Organize Structure Matters

Link & Learn

Some paragraphs throughout the course will be marked as examples, activities, required reading, or optional tips


  1. Organize Information
  2. Outline
  3. Use SMART Structure

We don’t like chaos.

Have you ever been frustrated while searching for something important in your junk drawer, in piles of paper on your desk, or in unlabeled boxes in the basement?

Chaos can make us uncomfortable not only in our physical surroundings, but also in our communication. Communicating works better when we follow a few basic organizing principles so our audience knows what to expect.

This chapter will introduce you to the following:

  • The importance of organizing what you say and write.
  • Three ways to organize your thoughts through outlining.
  • An organizing template that can be applied to nearly all business communications: the SMART structure.

Section OneOrganize Information

What if someone asked you to quickly memorize the following sequence of letters?


Chances are you’d struggle. The sequence of letters seems random; the groupings lack any clear pattern and display no discernible logic.

Now look at the same letters organized differently:


A rambling message shows that you are thoughtless and unprepared. A direct message shows that you are smart and capable

All are common acronyms, instantly recognizable and much easier to remember.

The way we organize our messages makes a big difference for our audience. If you’ve ever put a jumbled stream of thoughts into a voicemail, text message, or email, you’ve made the same mistake as the first sequence of letters above. Your message will require a lot of deciphering and may never be understood.

In the workplace, disorganized messages also reflect poorly on your professionalism and tarnish your company’s image. Your colleagues may perceive you as careless or lazy, perhaps even incompetent. Customers or other stakeholders may think less of your organization, resulting in direct financial losses.

The PLAN chapter introduced you to communicating with purpose and keeping your audience top of mind. This chapter focuses on organizing your workplace messages.

The work of organizing begins long before you put any words on a page, screen, or slide — just as planning a vacation can take weeks of effort before you begin the trip. Knowing your desired destinations is a start, but you also need an itinerary — a detailed plan for each leg of the journey

Constructing a solid message begins with establishing a communication itinerary, also known as an outline.

Organized information
is understood more quickly and

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Section TwoOutline

If you’re a “digital native” who grew up using on-screen communication, chances are you have developed some sloppy habits. Swiping, thumb typing, or otherwise spewing words onto the screen is just too easy, and be honest: how often do you edit or refine your message before you hit send?

When transposed to the workplace, this texting-influenced composition method is risky. Simply typing whatever comes to mind produces rambling messages that frustrate the recipient. Investing time in an outline will improve the clarity, flow, and brevity of your message. Outlining forces you to do your thinking first, which helps you identify your core message and eliminate all unnecessary information.

Here are three common approaches to outlining. None is inherently better than the others. Use the technique that works best for you—but use one of them. Without an outline, your message is like a trip without an itinerary: fun for you, maybe, but maddeningly hard to follow for your audience.

Top-Down Approach

Discipline your message structure.

Top-down outlining works well when you already know the main subtopics to address.

Mind Mapping

Associate visually.

Mind mapping is great when you want to visually explore multiple aspects of a topic or concept.

Bottom-Up Approach

Create order from chaos.

Bottom-up outlining is indispensable when you have lots of information but need to impose structure and direction.

Top-Down Outline

Outlining as Discipline

Suppose you work for a high-end retailer and your manager brings you a list of best practices for in-person sales pitches. She asks you to turn the list into a slide deck to show at the next meeting. Because you’re a polished communicator, you start with an outline before creating your first slide.


Here's a sample top-down outline for a sales pitch.

A top-down outline is perfect for this scenario. You have a clear idea of what your manager wants to say. All you need to do is put her ideas in logical order and provide sufficient support for each idea.

Sales Meeting
Sample Alphanumeric Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Build rapport
    2. State your purpose (This is where your core message and agenda go. See the “SMART Structure” section below.)
  2. Customer needs
    1. Identify the “job to be done”
    2. Establish the competitor’s performance
    3. Identify gaps in the competitor’s offering
  3. Product
    1. Describe superior head-to-head performance
    2. Introduce your product’s unique features
    3. Highlight other advantages: cost, quality, convenience, “cool factor,” etc.
  4. Summary and call to action
    1. Emphasize advantages of your solution
    2. Gain commitment to purchase

Need a refresher on alphanumeric outlines? Review Purdue OWL’s Types of Outlines: Alphanumeric Outlines.

Mind Maps

Outlining as Association

If your ideas are not fully developed, or if you’re more of a visual thinker, you may prefer a mind map to a formal outline.


