Make Your Meaning Visible with the Right Outline

Whatever outline you choose to structure your ideas can make the difference between listing facts or making sense.

This distinction becomes visible when you use a tool like mindmapping to structure your ideas.

When you choose a “category outline” approach, you might typically write out a category heading at the top of a sheet of paper such as “Focus Areas”, and then list the items that belong to that category:

The same category outline is the approach most people use for their PowerPoint slides:

And the same category outline is what most people use to create their mind maps:

The problem?

Category outlines are good for some tasks, such as brainstorming ideas or making grocery lists (To buy: apples, oranges, milk).

But category outlines are bad for other tasks, such as telling a story or tying together fragmented information. They are also bad at presenting new ideas to the limited capacity of the working memory of your audience, represented by the eye of the needle here:

Just as your eye doesn’t know where to look first at the earlier PowerPoint slide, the mind doesn’t know what to look at first in this mindmap; and working memory is quickly overwhelmed.

You get much different results when you use a sentence outline. In this approach, you might write a thesis statement at the top of the page (“Adopt the plan”), and then write out in complete sentences your ideas about why or how your audience should adopt it:

In this approach, every idea you write relates to another idea in a logical way. The thoughts you write out in complete sentences tell a coherent story.

If you were to build out the same sentence outline in a mindmap, you would create a hierarchical map that looks something like this:

This organizes your ideas in a way that will ultimately make it easier for the limited capacity of working memory to process the new information, because you establish both the priority of the information and also a sequence — you would first present the thesis sentence, then the first topic sentence and then its supporting points; then the second topic sentence and its supporting points:

This form of outlining is built in to the BBP approach – you can see its shape in Act II of the BBP Story Template and also in the MindManager software version of the story template:

During a recent BBP e-Lesson, I worked live with a BBP Online member to outline his presentation using the mindmap version of the story template:

Once we had an initial structure in place, we quickly exported the mindmap into PowerPoint and began sketching the visual story across slides:

As we continue to work on this presentation in PowerPoint, we know we have established a clear underlying structure, and that we have broken up the information into digestible chunks that will be easy for an audience to digest.

This quick demonstration during the e-Lesson is an example of how the power of a sentence outline can create a solid foundation for clear and effective communication, no matter what tool you use.

In your next presentation, will you choose a category outline or a sentence outline to present your ideas? The choice you make will make the difference between listing facts or making sense – so choose your structure wisely.

(BBP Online members can access the full video of the e-Lesson at this page.)

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One Response to “Make Your Meaning Visible with the Right Outline”

  1. Terry Gault says:


    Thanks for the clear post on the power of creating an effective outline to a presentation.

    One thing I might add is that using an extended metaphor, while tricky, can help guide the audience along.

    I personally suggest that presenters distill the main idea of their presentation into a single sentence. They should say that sentence with strong emphasis at least once, but preferably three or more times. The audience is more likely to grasp and remember the main point of the presentation this way.

    Now if there is a story or metaphor that conveys the point of that sentence simply and with impact then it should be used as a recurring theme, both in terms of language and visuals. One of my clients talked about selling the various components of his company’s solution set much like his childhood dog would slowly work his way onto his bed. Starting with one paw, then the next – always watchful to see if he would be kicked off. If he weren’t stopped, the entire dog would end up on the bed. He suggested that his sales team approach their clients in the same manner – one paw (product set) at a time until the customer didn’t notice that the entire dog was on the bed, the entire product set had been implemented. He used a stuffed dog as a prop for his opener. Images of dogs were woven into the slides. He even had a tag line: “I want you to be the dog on the bed,” which definitely got a few laughs.

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