pad them with margins. That was pretty cool. Adobe Acrobat Standard allowed me to import the images and add page numbers. I created my own table of contents using Microsoft Excel, pasted that into Microsoft Word, and tweaked the numbers until they were correct. It was a tedious and error-prone process.

Marcin Borkowski suggested using LaTeX instead. It’s been years since I used LaTeX. I remember doing some of my papers in it, and they always looked so much better than anything I put together in Microsoft Word or OpenOffice. I didn’t want to deal with the potential hassle of setting up LaTeX under Windows or Cygwin. I’d gotten more used to using Vagrant and VirtualBox to run Linux-based virtual machines that shared folders with my Windows installation, and upgrading to a 1 TB drive meant that I had plenty of space.

One of the advantages of working with LaTeX is that it’s text-based and therefore easy to work with in Emacs. I wanted to break up the different sections into their own files. I started with a small category. That way, I could easily recompile a section of the PDF in order to figure out the right approach.

Because I was using Windows to look at the PDF, I often got annoyed by the preview pane file-locking that prevented me from deleting the file. I turned the preview pane off in Explorer and opened the PDF whenever I wanted to check it.

After looking up how to include images in LaTeX, I listed all the image files, redirected the output into a file, and used a keyboard macro to set up \includegraphics commands.

It’s a good thing I did that, because some of the files were facing the wrong way, and many of them were the wrong size. So I learned how to resize and rotate images like this:

\includegraphics[height=\textwidth,angle=90]{Business/2013-02-26 Creating value with social collaboration platforms}

A couple of notes:

  • \includegraphics displays filenames with spaces, which wasn’t what I wanted. Adding \usepackage{grffile} fixed it.
  • \includegraphics can’t deal with special characters like #. To be safe, I used M-x dired‘s editable mode (C-x C-q) to get rid of all the keywords I added to each filename for classification.

Since I had a lot of these commands, I figured it would be worth learning how to define my own command for them. LaTeX is like Emacs. You can define your own commands or override existing ones. This is great for making your code more manageable. For example, if I include the following definitions in my document preamble:

\newcommand{\sketch}[3][height=4.5in,width=\textwidth,keepaspectratio]{
  \addcontentsline{toc}{section}{#3}
  \includegraphics[#1]{#2/#3}\\
}
\newcommand{\sketchcw}[2]{
  \sketch[height=\textwidth,angle=270]{#1}{#2}
}
\newcommand{\sketchccw}[2]{
  \sketch[height=\textwidth,angle=90]{#1}{#2}
}

… that gave me new commands that I can use like this:

\sketchcw{Business}{2013-02-26 Creating value with social collaboration platforms}
\sketchccw{Business}{2013-03-04 New opportunities}
\sketch{Business}{2013-03-04 Sketchnotes of events}

I also wanted to include a table of contents that listed all the images, but I didn’t want to display captions since they would duplicate the title that’s already in the sketchnotes. At first, I tried to use captions and labels, but I found out that you can use \addcontentsline to adds lines to the table of contents without displaying anything in the text.

After I set up and successfully compiled a few files, I worked on creating a main document that combined everything. The subfiles package was straightforward to use.

The trickiest part was getting the chapter table of contents sorted out. In addition to having a main table of contents, I like having chapter-based tables of contents because that way, the list is closer to what you’re looking up. I eventually figured out how to use minitoc after much confusion with left-over minitoc data and chapters that were out of order. I ended up creating a Makefile to clean out all the auxiliary files and run pdflatex three or four times.

Here’s one of my early sketches trying to figure this out, back when I was using ImageMagick and Adobe Acrobat…

2014-02-27 How can I make it easy to print collections of my sketches #packaging #sharing

2014-02-27 How can I make it easy to print collections of my sketches #packaging #sharing

It’s great to be a geek!

Replay: Meloney Hall interviewed me about sketchnoting

Meloney Hall interviewed me about sketchnoting. I managed to listen, talk, and sketch while doing this. Boggle! Although talking interferes a little with writing words, so my notes become more graphical. Hmm, maybe that’s a way for me to experiment with more graphical notes… =)

Transcript

You can download the MP3 from archive.org

2014-03-12 Visual note-taking - Sacha Chua, Meloney Hall page 2 #sketchnoting #live #interview

2014-03-12 Visual note-taking – Sacha Chua, Meloney Hall page 2 #sketchnoting #live #interview

2014-03-12 Visual note-taking - Sacha Chua, Meloney Hall page 1 #sketchnoting #live #interview

2014-03-12 Visual note-taking – Sacha Chua, Meloney Hall page 1 #sketchnoting #live #interview

See the event page for more details

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Describing my personal knowledge management routines with Harold Jarche’s Seek-Sense-Share framework

I spend much of my time learning, making sense of things, and sharing what I’ve learned. I like connecting with other people who think about how they do this. I chatted with Harold Jarche about how he manages his 10-year blog archive. We thought it might be good to describe our knowledge management processes in more detail. Here are more details on mine!