The Process of Mind Mapping

  1. Write the main idea in the center of a blank page. This strategy gives you room to branch out in all directions.
  2. Identify subcategories of the main idea and assign each a keyword. Single words are more powerful and memorable. Choosing a single word forces you to think clearly and concisely.
  3. Draw branches from your central image with labels for your subcategories. Draw subbranches for the conceptual components of each category. Make use of color.
  4. Expand your subcategories with more branches and keywords. This will allow you to further refine your ideas.
  5. Draw curved branches. Straight lines feel mechanical; curved lines feel organic. You want your mind map to feel like a living, breathing organism.
  6. Add images to the branches and sub-branches if you’re more visual. Pictures capture ideas more succinctly and creatively than do words.
An example of a mind map. The central idea is Challenges of a Global Organization. Secondary ideas are Politics, Resources, Communications, Economy, and Culture. Each of these has several third-tier ideas extending from them.

Activity 2.1

Create a mind map of the sales presentation outline from the previous section. What is gained by the mind-map approach? What, if anything, is lost?

Bottom-Up Outline

Outlining as Creation

A wonderful antidote for writer’s block, bottom-up outlining can be used when writing alone or in a group. Follow three steps: brainstorm, cluster, and sequence.

1. Brainstorm. Think about your idea, and write down whatever comes to mind. Don't hold back. Capture all the facts, keywords, concepts, stories, analogies, diagrams, and related ideas you can think of.

2. Cluster. Next, look for patterns in your brainstormed list. Group related items together. Make clusters of meaning, and stay open to new ideas. Notice any unusual associations between facts.

3. Sequence. Finally, look at your clusters and sequence them in the way that will best achieve your purpose. Your sequence must be logical and different organizing logics demand different sequences.(See "Choose the Right Sequence" below.)

The following example illustrates the three steps in a bottom-up outlining process. The writer is a project manager who is creating an informative message that describes changes to his organization’s project reporting process. His audience is everyone in the tech support department.

End-of-Month Project Reporting Email


  • Reports now due on last day of month
  • Change takes effect immediately
  • Must list all people who worked on the project and their hours
  • Who determined the changes?
  • Why are the changes needed?
  • New section for status updates on all tasks
  • Whom to contact with questions?

Cluster (parentheses indicate clusters)

  • Reports now due on last day of month (What’s different?)
  • Must list all people on the project and their hours (What’s different?)
  • Who determined the changes? (Background)
  • Why are the changes needed? (Background)
  • New section for status updates on all tasks (What’s different?)
  • Whom to contact with questions (Implementation)


  • Why are the changes needed?
  • Who determined the changes?
What's different
  • Must list all people who worked on the project and their hours
  • New section for status updates on all tasks
  • Reports now due on last day of month
  • Change takes effect immediately
  • Whom to contact with questions
  1. Brainstorm
    • Reports now due on last day of month
    • Change takes effect immediately
    • Must list all people who worked on the project and their hours
    • Who determined the changes?
    • Why are the changes needed?
    • New section for status updates on all tasks
    • Whom to contact with questions?
  2. Cluster (parentheses indicate clusters)
    • Reports now due on last day of month (What's different?)
    • Must list all people on the project and their hours (What's different?)
    • Who determined the changes? (Background)
    • Why are the changes needed? (Background)
    • New section for status updates on all tasks (What's different?)
    • Whom to contact with questions (Implementation)
  3. Sequence
    • Why are the changes needed?
    • Who determined the changes?
    What's Different
    • Must list all people who worked on the project and their hours
    • New section for status updates on all tasks
    • Reports now due on last day of month
    • Change takes effect immediately
    • Whom to contact with questions

Choose the Right Sequence

Below, author Sandra Lamb’s six common ways to sequence a message are applied to the practical example of recommending the purchase of a new office computer. Which sequencing options best fit the purpose?


Logical Sequence Applied to a Computer Purchase

 Sequence Description Example


What happened first, second, and so on Itemize the computer models according to which ones you researched first, second, and so on. (Probably NOT the best way to share the information for this scenario.)


According to physical placement—the location of items in relation to other items Order the analysis according to their country of design or manufacture: model X is designed in China, model Y in South Korea, and model Z in the United States. (Again, probably not the best way to present the information.)


The pros and cons of different options Evaluate the various computer models by comparing features such as storage space, cost, screen size, reliability, and so forth. (This could be the best choice.)


Based on the steps of critical thinking; answering a series of “whys?” Answer a series of questions that are important to your audience: Why is storage space an important criterion? Why does this computer cost more than the other models? Why does this computer have low reliability scores?


Advancing from least to most important information or vice versa Sequence the information according to what matters most to your audience. If cost were most important, begin with cost and show how that narrows the choices, then continue with the next most important factors such as reliability and performance.

Cause and Effect

How causes interact with effects List the “causes” (or reasons) that led to the “effect” (the search for a new computer system), then present your recommendation. (In this case, cause-effect becomes problem-solution.)

