03/26/2009 01:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It Ain't What You Say - III

Every form of communication longer than a chat, telephone call, or note, be it a presentation, speech, book, play, or film, requires a clear structural construct. Aristotle 101. The great Greek philosopher understood that audiences, who are passive captives to communicators, need to be given direction or they get lost.

Current case in point: Duplicity, an opulent Hollywood caper movie about corporate espionage with superstars Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, opened to mixed reviews because it was difficult to follow. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said it all in the title of his review, "Complexity Defeats 'Duplicity.'" Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called the movie a fizzle and reprimanded its writer-director, Tony Gilroy, by comparing him to another writer:

David Mamet is a guy who knows how to make movies like this, and he does it by not telling us everything he knows. Rather, he tells us everything we need to know. Gilroy does exactly the reverse: He refuses to tell us what we need to know, but he tells us every last thing he knows about corporate espionage and the various subordinate characters. The results are deadening.

In my previous post in this series, you read about how the lack of structure of several different health topics hampered a speech by Andrew Weil, M.D; and how the presence of structure helped Jeffrey Toobin, a legal political analyst for CNN, in a speech about the Supreme Court. After noting out the effects of their speeches in that post, I promised to analyze the causes of Toobin's successful structure and what Weil could have done to improve his.

There are 16 Flow Structures (discussed in Presenting to Win) that can organize the diverse components of any story into a clear roadmap for audiences. Two of the most frequently used of these constructs are Numerical and Chronological. Numerical is used by David Letterman in his nightly "Top Ten," and by Stephen Covey in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Chronological is often used in business to describe a company's track record, its present position, and future direction.

Toobin chose Numerical as his primary Flow Structure with Chronological as his secondary. His central theme was the composition of the nine justices along liberal and conservative lines. The shifting balance of power among the nine is a constant source of dramatic tension that drives presidential elections, political parties, and many impassioned contending constituencies. Toobin discussed the various majorities and minorities among the justices at different points in time. Because of his central focus on the total number, he was able to jump backward and forward among different decades and even add sidebar human interest stories, yet still maintain a clear narrative thread.

All Dr. Weil needed to do to create continuity was to emulate David Letterman and Jeffrey Toobin by choosing Numerical: assigning a number to the diverse health topics he discussed, "Six (or Seven) Health Challenges." Then, if he were to Tell 'em What He Was Gonna Tell 'em at the beginning, countdown as he Told 'em, and then Tell 'em What He Told 'em in summary, his audience would have followed along easily.

There is a reason Aristotle is considered a classic: his wisdom endures.