How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline

Before all you “non-writers” out there cringe at this topic and then hit the delete button, hear me out. Outlines have value beyond what they do for someone making a living out of writing. In fact, outlines have a use for EVERYONE. Yes, writer’s find them immensely valuable. So do ministers, English teachers and executives who regularly give presentations. Beyond the obvious, outlines also provide immense benefit in a variety of other contexts from conversations with your kids or spouse to thinking through a topic you might be struggling to understand. Why? Outlines help organize thoughts. Whether or not those thoughts eventually turn into a book, article or presentation is irrelevant.

Whether speaking to a group or preparing to write an article or report, outlines provide terrific guidance and direction that help increase an individual’s ability to focus. Outlines help me prepare for speaking engagements as well as for writing blog articles, devotions and Bible studies. I have even used outlines when I need to talk with my boys about something (using an outline helps keep the talk focused more on teaching and learning and less on nagging), as well as when I have multiple items to discuss with my husband when we have some windshield time or when I need to confront an individual about a touchy subject.

But here’s the deal with an outline; just like with a road map, having an outline does no good when it isn’t followed. When an outline is created and used properly, it provides an effective tool for organizing thoughts and ideas. The end result? A well-thought-out speech, paper, post, talk, etc. that clearly communicates to readers and listeners and maybe even motivates them to action. To that end, the following list provides 5 tips on how to create an outline that will aid you in effectively communicating your thoughts and ideas regardless of the context.

  1. Don’t include too much detail. Remember that outlines do not include every word you will say or write. For speeches, use fewer words and sub-points. For writing, more detail is okay and can be helpful when the time comes to write the actual text. Remember that outlines provide the base on which you will build the final product.
  2. Choose the right format. When using a computer, the bullet and numbering feature on most word processing programs provides a logical format for outlines. When jotting down an outline on a slip of paper, keep the system simple. A solid format exists to increase readability, which is important since outlines are often used for quick reference during a presentation or talk.
  3. Handwriting sometimes produces better results than typing. Don’t think that outlines must be neatly typed in order to be legitimate. Handwriting sometimes connects more with the conscious mind, while typing can almost become too easy thus resulting in failure to think as deeply as a subject sometimes requires.
  4. Be consistent. Avoid blending outline formats. In other words, don’t start using roman numerals and then switch to digits for the same level points. Again, using the bullet and numbering features in your word processing program can help with consistency when typing outlines. When writing them by hand, well, the consistency is all on the individual then. The point being that simplicity and clarity are crucial for an outline to be effective.
  5. Rewrite occasionally. If you’re like me, you’ll write in notes while reviewing yoru material by your points after you’ve created the outline. Doing so eventually creates a difficult-to-read mess, so rewriting becomes necessary. With that being said, I do allow for a certain number of “extra” notes on an outline, especially for points I want to stand out and to be sure and cover.

When the time comes to use the outline, whether for speaking or writing, most people discover that time spent creating an effective outline greatly reduces the time spent creating the main event (speech, essay, article, etc.). For a piece of writing, a well-done outline helps writers stay on topic. For a speech or talk, effective outline provide a confident way to remember points and to Struggle Through the Fear of Public Speaking. (Note: When speaking to a group, consider note cards for ease of handling.) For personal application such as talking to your kids or spouse, an outline can help you stay on topic, not nag and make the most of the time together.

When I take the time to create an effective outline, the final product comes out so much more smoothly. In fact, done right, the time spent creating an effective outline will be where the most time is spent. In other words, an effective outline is where the bulk of the work takes place. You are forced to do your thinking in advance, which experience tells me usually produces better results anyway. In the end, the talk or speech or presentation or report or article turns out more focused and solid when an effective outline serves as the base.

DISCUSSION: What other suggestions do you have for improving communication skills?

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