Thinking in Trees

Or, overthinking a random idea I had one time

While talking to my girlfriend recently, I accidentally codified a concept I’ve been considering subconsciously for years. She found it useful and challenging in quite a different way to me, so I figured I might as well try to expand on the idea. It’s purely theoretical; consider it an interesting thing to think about and maybe try out rather than a scientifically validated procedure. If someone has done actual proper research into this let me know so I can link to them!

You can approach this post in a couple of different ways (or whatever alternative floats your boat). If you’re like her and always try to explain every detail of everything at once, think of this as “How to Explain Things Clearly and Concisely to People with Short Attention Spans.” If you’re like me and instinctively answer any question with a shrug or a single word, think of this as “How to Give Details About a Thing in an Interesting Way.”

For example: Spazzacom!

Now that you’re suitably mystified about what this post is actually about, let me show you by example what I’m on about. Let’s say you’re a team leader building an employee management app for the fictional software company Spazzacom and you have to report to your CEO how an interview with the client went.

You were not picked for your logo design skills ...

You’re rather new and don’t quite know what your boss wants to hear, so you explain it in a way that’s natural to you. It’s highly unlikely that this is exactly how your boss thinks, so you’ll probably either give too little information: “I think he’s happy,” or too much information: “Their office building is really pretty and all their clothes are immaculate, I think wearing my best suit was definitely a good idea. He had a really firm, honest-feeling handshake, and made a lot of eye contact in the first hour and a half as I explained why we spent two weeks fixing one annoying bug …” If your boss is at one of the extreme ends of the how-much-information-is-enough scale, he might be impressed by one of those explanations, but even then you have a 50/50 chance of picking the wrong one. Surely it’s better to get all the facts straight in your head and let him ask you questions until he’s satisfied with the level of detail.

So, let’s turn your meeting with the client into a tree. At the top is the overall thing that happened, and it gets more and more detailed as you go down:

Lots of stuff at various levels of detail

That looks complicated if you view as a whole, but if you take the bits out of it that relate to particular situations or questions, suddenly it becomes much more understandable:

Thought-sized chunks of the tree

By picking the most appropriate place to start and only going a couple of layers down the tree, you can get all the essential information across concisely and without constantly jumping between different topics or going off on tangents. At the same time, making sure you go a couple of layers down the tree gives your boss enough information to respond with specific questions and (in theory) makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

Building trees

That’s all well and good, but it’s really hard to hold a massive tree of facts in your head and jump around it at will. Thankfully, brains are pretty good at connecting thoughts and memories together without conscious intervention. Try daydreaming about a house you used to live in; soon you’ll remember all sorts of things about the rooms and objects in the house, wonder what it looks like now, etc. The trick is to figure out how each thought relates to the original topic. There are basically two approaches to this:

Top-down

When you have a definite starting point, some entire thing that you’re describing, all you need to do is put that thing at the top of the tree and figure out what parts make it up. If the question is “How was your day?” then put “My day” at the top and divide it into general time periods: “late morning: got up, lunchtime: went to meet a friend, afternoon: wrote a blog post, evening: played video games”. You can then think about the key moments from each of those periods, and so on. If the question is “Which phone should I buy?” then put “Buying a phone” at the top and divide it into things you should consider: “Size, build quality, weight, camera, processor, memory, water resistance, selfie camera, speakers, headphone jack” … except that if you have that many things at the same level, there’s no point in having a tree because you just end up talking about everything at once anyway. A different approach is called for.

Clear vs complicated top-down trees

Bottom-up

When you have a whole lot of things to talk about and can’t get cover them all without going into way too much detail, starting from the opposite end can be helpful. You stick all the things at the bottom of the tree and think about how you can group them. For the phone example, “size” and “weight” are clearly related, and “processor” and “memory” are clearly related (i.e. they’re both things that companies advertise and most people don’t care about). As a rule of thumb, I would stop grouping when you have five or fewer things to talk about, if you ask me about phones I’ll tell you to consider something like: “How nice it is to hold?”, “Does it feel fast enough?”, “How good are the cameras?”, “Does it seem hard to use?” and “What extra features does it have?” That gives you a chance to think about your priorities; I don’t want to compare cameras for half an hour if you’re not going to take any photos with it.

As another example, let’s say you’re trying to sell a product. Your product has all sorts of advantages over the competition, but people won’t remember much if you list them all at once. If you can figure out how to group them into a few headings and phrase them in a way that invites questions (if that’s even possible), then you give people the tools to find out what they need to know. Once people start asking you specific questions you can switch back to a top-down approach to answer them.

Phone questions improved by grouping

Caveats

Obviously, this is a rather formal and artificial way of organising your thoughts, and it’s certainly not how I think all the time. Also:

In summary

As I said at the start, to you this may be so obvious it’s boring, or it may just not be how your brain works at all. If nothing else, though, it should give you an insight into how I think! And if I (or someone else) clearly isn’t following what you’re saying, thinking in trees is at least an alternative approach to try.

Posted on 30 November 2016
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