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?

Comments (25)

  1. Colin Walker says:

    These points are equally valid for performing a successful demo of a Tablet PC which can be equally frustrating to explain to those who don’t ‘get it’.

    Let’s face it Tablets and OneNote go hand in hand and I can’t imagine using one without the other.

  2. Colin, you do know how to upset me! Although I think OneNote is great on a Tablet, I most definitely take issue with the statement that you can’t imagine using OneNote without a Tablet. I use it primarily with a keyboard and mouse. 85% of our users can’t be fools… See this link to see how I feel on this:

  3. PJ says:


    Thanks for this excellent blog as always. This will be extremely useful in trying to convince my company to rollout OneNote company wide.

  4. What about making a screencast showing off OneNote? Basically a narrated flash movie telling the story of OneNote…

    I know that I’d check out something like that.

  5. Chris, I’ve been baffled by the lack of the most basic graphical tools in OneNote (like, how do you draw an arrow with the mouse ?) but attributed it to the fact that OneNote was mainly designed for the Tablet where you can draw anything you want in Ink.

    I know several people who use Powerpoint to draw their notes, sketch flowcharts, etc. and OneNote as it stands definitely does not cover this (ab)use of PPT, unless you can use a stylus.

    Another thing, not tablet-related, but that gets on my nerves everytime I try to use OneNote : why no drag-and-drop for tabs ? Moving pages around takes ages…



  6. Colin Walker says:

    Purely my personal preference and no offence intended.

    I’ve used OneNote on my desktop (as I commented on that other post) and even tried it with an old graphics tablet before I got my Tablet PC.

    I’m certainly not going to argue with you, OneNote is an excellent app irrespective of the input interface or OS.

    I think it’s just that as my Tablet is currently my only working non-server PC I’ve started thinking in ink.

  7. Frank Gaeta says:

    My OneNote it is!

    Show OneNote to others by allowing them to see how simple customizing almost everything inside the user interface is. Express to them the support available for creating personal toolbars to facilitate specific tasks. Create a quick IExplorer specific toolbar that entails choosing what color highlighters to have available along with that useful clipping tool, and include the undo arrow so they experience how internet research can be so easy with just those tools alone.

    —Pasted something from the web you didn’t need? Click undo, and now choose the clipping tool again and go retrieve what you did want pasted. Only the selected highlighters are on your newly created IExplore toolbar, so click one to start lighting up the place or just begin typing—

    Show them how OneNote not only facilitates but improves note taking during lectures or meetings. When I first began using OneNote and MS Journal (with a Tablet PC) during class lectures I rarely bothered to change pen colors or do an highlighting. Some instructors spoke too much too fast for me to keep up all the while trying to use different colors for unique topics. Now, after sticking to OneNote, I simply place my personalized “Quickie Bar” on the center of a page and am able to quickly switch writing tools without missing a word. This may sound insignificant until you find yourself recording a speaker strapped with an Energizer battery behind their motor mouth. Changing colors during note taking can signify when the lecturer stressed a certain point or was only sidetracking without requiring writing in “Important” and “Not Essential” respectively. It’s these little options that make OneNote standout to users that are aware of their significance. Hence, show them.

    Some more customizations I always find worth mentioning follow. The ability to determine the size clippings should be when pasted onto OneNote eliminates resizing each image, user friendly…huh? Attaching links to those clippings is also optional, I know I hated deleting each link when pasting from my textbooks. Customizing organization is a breeze, for dragging a section from one folder to another seems effortless when file organization requires modification.

    The customization capabilities are endless, and emphasizing it to others demonstrates OneNote’s flexibility for all users and tasks. Explain to the inquiring masses how selecting audio quality stands ready to optimize specific scenarios. Occupying minimal space on a near full hard drive is possible by recording at lower quality settings, but the option still remains to have high level audio quality geared for played back in the presence of a large audience.

    Yes, it’s true OneNote can be sold by explaining how it will transform into a unique and personal digital desk with wide opened drawers full of immediately accessible pens, highlighters, scissors, glue, graph paper, college ruled paper, video and/or audio recorder…blah, blah, blah…all of that at the click of a mouse or pen. This program is rich with functions, but because how those functions can adapt to user preferences establishes that developers were thinking of all user scenarios and not just in shipping the product…yet another positive aspect of the program that can be shown.

