Mastering structured communication is fundamental for effective persuasion, leadership and problem-solving. In management consulting, structured communication in business is pounded into every new associate that joins the firm. In marketing, advertising, technology and financial services alike, the ability to articulate clear thoughts is highly-regarded in individual presentation and client deliverables.
Of course, nobody is just ‘born-with-it’. Many mistakenly believe seamless interviews, slide decks, emails and proposals stem from naturally gifted writing or speaking talents. The reality is, anybody can communicate a persuasive message with the right balance of rigorous structure and empathy to the audience. You can leave all that fancy jargon and long-winded essays to university days.
So how do you begin to practice making your message jump off the page? Start with bullet points. Write everything in bullet points – shopping lists, to-do-lists, email drafts, skeleton slides for a PowerPoint presentation, meetings, interviews and the list goes on. It’s incredible how unstructured “brain mush” can suddenly piece together on a page, showing connection of ideas to develop a compelling story.
Here are 3 steps to get the most out of the humble black dot:
1. Cut the crap and prioritise
Whether you are writing a to-do list or a set of instructions, do an initial ‘brain-dump’ of bullet points.
Look at your brain dump of points and turn it into MECE (pronounced “me-see”), which stands for “mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive”. This framework structures your thinking to ensure each point is a separate and distinct issue, so your list is mutually exhaustive. If every aspect of the problem comes under each of the issues or a sub-issue, then your list is collectively exhaustive.
This sounds simple, but applying MECE can usually take a few iterations until each point is distinct. However, it’s a well worth the effort – MECE is a powerful tool to ensure your message is complete and void of confusion and overlap.
2. Tell a story
Once you’ve distilled the thoughts into MECE points, you can begin to craft a compelling story using ‘situation-complication-question-answer’. In line with the topic of this post, let’s rephrase this into a few bullet-points:
Start with a brief point about the situation or context of the issue. Before boring the reader, move onto the complication or the burning platform which directly addresses the need for change, action or attention. Bring it all together with a crisp question or answer about the problem you are trying to solve.
Now that your points have a structure, you might bring in a fitting metaphor, example or colloquial banter to re-enforce the message. Eventually, with practice and over-analysis of 20 bullet points, you’ll slowly and truly remove a few black dots as the story begins to make sense.
3. Draw a graph
Nothing tells a story better than a graph. Graphs are a brilliant way to instantly show progress, comparisons or the magnitude of issues and impact. If the bullet points don’t do enough justice to the clarity of the message, a graph is the best option.
I’m a huge fan of waterfall, bar charts, pie graphs, the ‘why-how-what’ diagrams and decision trees. In most cases, if your message is simple, you don’t need data – just a very simple representation of the issue based on your own intuition.
The figure below shows an exponential graph below I once created for the Facebook event page of a party I was hosting. Whilst my intention was to ensure invitees responded to the event by the RSVP date, the graph still elegantly captured captured my subtle frustration towards last-minute ‘bailers’. Enough said.
Grab pen and paper, and start writing MECE lists that turn into communications that are as crisp as fresh new hotel sheets.
Start noticing the structure of emails, text messages and proposals; and if necessary, re-arrange the content to fit situation-complication-question-answer.
Carry a blank notebook and draw spontaneous graphs or your own graphical inventions with boxes, circles and arrows.
We all have thoughts, ideas, feedback and messages to deliver everyday – so it’s not like we are ever really short on content. The challenge, however, is structuring the content in a way which is direct, persuasive and engaging. So don’t underestimate the power of a humble bullet point and I look forward to hearing your structured feedback on this one.
Written by guest blogger, Sejal Jamnadas