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The Possibilities of a List

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

Using a list as your structural form can be a means to create a better communicating piece of journalism.

By Peter Jacobi

I've been going ever too slowly through my lifetime of files so that the Indiana University Archives can place a whole bunch of my stuff on its shelves for preservation. In the process, I just came upon an article I wrote for Indianapolis Monthly in January 2008.

Structure Your Article

The piece, a short one, reminded me of something I think I should remind you of. And so, from time to time in the coming months, I'm going discuss why it's important for us -- for you, for me -- to place value in considering how structure can be of benefit to you, as writer and as editor. I've discussed article structure before in these columns, in my book The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It, and elsewhere. I've certainly taught about structure in my university classes and workshops.

As I recall, the magazine's editor contacted me several months earlier to request my participation in a section of "how to" pieces: "Grow an orchid," "Lead a prayer," "Catch a cheater," "Donate your eggs," "Survive a tornado," "Live forever," "Send a txt msg," "Land a promotion," "Predict the future," "Shut the dog up," "Make a tenderloin," and "More expert advice." The topic itself, I think, is terrific and always usable, if applied with knowing flexibility for your particular readership.

A List as Your Structure

Anyway, I was with the "More expert advice" contingent, my requested topic being "How to Write a Toast." If I may, I'm going to quote the whole thing, including the editor's intro for me. I do so not only to provide you with an example of the article architecture I have in mind to focus on, using a LIST as your structural form, but to stress that you can use the "how to" advice I give you to accomplish creating a toast or, for that matter of course, any sort of presentation, speech, lecture, whatever you want to call it. What I have done is use a list, a method of putting information together that can solve problems and provide opportunities.

Here we go:

(Peter P. Jacobi, professional writer, public speaker, editor, and wizened professor emeritus at Indiana University, has made "lots" of toasts in his lifetime.)

First, be clear: Is it a toast you're to present or a roast? If it's a toast, fine. If it's a roast, unless you're a certified comic, forget it. Hire Don Rickles.

Next, follow eight steps.

1. Know thyself. Skip content that makes you uncomfortable. The audience will sense it and turn curiosity for what you're saying into concern for your well-being.

2. Know your audience and understand the occasion. Ahead of time, determine what the expectations are likely to be and how your talk can enhance the occasion.

3. Have an idea. A bookload of information is gatherable on the person, institution, or achievement to be toasted. Out of that, take what stands out. Zoom in, and focus so as to limit your coverage, thereby highlighting what is most interesting.

4. Collect the facts necessary to flesh out your idea. Don't talk about how "great" the toastee is or how "fabled" the museum's history. There are anecdotes to tell, if you've located them. There are factoids to offer, if you've hunted for them. Generalities deaden listener attention. Specificity heightens.

5. Determine structure. Create an order. Give the toast a beginning that draws attention, a middle that expands and exalts the opening, and an ending that causes listeners to remember.

6. Write. Don't try to wing it. Hardly anyone, certainly not the novice, can stand before an audience and, off the cuff, say what was planned in absolutely the right order and with the language well-chosen and bright.

7. Practice. Whether you memorize, use cards, or read a script, rehearse. Looking in a mirror is unimportant. Tape yourself. Work until what you hear sounds like a speech talked rather than read.

8. Perform. Be 115 percent of yourself. Because you've done the necessary preparation, the nervous butterflies within you will fly in formation.

That's it, the entirety of the article. The process described is usable as is; just think through what I'm telling you, and it can lead you in the right direction toward accomplishing a successful presentation (of any and all sorts). On the other hand, I've written fuller articles on the process to give the would-be speaker assistance through additional guidance. And, as I've done countless times, I've built one-day to four-day workshops to a single student or small groups, during which the participants take on the eight steps, one by one, right through to performing on camera, being critiqued, through a series of exercises to give the students greater understanding and firmer grasp of the art.

A List: So Many Possibilities

That's what you can do for your readers, with the basic list or a fuller feast, and you can do it not only about a roast (or talk). With a list as your structure, you can teach a process to any depth you choose; you can explore history or geography, any portion or age or space of it; you can carve your turkey; you can pass a citizenship test; you can fill out your tax forms; you can prepare your reader for an evening at the opera; you can teach a journalistic skill.

As a very brief variant to the "toast" lesson, take the writing process: (1) For idea generation, be aware of what's around you, what's happening; (2) Be lavish with your research in support of developing your idea so it serves your selected audience; (3) Be willing to give time to determine a workable structure; (4) Write, and as you do so, listen to your words, really listen, sound them out; (5) Edit as best you can; (6) Put the manuscript aside, do something else, then return to edit once more. (The rewriting becomes easier and clearer because of the mental separation made possible by having done other things.)

The list is your skeleton. Go with the skeleton alone or feed it to any chosen extent, having decided how much your reader will want and/or need the material and how much space you want to give the article and how important you believe the information is for maximum reader benefit.

A list shouldn't be applied because you think it's easy to put together (which it really isn't) or just makes a decent filler (which it can be). There needs to be a better reason or additional reasons for applying a technique that should be used with editorial respect. The list can be a means to create a better communicating piece of journalism. Therefore, it can benefit you (the writer and/or editor) and that all-important person in your life: the reader.

Remember its possibilities: the LIST.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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