Tired of meetings? Free tools you can use to explain ANYTHING without having to make a call.

You’ve already probably seen the phrase “that meeting could have been an email” somewhere. Chances are that you even thought or even written down that phrase yourself many times, after many frustrating meetings or calls, after many meaningless Zoom calls, that ate up hours of your life. Most of the time, for tiny things that could have easily been written down.

Or if you are socially unfiltered like me, you probably even spelled that out loud while in a meeting — “why are we meeting to talk about this? This could have been a Slack message or an email”.

There is also the aggravating factor that you may or may not identify with: I can’t express myself clearly when I talk and it’s hard for me to pay attention when others are speaking, because I’m a visual person, I work at my full potential when using text and images (I’m also happier when I don’t have to be part of meetings or calls).

Note: This article is also available in video (but in Portuguese).

Is it possible to do “that meeting could have been an email” in practice?

How to explain, or show, or solve things that can’t simply be expressed by text?

I have something to tell you, with the tools and the process that I’ll show you in this article, it’s possible to explain anything by asynchronous* channels (email, text, chat, etc.), without having to resort to synchronous* channels (meetings, video calls or the worse thing that can happen in someone’s day: a phone call).

This process also empowers you to ask questions online effectively.

Without further ado, let’s get straight to the point (as opposed to meetings).

In this context, asynchronous refers to not blocking people’s time and not interrupting whatever task they are currently doing. Likewise, synchronous refers to grabbing people’s time and attention and interrupting their current tasks.

The Tools

This is the small list of tools and accounts that you will need to go meetings-free. Those tools are either completely free or freemium (you can work with them for a long time before going premium). Notice that some of those tools are available to all Desktop systems, and some of them only for Windows. This article assumes you use Windows (I may do a Mac and Linux update).

Mandatory Tools

Secondary Tools

Overview of the Process

  • Put in perspective one or more intents, subjects, problems, etc. that need to be discussed, solved, detailed, or whatever is the need, as long as they are all part of the same subject, for example: let’s say you are a software developer and you need to get more details about a new feature that your project manager requested. This is the intent.
Use a combination of Evernote, ScreenToGif, LightShot, and more!
  • Open Evernote and create a new Note.
  • Capture and detail your intent/need/problem/questions/suggestion/etc. using the combination of all tools:

For text, use Evernote editor’s bullet points, numbered lists, tables, colors, font styles, horizontal separators.

Capture selections of web pages or even whole web pages with the Evernote Web Clipper.

Take and annotate screenshots of your computer with LightShot.

Use ScreenToGif to capture, record and edit animated GIFs of screen captures, segments of videos or your mouse in action.

Record parts of a video or your screen, with audio (and even your microphone and webcam) and save to a MP4 video, using OBS.

Make whiteboard-like annotations and save them to a video, using both ZoomIt and OBS.

Paste the animated GIFs and static screenshots into the Evernote note, you can also attach any kind of file into the notes.

If you need to share bigger files, especially videos, and have them easily playable, add them into Dropbox.

  • Copy the shareable link of your Evernote note, if you want your note to be read-only

If you want the other parties to answer you directly into your note, invite them to View and Edit the Evernote Note

  • Send the note’s link to the involved parties or wait for them to answer directly into the Evernote Note
  • Rinse and repeat!

As you can see, everything revolves around using the power of Evernote, which allows having all kinds of media in a single “Note”. As soon as someone opens your note in their browser, your text, GIFs, images, attachments, will all be there, as if you had created a website around your intent.

Using all those different software and following all those steps seem complicated, right? Not really, because in general you just need a few clicks here and there (there is a lot of copy and pasting and a lot of bullet points in the process). This is what we will see next: how to really do all of this, step by step.

The Process Detailed

Introduction

Considering the number of applications involved, the best way to explain the whole process is with a practical example:

  • Context: You are a junior graphic designer and you have received a photo of a Dachshund dog and you were tasked with adding this dog onto another photo (a barrier), making a believable collage as if the dog were jumping over the barrier. The required tool to finish the task in Photoshop.
  • Problem: You are not experienced with image editing and you don’t know how to do that. You have tried many different things in Photoshop, and they simply… don’t work for you.

NOTICE: You don’t have to follow along in Photoshop and that’s not even the idea of this article, because the task described is just an example as if you were a graphic designer. But I do recommend that you follow along using the mandatory tools, even if you just write placeholder and nonsense things that all over the place, but please try to follow along using Evernote, LightShot, and ScreenToGif. This way, you will start getting the hang of the tools.

Evernote: Detailing the problem with Notes, attaching Photos, and drawing annotations on the Photos

Open Evernote, go to File, New Notebook, and create a new Notebook (a Notebook serves as a folder to store related Notes). Name it “Meetings” (or “Photoshop”, for example).

