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The Outline Trap - Britannica and Brainstorming: by Jerry Weissman

Monday, May 28, 2012
posted by Geetesh at 9:30 AM IST

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One of the early lessons we all learn in school is how to make an outline; how to create that waterfall of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and lower case letters that cascade down to the bottom of the page, if not dozens of pages of interminable term papers. Thus we are forever programmed to arrange our ideas in a hierarchical order—in sharp contrast to what our brains do naturally: generate ideas in random order.

To demonstrate: as I sit writing this blog, I glance at a ball point pen on my desk. The logo on the pen reminds me that I got it at as souvenir at a business conference. I remember that I met a man at the conference who told me about a book on presidential politics. This reminds me that I had been planning another blog on the same subject, and so I open a file with the notes on that subject and…. you see where this is going. I’m sure that if you were to track your own thought patterns, you would discover the same winding, random path. That’s the way every human mind works: unstructured.

And yet, when business people sit down to develop a presentation, they immediately start to apply structure, in either a hierarchical outline form or by organizing a set of existing PowerPoint slides to create a new “deck”—each approach forces structure onto unstructured ideas.

In a prior post about how Woody Allen creates, you read that he and other artists let their random ideas flow unimpeded, note them as they occur, and then lay out the notes in a panoramic view. Mr. Allen tosses scraps of paper onto his bed, other film directors use storyboards, architects make papier-maché models, military officers use wall size maps, and businesses encourage employees to doodle their creative ideas on whiteboards during product development or strategy sessions. The Wall Street Journal reported that sales of IdeaPaint, a paint product that turns a wall surface into a whiteboard, have doubled since 2008. For your presentation development, you can do your brainstorming on a whiteboard, a computer screen or Post-it Notes as you generate your ideas, but what is as important as the free flow is that you see the ideas you generate in a panoramic or landscape view.

The simple reason for this part of the creative process is that our eyes are set side-by-side in our heads, making the landscape view more pleasing and open than the portrait view. If you start with an outline, the constricted view imposes a ranking sequence too early in the process. A panoramic view allows you to see the conceptual relationships among your ideas.

Britannica and Brainstorming

Even the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica has come to understand the importance of visual thematic relationships. The publisher of alphabetized—sequential rather than conceptual— reference works for almost 244 years, discontinued its print version in March and went digital. As part of the transition, they included a link map feature, shown above, that looks like a brainstorming session you might do on a whiteboard.

Walter S. Mossberg, the author of the Wall Street Journal's "Personal Technology" column, reviewed the new feature and wrote that the publisher, which "has always been expensive, and a bit stodgy...[in] order to make itself more relevant in a Wikipedia world…has produced a slick app…Perhaps the coolest feature is the link map, triggered from an icon at the top of each article page. This generates a spider web of icons representing other articles related to the one you were reading."

The 35,000 foot view shows patterns that lead to clear stories; an outline traps ideas.

Take the high road.


Jerry WeissmanJerry Weissman is among the world's foremost corporate presentations coaches. His private client list reads like a who's who of the world's best companies, including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix and many others.

Jerry founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988. One of his earliest efforts was the Cisco Systems IPO road show. Following its successful launch, Don Valentine, of Sequoia Capital, and then chairman of Cisco's Board of Directors, attributed "at least two to three dollars" of the offering price to Jerry's coaching. That endorsement led to more than 500 other IPO road show presentations that have raised hundreds of billions of dollars in the stock market.


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