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Convert Your Outline into Headings

Headings organize your message and serve as “index tabs” that make finding information quick and easy for readers. Use your outline to write your headings, tighten your key phrases, and make sure your points are grammatically and structurally parallel.

Technology is your friend here. Most word processors have an outlining feature that automatically converts your outline into a hierarchy of headings.


Activity 2.2

Create an outline by brainstorming, clustering, and sequencing your ideas on how a small business could take advantage of crowdsourcing. Create headings from the outline.

Section Three"SMART" Structure

After you clarify and sequence your content, refine your message by making sure it’s SMART.

In previous writing classes, you may have learned a three-part approach to writing an essay: introduction, body, and conclusion. We modify this approach to create a more business- and brain-friendly outline. We expand the “introduction” part by specifying three subparts: an attention getter, a key point, and an agenda. Then we rename the other two sections to create a mnemonic device: the SMART outline.

SMART is Story, Main idea, Agenda, Reasons, Tasks

Story | Main idea | Agenda | Reasons | Task

Take a minute to memorize this SMART structure.


Why should your audience spend precious time and attention on your message? This is the first question you must answer. Hook your audience by starting with a story, a shocking statistic, or a surprising observation—but keep it brief and make it relevant. No gimmicks, please. If you tell the story at the start and never mention it again, it’s gratuitous. Some communicators “bookend” their message by returning to their opening story at the end of the message. This creates symmetry and closure. Better still is to incorporate multiple touchpoints to your story throughout the message.

Main idea

Be bold and deliberate by stating your key point up front. Don’t “bury the lead,” a phrase journalists use when the central idea of the article appears anywhere other than the first paragraph. In professional settings, the audience wants the core message immediately, especially when it’s a recommendation.


An old public-speaking tip states that you should “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em” at the beginning of a speech. This concept is crucial to professional communication. Your agenda previews the body of your message—usually in one sentence—and prepares the reader for the main points you’re going to make.


Your reasons are the meat of your message. They are your main points supported by solid evidence and logic. Keep in mind the Rule of Three (see below) to ensure your message is simple and memorable.


Professional communication always ends with a task. What should the audience do based on your message? Your closing should not only summarize but also identify next steps (if appropriate).

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Two additional points will help you build strong outlines and hence powerful messages.

Follow the Rule of Three

Whether writing a long report or a short email, follow the advice of Bryan Garner, author of HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. He suggests that you start with three main points. Narrowing your scope forces you to focus before you write.

Garner also affirms that our brains prefer groups of three. Cognitive science backs him up, as reported by Harvard psychologist Susan Carey. Take advantage of this innate preference by outlining in groups of three.

Tell a Story, Especially in Oral Presentations

The oldest and most satisfying structure is the story. Presentation guru Nancy Duarte synthesized what she calls the “presentation form” after carefully observing the structure of high-impact speeches. Note how well Duarte’s presentation form matches our SMART outline.

 Step Example


Set the scene by describing the audience’s current world—the “what is” —including its problems or deficiencies. This could include a catchy account of a customer dilemma, or a carefully chosen series of telling statistics. The key is to get the audience’s attention and let them know you understand their reality.

Main idea

Clearly state your proposed solution—the “what could be.”


Provide a brief preview of the main points you’ll cover.


As you present each of your main points, emphasize the contrast between the audience’s current state and your proposed solution—the “what is” vs. the “what could be.”


Close with a statement of what the audience must do to achieve the future state.

The figure below illustrates Duarte’s presentation form.

A story arc has a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, there is an initial conflict. In the middle there is rising action and more moments of conflict. At the end, the action reaches its peak at the climax; then there is falling action until there is a resolution.

In Conclusion

Don’t leave your audience wandering hopelessly around in your message. Create an outline to organize and sequence your ideas. Use the SMART structure to build your outline and guide the composition of your message:

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Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.


Carey, Susan. 2009. “Where Our Number Concepts Come From.” The Journal of Philosophy 106 (4): 220–54. Accessed May 2022.

Gallo, Carmine. “Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, and the Rule of 3Forbes, July 2, 2012. Accessed August 2021.


Duarte, Nancy. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. New York: John Wiley, 2010.

Garner, Bryan A. HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012.

Lamb, Sandra E. Writing Well for Business Success. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015.

Minto, Barbara. The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking (3rd edition). Harlow: Pearson Education, 2009.


Purdue Online Writing Lab. “Types of Outlines and Samples.” Accessed August 2021.

The internet offers an abundance of free online mind-map tools such as these:


MacGrercy Consultants. “How to Make a Mind Map.” YouTube, published May 6, 2009. Accessed August 2021.