Afterward, click the “Meetings” notebook under “Notebooks” click the big “New Note” green button, or just press CTRL+N.

A blank Note called “Untitled” will appear on the right side. Click the note and on the right side, it will be active in the Editor. The Editor is where the magic happens. Click “Title”, write down something related to the topic of the meeting or to your problem, such as “Trying to make a weenie dog jump over a barrier with Photoshop”.

Start writing down what you have done, so whoever reads the Note knows what it’s about: “I have to add this photo of this Dachshund into this other photo of this obstacle and I have to make it believable as if the doge were really jumping over that barrier.”

Click the “+” icon in the toolbar, choose Photo and add both photos. You can also drag the photos from your file system (for example, from your Desktop) into Evernote directly. After you add the photos, you can also resize them, move them around, position them side by side, etc., it’s your choice.

Notice that you can attach many different kinds of media. In my opinion, the most powerful option is the “Attachment” option itself. With it, you can attach any file into the note, for example: PDFs, Word files, videos, and more. And a link to the embedded file is added where your cursor is currently at, so you can refer to that file right away, for example: “As you can see in this PDF file [PDF file here], we have this and that”. Not only that but the documents attached are expanded, so you can even read them while inside the Note. This is a very powerful feature.

Click the barrier photo to select it (blue outline), click the pencil icon that appears on top of it (or right-click and choose “Annotate this image”).

You are now in Evernote’s annotation tool. Use the annotation tools from the left toolbar and illustrate where you have to put the dog. Click “Save”.

LightShot: Taking screenshots and drawing annotations on them

Now you want to start describing what you have tried. You want to show that you tried to isolate the dog from the white background, but the tool that you are using in Photoshop is not respecting the dog’s curves. To make things worse, you don’t know the name of the tool. How to explain that? With a screenshot! And how do you quickly take screenshots and make them useable? With LightShot!

After you install LightShot (link provided above, in “Mandatory Tools”), check that it is open and running by going to your system trail (next to Windows’ clock in the taskbar). LightShot has a purple feather icon. If the application is not in your trail, just open Windows’ Start Menu, find LightShot, and click it, then make sure that it is in the trail. If LightShot is there, it’s up and running.

To take a screenshot with LightShot, simply press the “Print Screen” key from your keyboard. Depending on the keyboard layout, it may appear as “PRT SCR”. After you press Print Screen, you will be presented with a greyed-out screen and your mouse pointer saying “Select Area”.

Drag and drop your mouse around the area you want to take the screenshot.

After you highlight a certain region, will be presented with a toolbar with annotation tools. You can also adjust the region, by dragging it again or by moving it. If you want to cancel the screenshot, simply press ESC on your keyboard.

After you annotate the screenshot, click “Copy” in the LightShot toolbar (or click “Save”, to save the screenshot as a PNG file). You can also simply press the universal CTRL+C, while LightShot is still open. Then paste (CTRL+V) the screenshot into your Evernote Note.

ScreenToGif: Record your screen and mouse in action and save them as animated GIFs

After your failed first attempt to isolate the dog from the white background in Photoshop, you tried another tool from Photoshop’s toolbar. This tool is highlighting different parts of the dog in a weird shape, but never the complete dog, so you have no way to precisely select him.

But in order to show the “weird selection” that you are getting, you need to capture many different images from your screen, and you also want to show where you are clicking and the visual feedback provided by Photoshop. Screenshots could be taken and annotated, but you would need to take dozens of them. The solution? Record an animated GIF with ScreenToGif (link provided above, in “Mandatory Tools”)!

  • Open ScreenToGif, click “Recorder”
  • Drag ScreenToGif’s recording view frame onto the desired area that you want to record. You can also adjust the view frame size by adjusting the window size. The final GIF will have the same dimensions as the view frame size.
  • After positioning, click “Record” or press F7.
  • Perform the actions that you want to perform.
  • After you finish everything that you wanted to capture, click “Stop” or press F8.

ScreenToGif is not only a screen recorder, it also has all the tools you need to edit and adjust the recordings. On the bottom, you have the timeline with all your captured frames and in the middle, the currently selected frame.

ScreenToGif timeline tips:

  • To play/stop the timeline, press Space.
  • After a frame is selected in the timeline, you can navigate to the left and right frames by using your keyboard’s Left and Arrow keys, or by simply clicking frames with the mouse.
  • You can select multiple frames by holding CTRL, then clicking individual frames.
  • To select a whole range of frames at once, click the first frame you want to select, hold SHIFT, then click the last frame of the selection.
  • You can drag and drop frames around, to modify the capture.
  • You can delete frames by pressing Delete.

When capturing our GIF we added too many frames that don’t make any difference. Let’s select those frames and remove them, to keep our GIF straight to the point.

