Stop sweating over structure with this 5-minute technique

So. You’ve got to write a long, detailed report, containing lots of complex ideas. Where do you start?

How do you know what’s most important? How do you know what to ditch and what to keep?

How do you even begin to structure it?

Here, I’m going to reveal a simple trick for cutting through the clutter and getting things straight in your head.

A client I’ve been coaching recently came to me with exactly this problem. He’d been tearing his hair out while planning a long, complex document. The furthest he’d got was creating a “mind map”.

But it hadn’t worked. In fact, the mind map had just confused him even more.

And I’m not surprised. It filled a page of A4 and looked like a more acronym-heavy version of this:

feature-81-mind-map

I couldn’t for the life of me fathom what the main topic was, let alone what he wanted to say about it.

Some writers love mind maps. Frankly, I hate them.

I suppose they might be a good brainstorming tool. But my problem with mind maps is this: I have no idea how you turn that pile of mental vomit into something resembling the linear, logical structure that written work requires. And, clearly, neither did my client.

The simple, powerful alternative to a mind map

But with a little probing from me, my client went away with a skeleton structure for his piece. I’ve adapted the details slightly to respect confidentiality, but here’s how our conversation went:

Me: Let’s leave the pile of mental vomit aside for a moment. Tell me this: if you only had one tweet – 140 characters – to get your message across, what would you say?

Client: That I’m recommending our firm doesn’t change its strategy.

Me: Great – that’s your first line. So why no change?

Client: Because it will have a negative impact on decisions people have already made. I’d probably also want to talk about the benefits of sticking with the strategy.

Me: So we’ve got our first section. Now. What if I gave you another 140 characters. What would you say?

Client: That we might want to consider some tweaks to the strategy as an alternative to overhauling it completely. I could then list and discuss those potential tweaks.

Me: Great. That’s your next section covered. And if I gave you another 140 characters?

Client: I’d probably want to highlight some of the risks of my suggested approach.

Me: Perfect. What next?

Client: Er, I think that’s all I need to say.

So in less than five minutes we went from a pile of mental vomit to this:

1. No need to change the strategy

    Negative impact on decisions already made
    Benefits of sticking with the strategy

2. Possible tweaks?

    List and discuss!

3. Risks of sticking with the strategy

    List and discuss!

Which would you rather work from?

Try the three-tweet technique and let us know how you get on.

Interested in business writing coaching? Contact me on 020 8127 1477.

9 Responses to “Stop sweating over structure with this 5-minute technique”

  1. I like it Claire, just as I like your description of mind maps, and your demonstration of how, while they may be appropriate for extending ideas, they are not at all appropriate for linear structure.

    My strategy for similar has always been to imagine I am writing a short letter about it – deciding what information needs to come first and so on. I guess this is the update for the modern world.

  2. Sorry, that should read ‘Clare’.

  3. Dunstan says:

    Personally I *do* find mind mapping helpful, but use it as a way of sorting and categorising rather than just recording a brain dump. In particular, if I’ve taken sequential notes recording a meeting, transcribing them into a mind map enables things said at different times to be grouped together by subject. It can also be revealing as to where decisions weren’t made.

    Perhaps I don’t use it as a mind-mapping tool, but as a hierararchical framework.

  4. Teresa North says:

    Thanks, Clare. Good advice which I’ve already put to use today in the overview of a lengthy strategy document. It is now much improved.

  5. RosSumiati says:

    Hi, i think more familiar with using mind map, but want to try to use your three-tweet technique. Thanks

  6. Please tell me you didn’t make that diagram yourself just to illustrate the article…

  7. davide says:

    Awesome and simple.

    I love mindmaps as a complement to brainstorming tools.

    But I always go back to a linear structure when I need to point out the main parts of my speech.

    Especially to fix in my mind and not get lost.

    D

  8. Tom says:

    Hi Clare, this popped up in my LinkedIn mail and I had to go read it, as I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. While I’m in the mind maps are good for brainstorming camp, you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to structure. I often tell people who are stuck on something to put down their pens or keyboards and just imagine they are explaining the piece to someone face-to-face, or writing a short email to someone about it. I like your tweet approach even better.

  9. Wayne Mizerak says:

    Mind maps, I call them cognitive maps, are very useful, when done well. A good cognitive map has structure, prioritizes information, and show inter-relationships between pieces of information. Cognitive maps are essential for identifying blindspots and gaps in information. When one sits down to write, however, the cognitive map is a resource, not a dictator. The situation being addressed is the sole determinant of what, in the cognitive map, is useful. In this regard, the questions you asked are very helpful. The most important thing needs to be said first. Since people are busy, they will do not always read the whole thing. Think, if they stop early, will they have heard the essentials?

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