Outlining Gone Wrong
Years ago, I faced one of the most difficult speaking engagements of my life: my father’s funeral. Though not the largest audience I have spoken to, the importance of this assignment was staggering.
With only two days to prepare, I started building an outline of my remarks, as I had dozens of times before—and I hit a brick wall.
It just wasn’t coming together.
I would start creating an outline structure, and then get stumped. I became concerned. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d delivered hundreds of talks before, but even drawing on my experience and all the tools I had learned in school, I completely failed to come up with a structure that felt right.
On the morning of the funeral, I still didn’t have my remarks prepared. My nervousness was growing. Feeling frustrated and stressed, I got up early and went into a room by myself to try one more time. With only a few hours left, I had to come up with something suitable to say about the man who had raised me, the father I loved.
Despite my mounting desperation, I put pen to paper and
just started writing. I ignored any semblance of structure. As I wrote, random memories and impressions that represented my father’s life spilled out onto the page. I wrote anything and everything I could think of. After just a few minutes, I had a list of 25–30 core things I knew I wanted to talk about.
As I pored over the list, I began to see connections between ideas and an organization began to form. The items represented three main attributes my father possessed and these attributes would form the structure: honesty, hard work, and finally, devotion to faith and family.
The creation of my talk now moved along quickly. My anxiety of a few hours earlier was gone, replaced by confidence and clarity. By the time I reached the podium, I felt totally prepared as I spoke of Three Attributes of a Wonderful Father.
I put pen to paper and just started writing.
My experience at my father’s funeral stuck with me. I hadn’t set out to discover anything new, but the process was different than anything I had done before and provided a lot of food for thought.
Why had the traditional approach to outlines—the one I had learned in school and which I had used so many times before—failed to work for me? Had the emotions or the circumstances forced me to work differently?
The typical approach to outlines—moving from general-to-specific—I call top-down outlining because it starts with the top-level ideas and works to the more granular details. Most of us are used to top- down outlining. We start an outline list with roman numerals and fill in details as sub-items. It’s the process we learn in school; it’s intuitive and common.
Instead of moving from general to specific, try the opposite or from the bottom up.
But in this case, I had done the opposite. Instead of moving from general to specific, I ended up starting with specific details and then creating the general structure. What was it about this reverse outlining process that I had stumbled upon that made it work so well?
After some pondering and research, I learned that our brains do not assemble information in a linear fashion. Our brains organize information in neural networks of connected ideas. That is, they make connections between ideas or facts, then combine these connections into clusters of facts and ideas, then combining and connecting clusters to each other and so on.
Now, it would be presenter suicide to model your presentation on a neural network. We don’t peddle confusion or trade in blank stares! Imposing structure and order on the organic format naturally extant in our brains is essential to communicate clearly. Nobody wants to sit through a rambling jumble of loosely connected factoids that they have to try to organize themselves. Ultimately, you still need an outline—an organized and thoughtful flow of ideas. But there’s power in tapping your brain’s natural function to help you arrive at that destination.
Imposing structure and order on the organic format naturally extant in our brains is essential to communicate clearly.
Bottom-up outlining follows our brain’s natural way of assembling and categorizing information.
I came to call the process I discovered speaking at my father’s funeral, bottom- up outlining. Bottom-up outlining is different from the traditional approach. It starts out messier, following the way our brains naturally assemble and categorize information, but instead of imposing structure at the outset, the bottom-up approach imposes it after all the relevant information is on the table.
As excited as I was about my revelation, I wasn’t ready to abandon the advantages of traditional outlining. Rather, I concluded that there are two equally valuable outlining approaches, and that to have the greatest chance for success—every speaker really should master both.
With top-down outlining, you move from big ideas to small ideas, from broad concepts to minor supporting details. Metaphorically speaking, you first create and label several large baskets, and then you place small baskets within the large baskets, followed by placing small items in the small baskets, and so forth.
Three top-down approaches are most frequently used.
Tree Structure Outlining
Sample Traditional Outline
Traditional top-down outlining segments are written as abbreviated text, with the main broad ideas numbered as Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) and secondary items labeled as A, B, C and then 1, 2, 3, etc. to help distinguish between the different levels of information. This is the most commonly taught and used form of outlining.
An advantage of the traditional approach is that all common word processing and document creation applications have built-in outlining tools that follow this style of outlining.
A second form of top-down outlining is mind mapping. A mind map ends up looking something like a spider web.
To create a mind map, draw a circle in the middle of a paper and write the topic of your speech inside the circle. Then draw lines out to additional circles or branches surrounding the central circle, one for each of the broad section headings of the presentation.
Sample Mind Map
Follow this same process outward from the major section headings by drawing lines out to additional information items until all the major and minor categories and elements of information are included. The center-out structure creates a radial hierarchy from the most summary information to the most detailed. Use colors, symbols, typographical cues (bold, italics, caps, etc.), shapes outlines and codes to create additional hierarchy and emphasis.
