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Attendees at conferences like the Mansfield Center’s Asia-Montana Energy Summit often joke that absorbing all the information provided is like getting a drink of water from a fire hose.

But for every fact mentioned or chart projected, Alece Birnbach has an ink marker or chalk chunk to memorialize the thought. And she’s got the artistic speed to turn panel discussions into murals before the speakers have used up their 90-minute talking time.

“I wanted to find a way to combine my marketing and advertising and art skills and get off the computer,” Birnbach said between presentations at the University of Montana gathering Thursday. “I was an advertising art director and had an agency in Denver, but I sort of burned out on that. I’ve always liked to draw, and when I heard about a weekend class on this, I took it. I started doing it full time five years ago.”

“It” is visual note-taking. Birnbach sets up a 4-by-8-foot sheet of paper on one side of the stage and draws highlights of the presentation as it happens. But this isn’t a page of bullet points or small-group breakout thoughts. It’s more like a business-art slam.

“We first saw something like this at the jobs summit in Butte that (former U.S. Sen.) Max Baucus put on a few years ago,” Mansfield Center communications fellow Matthew Olson said. “So we did a Google search: graphic-recorder-energy-conference. Alece popped right up and had the best work, so we called her.”

Olson said with many of the Asia-Montana Energy Summit participants speaking English as a second language, the conference planners sought multiple ways to ensure the seminars got through to the audience.

“This way, everyone can see the talks graphically represented,” Olson said. “It’s easier to understand and follow.”

Each of Birnbach’s murals will be scanned into a PDF posted on the Mansfield Center’s website for at-leisure perusal. But after each conference, audience members would come up to snap their own pictures.

Birnbach starts a few minutes before each session by writing the seminar title and participants. Then she starts marking big ideas or points of emphasis each speaker makes. She jots ideas about topics on a small sticky note she moves across the big sheet as she draws.

Most ideas also get a graphic – locomotives, chain links, signposts and globes highlighted a discussion of railroad business expansion. Each idea gets written down in a different color and style. Then she goes back with colored chalk to shade and emphasize particular points.

“I’m listening and synthesizing and drawing all the time,” Birnbach said. “The most important part is listening.”

Birnbach said she knows of about 500 people who provide similar services. She is based out of Denver with her own company,

“Clients mostly find me,” she said. “It’s a really fun job.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.