This is part of The Writing Playground series, where we use TED Talks as a playground to learn how to make our writing (that’s right: writing!) more impactful. To make the most of this article, watch Anne Morriss’ TED Talk before reading on.
The human mind seeks structure. We are drawn to structure to the extent that our brain sometimes creates a structure where there isn’t any. The structure could be physical, visual, or logical, and when it exists, we feel more comfortable than when facing something random or chaotic.
Structure is crucial in any text. When we want to communicate an idea, structure helps us shape its logical flow. At the same time, the design of the text also has an immense effect on how appealing the text is, how memorable it is, and what impact it makes on the audience. Often, the structure of the text is an underlying attribute, and the audience, although affected by it, is not consciously aware of it. But sometimes, bringing the structure to the front makes the content even more effective.
Anne Morriss’ TED Talk is a wonderful example of using not just any structure, but a natural structure, to make her idea more powerful.
In her talk, Anne presents her framework for fixing problems that involve other people in five steps. That by itself is a structure. Processes are structured by definition, and when you articulate your process as a series of numbered steps, you help your audience make sense of it and later manage it. But Anne takes this idea further. She takes her process and overlays it on a work week, so each step is done in one day over a week. Her initial motivation is probably to imply (or demonstrate) just how fast applying her framework is. It’s not a matter of weeks or months but instead days. But there are some great side effects of introducing the framework using this natural structure, and they make the core idea of the text much more impactful.
We are all familiar with the days of the week from early childhood. It is an inherent part of how we think of time and manage it. We live by the days of the week, and any person in Anne’s audience uses a calendar to manage their work (and life), with “a workweek” being one of the basic concepts to decide what to do and when.
When Anne takes her framework and uses the days of a single workweek to describe the steps in the workflow she had defined, she uses a familiar structure we all feel comfortable with. We don’t have to learn or think of a new system to implement her idea — it just fits into how we manage our time and actions.
This level of familiarity doesn’t just make the framework less alien; it also makes it more manageable in the real world. If I want to try Anne’s workflow, I just need to open my calendar and add the relevant steps in the right days for a week. No more and no less. What could be simpler than that? It’s not only a relatively fast process — it fits perfectly to the units of time we already use.
A week represents not only a simple and familiar structure but also a cyclic structure. When one week is over, another one is just around the corner, and this implies that Anne’s framework is also designed as a repetitive process — one that we should practice for as long as we interact with other people. We cannot lead our lives without relationships, which will always invoke potential problems and conflicts. Anne’s idea is not a quick one-time fix: it’s a habit we must practice to improve our lives.
The beauty in using a week as the structure to organize the process steps is that Anne doesn’t need to articulate any of that. It is all implied by using this natural, cyclic structure. We will reach this conclusion sooner or later simply by following the steps she has defined. We think we are offered a quick, concrete way to handle a specific problem when in fact, we get the seeds for a life-changing habit.
Being cyclic, this structure has rhythm. But when we listen carefully to Anne’s text, we discover yet another rhythm: the rhythm of the changing days.
Each of the five steps in the framework is the core of one day of the week. No less important, however, is what happens after each day. This is the time for resting, reflecting, and contemplating the insights we gained during the day. It is an essential part of the process that sets up the stage for the following day.
Now, of course, Anne could have just listed these peripheral activities even if she hadn’t chosen to use the workweek as the underlying structure of her framework. But using the days of the week makes these secondary activities fit naturally into the framework. After each day, as the evening falls, we typically have time for resting and thinking about what we’ve experienced during the day. We are familiar with this rhythm and implement it naturally in our lives. Anne cleverly uses this natural rhythm without adding additional steps for reflection and planning into the process.
Using a familiar, natural structure, such as the structure of a working week, is not a magic trick. It works when your idea fits naturally into it. If you force your idea into an existing structure, it will be perceived as a gimmick, and, more importantly, it will confuse your audience instead then help them understand, remember, and implement your idea.
When done wisely (and saved for the right occasions), finding a natural, familiar structure and using it to express your idea will help you make your content more memorable, impactful, and probably more actionable.