    A Tad More on Audio Recording

    Elaborating on the sync capability of OneNote’s audio recording is sure to convert the already amused into the awe struck. Explaining the extension and ease behind the audio capabilities is definitely a plus. When evangelizing I always ask people, “How many times have you been reading a key idea in some important material and didn’t stop to annotate because you knew you’d remember it, yet a day later you had to read the same material over again because it was just too difficult (laziness maybe) to create a simple highlight?” Well, OneNote only requires–again–a simple click to start the recorder and the key idea is recorded for immediate and future playback. The extension of the audio created in OneNote is set to be dragged into an MP3 player and listened to while on the long drive to work or school over an inexpensive FM transmitter. I am certain my collage study time has been shortened and strengthened due to being equipped with a median that allows me to simultaneously cover new material and create audio annotations that later can be listened to during opportune moments normally wasted. Scratch the name OneNote and rename it “Forgotten Ingenious Ideas and Vital Information Easy Access Archive Engine That Can Be Utilized Wherever Headphones Or Speakers Are Allowed.” Okay, maybe the name should be left unchanged, but leaving the clutter of Post-It notes behind along with 3×5 cards is now possible. Show them how extension of the media files created in OneNote make this possible.

    This is not SPAM, thanks…chuckle, chuckle.

  8. Marc Orchant says:

    Look at it the other way around then Chris. OneNote is an essential app to demo the Tablet PC. It’s one of the two applications I always use to show people how I use the Tablet (the other is MindManager X5).

    I’ve used OneNote longer than I’ve used the TPC and I do agree it’s a great tool even on a lesser laptop or (shudder) desktop PC ;^)

  9. Clifford says:

    I fell in love with OneNote on a laptop. I realized the power of the notebook metaphor quickly, and got a lot of use out of it. And then I got a tablet, and fell in love with OneNote all over again.

    Yesterday, in a coffee shop, a customer saw me using my tablet and came over for a demo. I showed him OneNote – even pages where I’d combined keystrokes with ink. I told him, probably 3 times, that One Note worked just as well on a laptop – his laptop, but I don’t think I got through to him. I’m sure he’ll consider it – but not until after he buys a tablet!

  10. Once again Chris, an excellent post. I can’t wait to get to work to try out the Image Writer power tool!

  11. Christian, try the Office Online site – here’s a list of demos to watch, for example:

    Jonathan – those are common requests – we’ll see what happens…

    Everyone else: thanks for the great comments!

  12. Jason Haley says:

    Interesting finds this week

  13. Viona says:

    Thanks Chris.

    I still don’t understand why:

    a) While the whole Office suite of products have decent flow charting capabilities, why doesn’t One Note have a simple Flow Charter?

    b) Why can’t I embed a video from an external WMV file to show/play in the note itself? And, if possible, store its contents in the .one file itself?


  14. Viona,

    Any feature takes time – nothing is free. Integrating the shared drawing layer you see in some other Office apps is a lot of work – it was done by a significant team over a significant period of time. We didn’t have time. Also, it wasn’t clear when we started that making fancy drawings was what OneNote was about. We were thinking about notes, not presentations. Now, *simple* drawing tools make more sense for OneNote than the complex drawing tools other apps have. We get that request a lot – we’ll see what we can do.

    As for video, being able to add a pre-recorded video or audio file and take linked notes on it is something we like as an idea too. We didn’t do it because we focussed on note taking (i.e. recording what is happening in a meeting or other event), not on annotation of prexisting multimedia. But of course sometimes recording with OneNote is not an option, so maybe we’ll have a chance to do this work too.

  15. Viona says:

    Thanks a bunch for the reply, Chris.

    Any idea when we can expect SP2? 😀

  16. Kris Sangani says:

    Thanks for your article Chris.

    I was wondering if Microsoft has produced a White Paper on the efficacy of One Note. This would be very helpful when trying to convince others.

  17. Kris, there is a lot of supporting info at:

    Click on the link to "product info" on that page ( to see articles on things like the "Business Value of OneNote".

    Viona: Sorry, I can’t really comment on future plans in any detail.

  18. I have tried several times to use OneNote, and have always felt frustated. I believe that more than demos, one of the problems is the help system.

