There is one habit of attorneys that promotes precision in analytical thinking, but often interferes with the ability to clearly communicate with the audience. That habit is the tendency to divide points into sub-points, and to further divide those sub-points into sub-sub-points, and so on. For example, in the world outside of law, books generally have chapters, and in the table of contents those chapters are just a flat sequential list. However, inside the world of law, books often have hyper-precise outlines such that it is meaningful to refer not to “Chapter 7,” but to point “7.B.3.a.1.”
In a lawyer’s frame of reference, the latter is better: It is more precise and it helps to understand the context — that “a.1” is a part of 3 which is a part of B which is a part of 7. It makes sense once you get used to it, and that art of analysis is, of course, a big part of the law school goal of learning to “think like a lawyer.” For that reason, the extensively sub-structured outline finds its way into all manner of legal writing, including briefs and motions. However, my view and my experience is that this habit does not translate well into oral presentations. It might benefit the speaker, but it is not grasped or used by the listening audience. Despite that, I still see that heavily-structured approach — an outline with five levels or more — in virtually every outline for an oral presentation from an attorney. Very little has been written about this question, and I suspect that some may disagree. But my view is that your structure, at least as the audience understands it, should be flat: One level or, at the outside, two levels, but that’s it. Keeping with my own flat structure, this post will give you five reasons to prefer flat structure over substructure.
1. Flat Structure Results in Lower ‘Cognitive Load’
Let’s say there are seven main things that you need your audience to understand. You might think, “Well, seven is too many, so let’s group these points under two or three main points.” However, as much as it seems like you are simplifying, you are actually making it more complex. It is more complex because you still have seven things the audience needs to understand, but you’re adding a hierarchy and probably adding more abstract points to group them under. The result is a greater cognitive load in understanding your message. It isn’t that your audience can’t grasp the grouping, it is just that it requires more effort. And as I’ve written before, anything that increases that load will make it more likely that your audience will rely on mental short-cuts or assumptions rather than fully attending to and understanding your message. The lesson is, don’t make it harder than it needs to be, if you’ve got seven points, cover the seven points.
2. Flat Structure Makes it More Likely Your Audience Will Perceive Structure
There is a tendency of some to think of structure only as a tool for the speaker: The idea is that we outline so that the speaker knows what to say next. That, however, is a bad attitude. The ancient Greeks considered structure to be one of the “Five Canons of Rhetoric,” (along with creativity, delivery, language, and memory), not because it’s handy for a speaker to have organized notes, instead, structure is key because that is what performs the cognitive task of chunking a message for an audience. The right division and sequence makes it more likely a message will be understood, believed, remembered, and used. Without explicit and simple structure, the audience just has a sense that a speaker is delivering information and then more information. To align that audience with your purpose, however, you want your sequence to be understood by your audience. You want them to know what point you are on, and when you are moving to a new point. That is best done with a flat sequence.
3. Flat Structure is Easier for an Audience to Remember
At the end of a presentation, you don’t necessarily need your audience to be able to repeat your main point structure back to you. However, the main points should have some memorability based on the audience having been able to, at least, be aware of the purpose and focus of each main point when you were on it. That is the beauty of thinking of your presentation as a flat sequence of “chapters.” It is relatively easy to preview that list in advance and provide that reassurance of what you will cover. If a point they heard from the other side is gnawing at them, it helps for them to know that you are going to get there and cover it. With a flat sequence, it is also easy to signpost each main point as it arrives, and to transition effectively from one point to the next. In that way, the main point sequence helps to not just keep your information orderly, but to make the structure something that the audience experiences along with you.
4. Flat Structure Works Better With a ‘Hot Bench’
One difference in presenting to a judge is that the judge might interrupt to question or to counter-argue at any time. When a judge uses that power liberally, a ‘hot bench,’ that can play havoc with your planned outline: Suddenly the judge is bringing up something that you didn’t plan to cover until later in the context of a different main point. The more your outline is a hierarchy of substructured points, the more difficult it will be to jump around. If, however, you think of your oral argument as a flat structure — let’s say, seven points that are relatively independent — then interruptions just serve as an opportunity to easily move from one to the next. In the process, you are also adapting to what is important to the judge and structuring the presentation around their thinking, which is never a bad idea.
5. Flat Structure Separates What is Useful for the Speaker from What is Useful for the Audience
Having a flat structure does not prevent a speaker from having a great deal of specificity in their notes. Here is the distinction I would make: All of the substructure in your notes are for the speaker, while all of the main points are for the audience. That is, a speaker still needs a sequence of what they plan to say and, within a given main point, that might follow a hierarchical substructure. Depending on the level of detail that you need, that may even be a sentence-by-sentence guide to what comes next. But that is a tool a speaker uses to maintain their flow, and we don’t expect an audience to see or to follow that internal structure. Instead, we want the audience to know what main point we are on and to notice when we are moving to a new main point.
I know that some readers might disagree, and many lawyers love their layered outlines. But I believe there is a difference between what works in thoroughly analyzing a topic on the one hand, and what works in informing and convincing an audience on the other. In the unique setting of oral communication, the first focus needs to be on what the audience can understand and follow, and the choice to structure in a way that is simpler and flatter is always going to be better.