4. Take advantage of your critical thinking abilities when preparing your communication
Three ideas to help you communicate with greater cut through 
Most technical experts that I know do not think of themselves as good, let alone great, communicators. They see themselves as expert in their area, but not at what are often seen as the softer communication arts. Many, in fact, have been told explicitly that communication is 'not their strength'.

You may be surprised to know, then, that your critical thinking abilities are an enormous advantage when you are preparing business communication. Your ability to be thorough and rigorous testing whether ideas belong together or not is central to powerful business communication.

Let's now talk more specifically about how you can turn them to your advantage.

There are three steps I encourage you to take to take advantage of your critical thinking abilities when communicating:
  •  Understand the rules of storylining
  •  Trust that they will flush out insights 
  •  Circle back to the rules every time you edit your communication 
I will now work through these steps one by one.

Understand the rules of storylining

When I first learned about storylining more than 20 years ago when I joined McKinsey’s Hong Kong office as a communication specialist, I found the storylining rules to be uncomfortable and confining. I wondered how could a set of could rules help me communicate better?

I had been taught to write by famous Australian children’s author, Mem Fox of Possum Magic fame, who had taught me the value of hooking my audience in with an image or a story that would set up a theme to thread through the rest of the communication.

The idea of using structure and logic to organize my ideas seemed at odds with that approach.

However, what I came to see was that most everyday business communication – emails, updates, recommendations, papers and packs - do not need this level of artistry and sophistication. First and foremost, they need clarity and efficiency.

They need to be prepared quickly so that an audience can skim fast and glean what they need as quickly as possible, so they can respond and move on to the next thing.

So, I submitted myself to the rules and was delighted with the unexpected freedom they provided. Once I understood them, I had a repeatable process I could use to untangle any mess presented to me by the consultants and do it quickly.

I have outlined the four high-level rules here for your reference as well as a storyline diagram to help that make sense. I would love to help you learn how to use these powerful analytical tools in your own work.

   1. Every communication must provide some background (context, trigger, question)
   2. Every communication has one clear overarching governing idea (which answers the question above it in the diagram)
   3. Ideas at each level synthesise the ideas below (summarise if they must, but ideally synthesise)
   4. All ideas must be logically ordered 

Trust the rules of storylining to flush out the logic of your argument 

My business partner Gerard Castles and I have learned from ample experience – almost 50 years between us now, using these techniques – that it is essential to trust in the rules of storylining.

For example, if your list of bullet points includes three actions and a reason, ask yourself why. Any list should include only one kind of ‘thing’, so if you have two different kinds of thing in one list, you have a problem and it’s worth asking yourself where that problem lies. Here is an illustration so you see what I mean:

Main idea: We should implement a new analytics tool from Tarpeena Technologies.

Supporting points:
   1. It’s cost effective
   2. It integrates with our current systems
   3. The contract needs your signature today if we are to secure the best price
   4. Tarpeena Technologies offers excellent technical support

In this scenario, point three is different from the rest and doesn’t support the main idea. If I reworked it to fix that problem, the solution might look like this:

Main idea: We should act quickly to take advantage of a well-priced offer to implement a new analytics tool from Tarpeena Technologies.

Supporting reasons ... ie. Why should we act quickly?
   1. The tool is cost effective
   2. The tool integrates with our current systems
   3. Tarpeena Technologies offers excellent technical support
   4. The contract needs your signature today if we are to secure the best price

Circle back to the rules every time you edit your communication

One of the many challenges of preparing communication at work is that many people get involved, have opinions and want to 'add value' to the communication. While this is essential, it can also be hard to manage.

Experience has taught us that sticking to the rules of storylining works to everyone’s advantage as they provide a consistent language and way of thinking about how to draw out the insights you need to convey. They also push you and your colleagues to think hard about the proposition you are putting forward, not just the way you describe it.

Although these discussions are rarely easy, finding ways to ask questions that flush out what people are really trying to say and then asking them to help you identify where it fits inside the storyline, or how the storyline needs to be adjusted to accommodate their perspective is key.

Having now raised the topic of socializing a piece of communication, tomorrow’s email will give you some ideas for managing that process.

In the meantime, download today’s notes and course challenge below. It includes some extra ideas for you too.

Talk soon.

PS If anyone has been to Tarpeena and can describe it to me, I’ll send them a free copy of our book, The So What Strategy! Email me at

PPS If you want to go straight to the next module click here.

This short, free course is prepared by Davina Stanley, who has spent more than 20 years helping technical experts communicate better. She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company's Hong Kong office as a communication specialist. Having lived and worked in Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo and Melbourne Australia, she is now loving living in Sydney.
Davina offers face to face and online skill building programs for technical experts who need greater cut through in their communication.

Her signature program is the powerful, 3-month Clarity First Group Coaching Program which runs twice each year. 

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