    Two examples. I have a new Tablet, which came with OneNote installed, so this week-end I decided to try again. On Friday, I discovered the training site and enjoyed going through the first two lessons. Since then, I have been unable to refind the site. When I click on the "formation" links (I am using the French version), I am led to

    which links to nowhere useful.

    Second example. In the lessons I went through, there was a neat feature that when you clipped a web page, OneNote would automatically note URL and date. I am unable to find it in the Help section.

    More generally, the Help is full of statements of what OneNote can do for you at the meta-level (make it easier to do research), but it is very hard to find anything specific. Two suggestions. a) Make it less web based; I want my help to click in when I am looking for it. b) Regive us the "Index" which we used to have in the old help systems: I could search the help files by trying different things and eventually get to what I wanted.

    This frustration with my inability to find what I want might make me abandon once again my attempt to use OneNote, who apart from that looks like it could be fun and useful.


  19. Jacques,

    Thanks for the feedback. We keep working on the help system, so any feedback you can provide would be very helfpul (especially in the on-line help, please use the buttons at the bottom of the articles you don’t like and tell us what to fix.)

    To find the OneNote homepage that has links to all the tutorials, either use a web search with "OneNote" as the search term, or from the main Office On-line site, click "Page d’accueil" in the upper left, then under "Produits" lower on the left, chose "OneNote". Here is the direct link, from which you can find links to the tutorials.

    The screen clipping feature is under the Insert menu – the term in English is "Screen Clipping" – I am not sure what it is in French.

  20. Kris Sangani says:

    Thanks very much for those links. They were very helpful. In particular, I found the case study on Blogo News, the Brazilian news organisation very interesting.

    There was a sports journalist on the other side of the world using One Note in an almost identical manner to my own use of the software.

    This is my setup:

    On the road I use a Toshiba M200 convertible – and with the Microsoft OneNote application in use for six months now, I am seeing great strides in my productivity and efficiency.

    Finally, got my microphone set up perfect and I haven’t screwed up a recording for a long time. I use an external microphone and the recordin options on OneNote are very useful.

    I record every phone interview, one-on-one and press conference – and I never have to transcribe a thing as all these recordings are time stamped with my own notes. I just point and click to the relevant note and I hear what was said

    I use a Skype phone which can send and receive telephone calls to the ordinary telephone network and can penetrate even the toughest firewalls. I’m saving a fortune on my mobile phone (down from £75 to £25 a month). I got my Sony Ericsson HBH600 headset working with Skype on the PC.

    The most difficult thing I found was getting One Note to record both sides of a Skype conversation. I managed to figure out a workaround using an additional driver called VAC (virtual audio cable). It acts as a virtual mixing desk between Skype and One Note. However, I have decided that the application is too complicated to use in the field

    What would be great is if OneNote could record both sides of an VOIP conversation and then I could work completely wirelessly the next time I interview a Microsoft spokesperson.

  21. Garrett Garcia says:

    It would be really handy if OneNote could export as a word file or even HTML. The "web page" that it exports cannot be viewed by Firefox, which is a huge turn off. This makes it very hard to share notes with people who aren’t also using OneNote, and since it isn’t included with Office, chances are most people aren’t using it. This means that if they don’t have OneNote and use Firefox, then you better start printing.

  22. Chris_Pratley’s OneNote WebLog : The best ways to show OneNote to others 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…

  23. Garrett, if you have Office2003 then OneNote can also output as Word *.doc format, both in Save As and Publish Pages. We chose MHTML as the output format since it produced single files you could email to others, which matched what usrs expected (unlike HTML, which produces a collection of files that are hard to email without breaking links to images, etc), and all Windows machines (at least) come with the ability to read MHT files (via IE) even if browsing is done via Firefox. In the future we may add the more complex and fragile HTML as an output format although then people have to figure out that they can post directly from OneNote to the web, or learn ftp (neither of which is an easy task for many people). Or maybe FireFox will someday support the MHTML RFC? In any case, you can always select all of the pages you want and Copy/paste them to a word processor to share notes – no need to print.

  24. Wessel Wessels says:

    I’m a big fan of OneNote. Something I would like to do is while I’m in a telephone conversation with somebody using X-Lite and my Plantronics headset I would like to record the conversation. I tried it and it only records my voice and not the person on the other end.