Structuring your thinking in three easy steps

Sometimes I’m asked to write or speak about something with very little preparation. In these situations, I need a tool that can help me:

  • Organize my thoughts quickly
  • Prioritize the wheat before the chaff
  • Maintain a coherent train of thought

I find a very useful structure for archiving this to be what I call “three-by-three”: Three main points with three subpoints each.

  • Forcing myself to keep to a structure will make my thoughts flow more quickly. Coming up with three ideas isn’t hard, so I quickly get something down on paper. Limiting myself to three points forces me to cut out less important ideas, and when I can’t think of a third point at any one level, I can leave it blank, knowing that I will revisit it later
  • Using a simple cookie cutter approach allows me to spend more time with the important preparations for the talk, or the important work with the article: iterating over the points I want to make. Nothing improves a talk faster than practice. Nothing improves an article faster than reading it out loud. Deliver early and deliver often.
  • Finally, using a simple structure like three-by-thee allows me to clearly get my point across. If I’m writing an article, I can use bullet points or headlines for the points. If I give a talk, I can count down “the number of things I want to talk about” on my fingers. And with only three things to remember, the audience has an easier time following what I’m saying.

Of course, any form can be limiting, especially when you’ve worked with the material for a while. So I have some variations of the three-by-three structure that I often use:

  • Three-plus-three-by-three-plus-three: The middle part of an argument needs to be the most substantial one, so I can fractally subdivide this further into three-by-three arguments.
  • Three-times-three-plus-one: It’s often good to end on something different, a counterpoint of some sort. I often add a “zinger” to the end of a three-by-three talk
  • Let it go: As I iterate over something that started out as a simple three-by-three structure, I often find that it no longer no longer lets me express what I want. Then, as with any rule that get in the way, I break it.

I use the three-by-three structure in my workshops on how to present, as an assignment for the workshop attendants. This greatly reduces the time before they can start practicing their talks and get to that really great, quick presentation.

Copyright © 2010 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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  • Ram Yoga

    Great that you posted this. This technique is so simple, yet so powerful.

  • http://twitter.com/thomanil Thomas K Nilsson

    Nice tip, will try it myself. :) Did you cook the technique up by yourself or did you find it somewhere else?

  • http://www.johannesbrodwall.com/ Johannes Brodwall

    Thanks for the comment. It’s probably something I read somewhere, but I’ve forgotten it. Ram and I rediscovered or invented the technique when we designed the course in presentation.

  • http://www.johannesbrodwall.com/ Johannes Brodwall

    Thank you. I would like to see your take on it as well. What would you emphasize about the structure?