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The Art of Effective Communication

Inverted Triangle

The Inverted Triangle structure helps organize information for easy communication. Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher elaborates on this concept as part of the Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health MOOC.

Excerpt From


So now I'd like to take what we've learned about message prioritization and focus on using it in writing. because you're going to do a lot of writing in whatever your career is. There's two keys to clear paragraphs, that I want to talk about and show you why they matter. The first is, a paragraph is supposed to be about ONE point, not a whole ton of points. One singular idea. And the second key that is a really simple idea that doesn't get used as much as it ought to be, is something called the inverted triangle structure. So let me explain. I know this sounds like maybe high school, or even elementary school writing. Do I really mean that we as professionals need to be thinking about this stuff? Yes, I really mean it, because the problem here is that many scientists, many health communicators, many educators don't follow this basic rules of designing their paragraphs of writing in clear ways. And they don't even realize that they are writing in unnecessarily complex ways. Therefore we're going to practice it, I'm going to show you why this matters and why it makes whatever you're writing clearer. Play video starting at :1:18 and follow transcript1:18 Now, let's talk about why we do this. Why is it that academics and health professionals often write so confusingly? because it's not coming from nowhere, right? The fact is most of the time the reason is this. Whoever is writing, the speaker, the writer, the educator, they don't know what their central message is. It's really hard to write a paragraph with a clear point, if you don't know what that point is. What you end up doing is you write lots of stuff that doesn't actually make a point. What happens is that people write a series of true statements. This is true, and this is true, and this is true and this is true, and they're all true but they don't actually relate to each other, they don't have a point. So, when you try to put them together, the goal is to think about how do you want them to put them all together. How do you want to use a structure to make the point that you're trying to make, better academic writers use what is often called academic triangle. Let me show you this. The academic triangle starts up top you introduce the topic. And then you bring in some evidence to back up your argument, and the more evidence you have the stronger your argument is and then you get to a concluding point. Maybe, because let's be honest, sometimes academics don't get to that point, they just give you the evidence and the argument, they don't get to the point. The problem with the academic triangle from the reader's standpoint, is it makes you wait to figure out what the point is. You have to get through all the other stuff before you figure out the point that the writer is trying to make. That makes it harder to read. The solution is the inverted triangle. The inverted triangle, you start right at the top with the central message. The most important thing you want to get across, that organizes all the information. Then you bring supporting points or facts, the evidence, and each piece of those supporting points connects directly to that central message. And then you might wrap up the paragraph with other supporting points, or facts, or details, again connecting each one of them back up to that central message. Notice two things about the inverted triangle structure. First of all, it makes one point because everything has to connect up to that central message. You can't make two distinct points and still fit the structure. If you have another point to make, that's a clue you need to start a new paragraph. And by the way, speaking as an editor, there's nothing wrong with short paragraphs, even in academic writings. If you need to start a new paragraph to make a new point, do it, because that will make your writing clearer. Second, it forces you to figure out how each and every sentence or idea in the paragraph relates to that central message. And if it doesn't connect directly to that first sentence, then that's a clue that it probably doesn't belong in that paragraph. Maybe it belongs somewhere else in what you're writing, but not there. Am I serious about this really? Yes, I really am. I note this stuff every time I edit a journal article, or a dissertation, every time I'm writing, regardless of whether I'm writing for a scientific audience or a public audience. I think consciously about using this structure in my writing, and you should too. For example, and I'll give you a very concrete example. Grant proposals, or frankly any other kind of proposal document who reads this stuff? Review committees, they have to read tons of them. Which means that they're not always reading every single word, they're going to skim it. They're going to through really fast. And I need to write it in order for them to get, that audience, to get the major points as easily as possible. Inverted triangle paragraphs makes that really easy. The first sentence of each paragraph tells the whole story that I'm trying to get across. And the body of each paragraph is just providing supportive points for each point I'm making. So here's an example. Now you can't read this in detail, so I'll pull this out. At the top of each section, there's three sections there. There's one sentence that I've bolded. Now you probably can't read that either. So let me show this to you in really clear bigger font. My 3 points that I wanted to make in that introduction to my grant were this. 1, patient access to medical test results is increasing. 2, patients have many good reasons to want direct access to their test results. 3, yet, simply providing patients with access to medical test results might not result in improved outcomes. And those three sentences by themselves, tells the story of what I want it to communicate, which is to lay the foundation of why I believe that we need to improve how test results are communicated. All the extra text is just supporting information. And if somebody were to skim that through and just read those three bolded sentences, they still get the whole point. Which make it really easy for the reader to understand why they should care about this. And I have to say it worked I did get that grant. See, by putting the main point of each paragraph first, it's really easy to find the key. Find the core central messages that you're trying to get across, and this is a really valuable approach to clear science communication. So, I hope, as you move forward, you'd be more conscious about using this inverted triangle structure to organize each of the paragraphs that you write.