2014-03-03 How I work with knowledge - seek, sense, share #pkm

2014-03-03 How I work with knowledge – seek, sense, share #pkm

Seek

One of the things I’m working on as part of this 5-year experiment is to be more proactive about learning. It’s easy to fall into relying on client requests or a serendipitous stream of updates to teach me interesting things. It takes more work to observe what’s going on and come up with my own questions, ideas, and experiments. I think learning how to do that will be more interesting.

I used to get most of my information through reading. I love being able to slurp a book and take advantage of someone else’s experience. I turn to the Web for more current or on-the-ground information. I read social network updates and blog posts to find out about things I didn’t even think of searching for.

I’m learning more about asking people. There’s a lot written down, but there’s also a lot of knowledge still stuck in people’s heads. Asking helps me pull that out into a form other people can learn from.

Trying things myself helps me test knowledge to see if it makes sense to my life. I learn how to adapt things, too, and I might even come up with my own ideas along the way.

Sometimes I get interesting questions through e-mail, comments, or other requests. Those are worth exploring too, since explaining helps me understand something better. I fill in gaps in my understanding, too.

(Make) Sense

Many of my blog posts are reflective. I think out loud because that helps me test whether I make sense. Sometimes other people help me learn or think my way through complex topics. A public archive is helpful, too. I can search my thoughts, and I’m relatively confident that things will continue to be around.

Chunking

The main challenge I’m working on is getting better at “chunking” ideas so that I can think bigger thoughts. I’m comfortable writing my way through small questions: one question, one blog post. As I accumulate these posts, I can build more complex thoughts by linking to previous ones.

Sketches help me chunk ideas. Like blog posts, each sketch addresses one idea. I can combine many sketches into one blog post, and then use a sketch to map out the relationships between ideas.

I’m learning how to organize my posts into series. A better writer would plan ahead. Me, I usually work backwards instead, organizing existing posts and tweaking them to flow better. When I get the hang of series, I’ll be able to start thinking in chunks of short books.

Reviews

I have a regular review process. I do weekly reviews of my blog posts, sketches, reading, and time. I do monthly reviews and yearly reviews, rolling the summaries upward.

I’ve written some scripts to simplify this process. For example, I read blog posts with the Feedly reader. If This Then That imports my Feedly saved items into Evernote. I have an Emacs Lisp function that reads Evernote exports and formats them for my blog, and then I annotate that list with my thoughts.

Archive hacks

Even with this review process, I can’t remember everything I have in my archive. Fortunately, I’m a geek. I like building and tweaking tools. I’ve written about the different things I do to make it easier to go through my archive. I can find things faster thanks to little things like having a browser search keyword for my blog. Recommendations for similar posts help me find connections that I might not have thought about myself.

Delegation

One of the unusual things I’ve been experimenting with is delegation to a team of virtual assistants. I ask people to research information, summarize what they find, and draft posts. I can find things faster myself, and I can write pretty quickly. Still, it’s a useful way to learn about things from other people’s perspectives, and I hope it pays off.

Share

My website is the base for all my sharing. Having seen so many services come and go, I don’t trust anything I can’t back up and control. I keep most things in a self-hosted WordPress blog. I also use Google Drive for easy, granular sharing (such as my delegation process folder), and Dropbox for other features.

I keep a copy of my sketchnotes in Evernote for convenience, and I share those notebooks as well. See my sketchnotes, sketchbook, and visual vocabulary.

Google Hangout on Air is great for recording podcasts and video conversations. The broadcast is available as a live stream, and it’s automatically recorded too. I’ve been moving more of my conversations to Hangouts on Air so that other people can learn from them.

I don’t want to clutter my main Twitter account with automated posts. I use @sachac_blog for blog post announcements. On occasion, I’ll post links or sneak previews with my main Twitter account, @sachac.

For free/pay-what-you-want resources, I use Gumroad. I like the way that it lets me offer digital resources while giving people a way to show their appreciation.

I’m also experimenting with paper books using CreateSpace. I’m looking forward to releasing some sketchnote collections through that.

How about you? How do you work with what you know?

Check out Harold Jarche’s post, too: What is your PKM routine?. Want to watch our conversation about large blog archives? See Youtube video below.

How I animate sketches with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and Camtasia Studio

Spoken words can be much more effective when accompanied with animation, so my clients have been asking me to put together short animations for them. Here’s my workflow in case you’re interested in doing this too.

Step 1: Draw the images and get them approved.

Make your canvas roughly the same size as your final image so that you can save frames if needed. The bottom layer should be your background colour (ex: white). You can use a grid to line things up, then hide the grid when you’re ready to export. Use one layer per scene in your animation.

Step 1: Draw the image - get it approved if necessary

Draw the image – get it approved if necessary

Step 2: Prepare for animation.

Hide everything but the first scene and your background layer. Add a white layer at 90% opacity above your sketch. This allows you to trace over your sketch while making it easy to remove the pre-sketch in Camtasia Studio. Using a translucent white layer allows you to fade your other scenes without adjusting the opacity for each of them.

