Outlining for the Real World

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Using the power of three to create clarity in your thoughts and written word.

I have a confession to make. When I was a student, I didn't always outline before I started writing. Teachers would ask me to write full sentence outlines for the entire paper, and for me that felt so analytical. Where was the sense of flow and cadence? Where was the magic of inspiration in the moment of thought?

Now writing in the real world, outside of a school assignment that is, still requires a level of organization and preparation before you actually sit down to draft that email, memo, or letter. Without it, you will be formulating your thoughts as you go, which, at best, will require a lot of editing as you are revising and, at worst, reader confusion or miscommunication. In a school assignment, the teacher circles the confusing sentence or two; in business, your client, boss, or team members disregard your ideas and your opportunity for leadership is lost.

Therefore, an effective yet efficient organization strategy becomes helpful to help you lead through your written communication. Judith Humphrey in her book Speaking as a Leader calls this The Leadership Script. However, this idea is based on the ancient principle of the power of three.The latin phrase omne trium perfectum translates to "everything that comes in threes is perfect, or every set of three is complete." Because our brains seek patterns and because three is the smallest number number required for a pattern, three taps into our innate sense of form. The power of three forces your to prioritize and helps your audience with recall. Studies suggest that any more than that, writers and speakers will lose their audience!

omne trium perfectum: everything that comes in threes is perfect, or every set of three is complete.

1. Before you begin really drafting, write down your three main points in full sentences.

If your head is swirling, back up and brain dump a list of ideas you need to cover. This master list then can be categorized into in three major points.

2. If you need to subdivide more, create three supporting points for each main point.

These could be three reasons, statistics, examples, or action steps.

3. Arrange these sets in a logical order, keeping in mind your audience and purpose. For example, lead by explaining what you will do before you ask others to do something. Provide an establishment of the problem before you provide the solution steps.

Of course your full piece also needs to reflect the power of three: an opener, a middle (what you crafted from above), and a closer.

There. Now that's outlining for the real world.

Power of Three organizational chart
Tool kit: Writing with Grace

Resource : Visit the Resources tab to download a pdf of this chart in the Writing with Grace Tool Kit: The Power of Three.