The GIF now showcases the problem we are facing. To save it, simply click “Save as”, choose “Gif”, select the destination folder, type the file name and click “Save” (or press Enter).

Attach or drop the GIF into the Evernote Note. As you can see, even while you are editing the note, the GIF keeps playing. This is very useful to showcase most problems and situations that involve digital content.

Final Touches and Sharing Evernote’s Note!

Write down your questions and what you need to know, otherwise all of this would be pointless. And then finally generate a shareable link to your note:

  • While the Note is open, click “Share”
  • Enable the “Shareable link”
  • Click “Copy link”.
  • And that’s it. You can now send this link to anyone, even if they don’t have an Evernote account, because they are able to read the note in their browser!
  • Do you want to see how does it look in the browser? You can see my note here.

You can also invite other Evernote’s users directly (if they have an Evernote account), and give them either read-only permissions or permission to view and edit the Note, this way, they can answer and help you directly into Evernote, and you are going to receive the changes all inside Evernote (they can even add their own GIFs, attachments, so on and so forth).

A few minutes later…

After getting an answer from our co-worker, our work as a junior graphic designer succeeded and we managed to make the weenie dog jump over the fence, YAY!

How to convince your co-workers or your boss to also do all of this and start having fewer meetings?

For all of this to work, all the involved parties must agree in exchanging information like this. They may or may not use the same tools.

If you see everything that I showed you in this article, all of this still seems cumbersome and complicated. But it’s just the initial impression because of the number of steps involved in the tutorial itself. As with any new ability and any new things we have to learn, our brain gets lazy and tries all kinds of excuses to make us go back to what we are comfortable with. I promise you after you get the hang of it and after you get used to all the shortcuts, all of this can take a few minutes, and in some situations, even seconds (open Evernote, new note, take a screenshot here and there, annotate, type something, share the note, done)!

It’s all about being willing to change and being adapted. It may take a few tries, but after a few meetings replaced by this type of exchange, the process gets very natural. For example, I currently work in a great company, with great people, and we barely do meetings. Most of the time I just send documents and notes in the way that I described here — and they accept and welcome it.

The most common argument I get against this process is that it’s just more convenient to call. If you think about it, the process involved in a call apparently is simpler: (1) open software, (2) call, (3) speak, (4) bye.

But beyond those apparently harmless 4 steps, there’s always the scheduling, the interruption of the current productivity flow of the involved parties, small talk, getting to the point, technical issues and connection disruptions, and lack of tools to showcase specific situations. Or even worse, what about unscheduled calls? You have to think about interrupting the flow if someone is currently focused on a task, the social anxiety, invading personal boundaries, and other related issues.

Conclusion

It all starts with the will to be more productive and especially to respect the time, the needs, and the personal space of others. It’s also the need to adjust and improve your workflow and make it work in favor of your strengths.

It’s also more expressive. And better than that: you end up documenting all your meetings and creating a knowledge base.

Of course, it’s not possible to kill all meetings and calls, especially considering that there are so many factors involved, so many cultures and differences.

I want your Feedback!

  • If you have learned a single thing from this article, please let me know.
  • What is your point of view regarding all of this?
  • I didn’t write anything about OBS (capture video, audio, and webcam), Dropbox (share big files), and ZoomIt (screen whiteboarding while recording videos), because this article got longer than I anticipated. Do you want me to write about them?

Extras

  • This article and tutorial were produced using the tools and the process described here.
  • How did I record the ScreenToGif screen while using ScreenToGif to record another part of my screen? I captured a video of my screen with OBS, and then I captured the video with ScreenToGif again, and then I edited the GIF about editing with ScreenToGif using ScreenToGif. It’s like screenception all over the place!
  • Writing all of this took me a lot of time and effort, because being used to something is one thing, and then writing about this thing is a completely different monster.
  • Evernote tip: Right-click an image -> Open, to open the image at full size. You can also choose Save As to save the image file on your computer (original size).
  • Evernote tip: If you added annotations into an image or photo, you can click to annotate it again and in the annotation editor you can edit or remove the annotations (do not forget to click “Save” again). Evernote annotations are not destructive!
  • ScreenToGif tip: You can capture additional frames into the current project/GIF, click “Insert Screen Recording” in the top bar (or press CTRL+SHIFT+N). This allows you to perform separate actions, in different regions of the screen and still have them all into the same GIF.
  • ScreenToGif tip: You can resize your frames, add annotations, crop frames and more, by using the tools in the “Image” tab at the top.
  • LightShot tip: you can change the global hotkey to take screenshots with it, by right-clicking its tray icon, Options, and then setting a new hotkey.

Video Tutorial (in Portuguese)

Autistic Savant software engineer with 25 years of development experience. By night, a game developer and artist.