Step 2: Prepare for animation

Prepare for animation

Step 3: Lay out your screen.

Zoom in as close to 100% as possible. Use TAB to hide the Autodesk Sketchbook interface and position your sketch so that the important parts are not obscured by the little lagoon controller on the left side. You can turn the title bar off, too. Set Camtasia Recorder to record your screen without that little controller – you can either record only part of your screen, or add a white callout afterwards.

Lay out your screen

Lay out your screen

If you need to create HD video, a high-resolution monitor will give you the space you need. My Cintiq 12WX has a resolution of 1280×800, and my laptop has a resolution of 1366×768. When I need to record at 1920×1080, I use my Cintiq as a graphics tablet for an external monitor instead.

It’s probably a good idea to turn audio off so that you don’t have to split it out and remove it later.

Cintiq buttons

Cintiq buttons

This is also a good time to set up convenient keyboard shortcuts or buttons. The Cintiq 12WX has some programmable buttons, so here’s how I set mine up:

  • Left button: Ctrl-z – handy for quickly undoing things instead of flipping over to the eraser.
  • Middle right button: TAB – hides and shows the interface.
  • Bottom button: Ctrl-Shift-F8 – the keyboard shortcut I set up my Camtasia Studio with, so I can pause and resume recording.

This makes it easier for me to pause (bottom), show the interface (middle right), change colours or brushes, hide the interface (middle right), and resume (bottom). That reduces the editing I need to do afterwards.

Step 4: Record!

Because the pre-sketch shows you where things should go and you’ve already fiddled with the layout to make sure things fit, it’s easy to draw quickly and confidently. Use TAB to hide or show the interface. When you’re starting out, you may find it easier to record in one go and then edit out the segments when you’re switching brushes or colours. As you become more comfortable with switching back and forth between full-screen drawing and using the Autodesk Sketchbook Pro interface, try the workflow that involves pausing the screen, showing the interface, hiding the interface, and then resuming the recording.

Step 5: Edit and synchronize in Camtasia Studio.

Save and edit the video. Set it to the recording dimensions of your final output, and set the background colour to white.

Use Visual Effects > Remove a Color to remove the pre-sketch. Now it looks like you’re drawing on a blank canvas. See my previous notes for a demo.

Now synchronize the video with the audio. You may want to add markers to your audio so that you can easily tell where the significant points are. Use the timeline to find out the duration between markers. Split your video at the appropriate points by selecting the video and typing s. Use clip speed (right-click on the segment) to adjust the speed until the video duration matches what you need.

Note that at high clip speeds, Camtasia drops a lot of frames. If this bothers you, you can render the sketch at 400% speed using Camtasia or Movie Maker, produce that as an AVI or MP4, re-import that media, and continue compressing it at a maximum of 400% speed each time until you get the speed you want.

If you need to cover up a mistake, a simple white rectangular callout can hide that effectively. If you need to make something longer, extend the frame. Because you can’t extend frames into video that’s already there, you may want to drag the segment onto a different track, and then split or cut the excess.

Produce the synchronized video in your required output format (ex: MP4, MOV…) and you’re done!

Hope this workflow helps you get into doing more animated sketches with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and Camtasia Studio on a laptop or desktop computer. Do you use other tools or other workflows? Please share!

New free/pay what you want resource: Sketchnotes 2013; also, Emacs Dired rocks

cover

Get your copy of the Sketchnotes 2013 collection

Since people found my collection of sketchnotes from 2012 handy, I’ve put together a categorized collection of sketchnotes from 2013 as well. Enjoy! =)

Behind the scenes

This was how I made the 2012 collection:

  1. Create a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation. Fill it with high-res images. Resize and position all the images. Use AutoHotkey to save myself time and avoid going crazy.
  2. Create a spreadsheet with titles and page numbers. Add captions with liberal use of AutoHotkey.
  3. Create a manual table of contents and link to all the images. Mostly use AutoHotkey, except for the part where if you create a link to a slide number that consists of repeated numbers (ex: 55 or 66), you have to select it a different way, because typing “55” gets you #51 (and “555” gets you #52, etc).
  4. Save as PDF.

There was a lot of manual fiddling around involved in making that collection, so I’m experimenting with a different approach that may be useful. For Sketchnotes 2013, I wanted to see if there were ways I could simplify the packaging process while enabling people to do other things with the files.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I used Emacs dired-mode’s C-x C-q (dired-toggle-read-only) to go into editable mode, which allowed me to easily edit all the filenames to include #keywords. I used C-x C-q to save the changes.
  2. Then I used Emacs dired’s % m to select multiple files by regular expressions and R to move the files into a specified directory.
  3. Tada! Neatly organized files. I packaged it up as a ZIP and put it on Gumroad.
  4. Since Dropbox also allows you to share folders, I created a public link to the folder that had my organized sketches. That way, people can download a single directory if they want to, instead of downloading all 250+ MB.

It still might be interesting to make a PDF, especially if I can make one that can be published through something like CreateSpace. More packaging… =)