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Roman Columns: The Technique of Clustering

Brainstorming will generate a host of ideas of varying importance, loosely related to one another. The first step in getting from this relative chaos to an organized, clearly focused presentation is a technique known as clustering.

Actually, we've already used clustering to a degree. In the previous group brainstorming example, every time the group exploded a concept into a series of related concepts, forming a group of linked circles on the whiteboard, they created a cluster. These clusters reflected the natural relationships among the ideas as they poured out during brainstorming: parents and children.

Clustering is a necessary technique for organizing any complex material for presentation to an audience. It's also an ancient concept dating back to the classic rhetoricians of Greece and Rome.

Some Clustering Happened While Walking Around the Forum

There's a story, probably apocryphal, about a Roman orator whose memory was legendary. (It may have been Cicero, although the documentation is sparse.) The orator often spoke in the Roman Forum extemporaneously for hours, without referring to a single note. His secret was a memory technique that is still used today. We can imagine him explaining it to a curious admirer in a dialogue like this: "You asked me how I can speak coherently at length without written notes. Did you notice today how I walked around the Forum as I spoke?"

"Indeed I did. I assumed you did so in order to reach out to those in every corner of the audience."

"In part," replied the orator. "But there was a more important reason. As I walked from point to point around the edges of the Forum, I paused for a time at six different marble columns. Those columns are my memory aids. Each one symbolizes and reminds me of one group of ideas. Thus, rather than memorizing dozens of particular details, I have to recall only the six key ideas. Each of those key ideas evokes the details related to it."

Did Cicero really use this technique 2,000 years ago? No one knows for sure. But today I urge my clients to use the same technique in their presentations. Clustering lets you reduce the 40 or 50 ideas that fill your whiteboard to five or six Roman columns, the key ideas that will organize all the rest. Each column has a group of subordinate ideas. Now instead of trying to organize many ideas at the detail level, you can organize them at the 35,000-foot level.

Constructing Your Own Columns

When you look at your whiteboard filled with ideas, you will find key clusters emerging from the chaos. Examine the whiteboard and use a new colored marker to highlight the most significant ideas. The idea is to make the parents stand out visually from the mass of data, as in Figure 4.4.

Figure XXFigure 4.4 Brainstorming results after clustering.

As your group works on identifying clusters, you might find yourselves identifying links and connections that didn't occur to you before. That's fine; just draw lines on the board as needed, or erase and redraw the circles if necessary. You might find yourself shifting concepts around: "Say, doesn't that point about the changing demographics of our market belong with 'key trends' rather than with 'sales potential'?" "How about connecting 'cost savings' to 'customer benefits' instead of to 'unique product features'?" No problem; move the children and link them to the most appropriate parent.

If some ideas seem to have no connection to any of your Roman columns, now is the time to ask whether those ideas are truly relevant and necessary. Perhaps they don't deserve to survive the transition to the finished presentation. And if you think of new ideas now that ought to be inserted, go ahead and add them. That's not at all unusual.

As you can see, the technique of clustering begins the process of organizing and introducing logic into the presentation. Having deliberately held back your left brain, you can now let it begin to get into the act.

Splat and Polish

You may be tempted to short-circuit the process by skipping the brainstorming stage. "Why not start with clusters of key ideas?" you might ask. "I could probably sit down right now and list the five main points we need to emphasize. That would save us all a lot of time." That's your logical left brain speaking. It wants to avoid the messy, uncontrolled process of free association. But the human mind doesn't work that way.

Start by unloading a "Splat!" of ideas in whatever order they came out, free form, a classic data dump. Organize them later, and later still polish them into words and sentences and paragraphs and, ultimately, into slides. I call this process splat and polish.

In my many years in the media, I've learned that this same process is followed by most professional writers, from novelists to journalists to playwrights to technical writers to historians. Not one of them will write a single page of text until they've done their research, brooded over their topic, and assembled a mass of notes about it. They might note their ideas on Post-Its, on dog-eared index cards, in spiral-bound notebooks, or simply in stacks of loose pages. Those notes, of course, are their data dumps.

Results-oriented businesspeople, unfortunately, don't use the same process when creating a presentation, or for that matter, when writing a report, speech, or memo. That's the way businesspeople are accustomed to think: Get to the endpoint as quickly as possible, Find the shortest distance between two points. They figure that the quickest way to get a presentation done is to just start writing. Logical, yes? Yes, and wrong.

Case Study: What Does It Do?

Here's a story that illustrates the pitfalls the splat-and-polish philosophy can help you avoid:

Judy Tarabini (now McNulty) was a vice president in the technology unit of the Hill and Knowlton Public Relations Agency when Ben Rosen, continuing his promise to help me grow my business, introduced me to the firm. After I delivered my program successfully to one of Judy's clients, she began to call on me regularly for her other clients.

In 1993, Judy joined the corporate communications department of Adobe Systems. It wasn't long before she called on me to work with Adobe. This time she had a high-level, mission-critical presentation: Adobe was about to introduce its Acrobat products and was planning to have its entire senior management team, about 15 strong, fan out into the market to make launch presentations. Judy was so positive about my program, she convinced Adobe's entire senior management team—including the founding chairman and CEO, John Warnock, and his co-founding partner and president, Chuck Geschke—to participate in a story development session with me.

As always, we started with a blank slate. I stepped up to the immaculate whiteboard in the amply appointed executive conference room at Adobe's then brand-new corporate headquarters in Mountain View. (They have since moved to even newer and more advanced facilities in San Jose.)

I started drawing out the executives. We began with Point B, we continued on to the WIIFY, and then we moved on to the brainstorming. As those very bright and very high-powered people spouted their thoughts, I raced to capture them on the whiteboard. We got lots of clusters: The Acrobat rollout schedule, the distribution plan, the Acrobat partners, the product benefits, the market, and many more. Before long, the whiteboard was filled to the edges with clusters of ideas.

Then there was a pause. I looked around the room and said, "Please take a moment and look at all the clusters on the whiteboard. Tell me whether we need to alter any of the ideas, whether we need to consider shifting associations, or whether we've omitted anything."

A thoughtful silence ensued. Then suddenly, reverberating in the silence, there was a sharp thwack! Chuck Geschke had slapped his palm against his forehead, as in the "I shoulda' had a V-8!" television commercials. Then he broke into a sheepish grin and said, "We've left out what Acrobat does!"

Does that sound odd? Sure it does. But it happens a lot. You're so close to your business that it's easy to take key ideas for granted, to overlook or forget about concepts that are second nature to you but unfamiliar to your audience members. That's one huge process and rush past story development. Take the time to make certain that everything (and I mean everything) that might be relevant has had a chance to surface. Realizing what you omitted five minutes before the start of your presentation will be too late!

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