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How to Make Sense of a Flood of Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

When I began to get serious about professional speaking, it was clear to me that regardless of how much I knew about my subject (teaching people how to change), that I had a lot of research still to do–on professional speaking itself. I needed to get much more familiar with types of events, presentation practices, ways to structure talks, compensation, how to deliver the most value for my audiences, and so on. To that end, I started reading books and articles and hunting down videos to watch online. A flood of information began pouring in, and I found myself coming up with a steady stream of ideas for presentations and ways to connect. The problem then was to find a way to make sure I could use everything I was getting, that it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten.

This is the same situation a person runs into, for example, when writing a book, getting immersed in a new topic, planning a business, or organizing a large event. What do you do with all this information?

You outline it.

Why an outline?
To make use of a lot of information, we need to categorize it. This isn’t just for convenience: our brains are used to dealing with just a few things at a time. (The limit used to be thought to be around 7 items, but it turns out it’s probably more like 4: for example, see .)  So if I have 2,000 individual pieces of information to keep track of, I’m going to want to group them into few enough categories that I can easily navigate through the whole thing. Within those categories, I’m still going to have hundreds of items, so I need to group that information further, and so forth. These categories-within-categories make up an outline.

Once I have my outline, I may have sections that have a special purpose, like a to do list (or items to add to my main task management system, whatever that is), questions that need to be answered, people I’ll want to remember, and so on. The great thing about using an outline for this is that I can find a piece of information whether I know what I’m looking for or not. For example, here’s a screen shot of part of my outline for my speaking business. You can click on it to view it at full size. Each of the little folder icons represents either a category or a chunk of text (or both).

If I’m putting a new topic together, I’ll be looking at my Speaking section under “delivery techniques,” and I’ll be reminded of the tip about having one key point under “structuring a talk.” If, in a different situation, I’m trying to remember exactly what I thought was important about structuring a talk, my outline will make the information easy to find.

Creating the outline is easy
The actual work involved in putting an outline together isn’t hard, because all you have to do is take one thing at a time and decide where you want to put it. If you don’t already have a good place to put it, you make one up. If one part of your outline is getting too full, you break things down into a greater level of detail. If you have too many branches off of one item, you can group them into larger branches, for instance grouping a bunch of recipe ideas for an event into desserts, entrees, side dishes, and so on.

When I’m gathering information or brainstorming ideas, I usually start by taking down a whole lot of unstructured notes. Whenever I’m ready, whether with all of it at once or just one section, I can start putting those notes into an outline.

Of course, you’ll need something to create the outline in. Less complicated outlines can be kept in a word processing program, but what’s more useful is a specialized kind of program called an outliner. The screen shot you see is of a free one I’ve been using called Treepad Lite, which you can get at . There are more sophisticated outliners too, and I’ll probably upgrade to one of those before too long. Suggestions are welcome.

Outlines are made up of “nodes.” Each node can contain information and can also contain other nodes. With a good outliner program, you can have as many levels of nodes-within-nodes as you need, which means that you can branch or group or expand your outline however and whenever you want to.

If the information you’re gathering is meant to end up as a single written piece in the end, I can wholeheartedly recommend Scrivener, which is a kind of hybrid outliner-word processor that can take a lot of material and help you cook it down into something that flows from beginning to end.

In the second article in this series, I’ll talk about the alternatives to outlining and the pros and cons of each.



  1. Mark Dykeman  •  May 19, 2012 @2:31 pm

    I’m assuming you’ll cover mind mapping as one of the alternatives…

  2. Luc  •  May 20, 2012 @10:07 pm

    Yes, that’s definitely on the list (under “visualizing the data”). I’ve personally never gotten a lot out of mind mapping or concept mapping–have you had more luck with it?

  3. Chris Ewing-Weisz  •  May 21, 2012 @12:33 pm

    Tree Pad looks great, but doesn’t seem to have a Mac version. I’m also wondering abut it’s ability to sync across devices (will something I did on my mobile be available on my desktop?). Can you comment?

  4. Luc  •  May 21, 2012 @1:05 pm

    Hi Chris,

    I had the same thought: I’d love to be able to work with and sync outlines using my Android phone, but I haven’t found a good solution for doing that. It seems to me like the kind of thing that someone, somewhere, must surely have tackled, but the only thing I’ve found is Microsoft OneNote, which a lot of people seem to like and which is available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, but which costs $75 if you don’t have a Microsoft Office version 2003 or later. I do have Office 2003 on my laptop, but the desktops I use have older versions, so I’m out of luck unless I want to buy them extra copies.

    If you come across something else that works, please comment here: I’d be very interested to hear about it.

    In terms of Macs, there’s a program called OmniOutliner that looks excellent, though unfortunately it costs $40 for the standard version. It’s reviewed by Lifehacker here.

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