The third form of top-down outlining resembles a tree (like a pedigree chart), with the title in the tree-trunk position, the broad categories (or headings) represented as major tree branches, and the additional smaller units of information represented as smaller branches of the tree.
All of these top-down outlining approaches have merit in the right application; that is, when the major categories of information are quite obvious. But what about the times when the major categories are not obvious? That’s when bottom-up outlining comes in.
Contrasted with top-down outlining, bottom-up outlining moves from small ideas to big ideas, with small ideas coming first and big ideas coming as they distill naturally from the small ones. Bottom-up begins with a random, unstructured brain dump of all the details. Creativity gurus call this loosening. I call it creating a free list.
A free list is an unstructured listing of information to include in a message. The free list can result from data gathering (e.g., interviews, questionnaires, or database searches) or from brainstorming. When creating a free list, consider your message objectives, as well as the audience needs and wants. Think of the information needed to answer all relevant questions (which I call the five W and two H questions), who, what, where, when, why, how, and how much? Be thorough and detailed in your thinking.
While creating a free list, don’t worry about sequence or organization—just add the ideas to the list as they come to your mind. You’ll organize them later.
After you have purged your ideas comes a phase of constricting as the items are clustered into categories and then sequenced as appropriate. It’s something like dumping a deck of cards onto a card table. Quick analysis is enough for you to perceive that all the reds go together, then all the blacks, etc. Once the clusters have taken shape, you are able to address each cluster in your desired sequence, from small number to large.
The finished outline may look very similar to what you ended up with from the top-down approach. But, you used a different route to get there.
You don’t want the wrong kind of outline.
Mastering Outline Methods
After creating an outline, whether from the top down or bottom up, take a few minutes to evaluate it for content and structure.
First, for every parallel cluster of branches extending from a heading, check to see (a) if you have included all relevant content and (b) if you have excluded all irrelevant content. After making these two evaluations, add or delete content as appropriate.
After creating an outline, take a few minutes to evaluate it for content and structure.
Second, after checking the content, check the structure. Determine (a) if the clustered items are all mutually exclusive and logical “siblings” and (b) if all the items are in the most logical sequence. Move out-of-place items either vertically or horizontally, depending on whether they need to be in a different “family generation” or in a different sequence.
Performing these content and structure checks ensures that your outline is complete and structurally sound.
Does Structure Matter?
Even though we may get the gist of a disorganized presentation, and somehow manage to figure out what the speaker is trying to say, we can tell the difference when the speaker is unprepared. The credibility of disorganized speakers takes a hit when they deliver chaotic content. It shows disrespect for the audience’s time and attention.
Organized lists are remembered twice as much.
Further, research confirms that organization matters. For example, when organized and disorganized lists of words are shown to audiences, the audiences who see the organized list can usually recall about twice as many words as those who see the disorganized list. Research also confirms that readability is negatively affected when readers encounter disorganized text in business messages (Sierra Frischknecht and William H. Baker, “Enhanced vs. Undifferentiated Text: A Study to Assess the Effect on Readers,” Proceedings of the 76th International Conference of the Association for Business Communication, October 2012, Montreal, Quebec).
When to Use Different Outlining Methods
Both top-down and bottom-up outlining are legitimate, and both should be learned and applied as appropriate. Let’s say, for example, you are creating a presentation on your company’s successes and failures over the past year. Most likely, you will create a simple two-part presentation with failures first and successes second. All you have to do is develop both lists, put them in an appropriate sequence, and you have a good outline.
Develop a list, categorize the ideas, and then sequence them into a logic order.
Things might be more difficult if you needed to present something more ambiguous like key challenges facing your company in the next two years. Rather than simply reporting on the past, you will need to anticipate the future, include subjective and persuasive elements, and be sensitive to any cultural or political issues that relate to your remarks. This type of complexity doesn’t lend itself to an intuitive and simple outline without some effort.
Rather, you’ll be better off taking time to first create your free list of topics and details up for consideration. Then, after developing the list, you can categorize the ideas (likely pruning some of them) and sequence them into a logical order—such as most important to least important, or chronological order.
This bottom-up process—create a free list, categorize the list, and sequence the categorized list—is a logical and simple way to create the body of presentations that don’t have an obvious and inherent information structure.
These two outlining methods should always be a part of a presenter’s toolkit and be used whenever and wherever they can be of value.
The Benefits of Outlining
Knowing and using the two outlining methods is going to help you in three major ways: First, taking the time to outline can dramatically reduce your prep time developing a presentation. Second, good outlining helps ensure that presentations are complete and well organized, increasing the likelihood that they will achieve their intended purpose. Third, good presentations enhance your reputation as a presenter.
Taking the time to outline can dramatically reduce your prep time developing a presentation.
Learning to outline well should be high on the list of priorities for all people who want to improve their speaking ability in organizational settings.
Sierra Frischknecht and William H. Baker, “Enhanced vs. Undifferentiated Text: A Study to Assess the Effect on Readers,” Proceedings of the 76th International Conference of the Association for Business Communication, October 2012, Montreal, Quebec.