Our Creator did not provide our brain with an index. As a result, we usually are not aware of what we know on any particular topic. “Do you know anything about electric trains?” “No. Well, wait — I had a Lionel set when I was 11. The tracks had three rails. I remember seeing some other kinds in my neighborhood hobby store. Oh, yeah, and …” 20 minutes later, you realize you do know something about electric trains. And given more time, you’d discover more.

Neuroscientists are making great strides in understanding how we remember, but the process is still mysterious in many ways. Without understanding how it works, clustering gives us access to our knowledge so that we can make a list of what we know and don’t know about any topic.

This is useful in many situations — coming up with designs; problemsolving; preparing for a meeting or a presentation; making a shopping list; and many more.

Gabriele Rico devotes an entire book to clustering: Writing the Natural Way. Highly recommended.

So, how do you cluster? Here’s the basic idea from writer Dustin Wax’s blog:

1. Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
2. Circle it.
3. Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
4. Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
5. Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right brain do its thing, which is to see patterns. Later, the left brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
6. When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough, go back through what you’ve written. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right brain is working in tandem with your left brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

This simple technique is extracted from what Tony Buzan has popularized as “mindmapping.” The difference is that mindmapping gives a different sort of access to your thoughts and ideas. In mindmapping, Buzan recommends you use color and pictures to enrich the drawing, and consider carefully where you put things. Mindmaps created in this way can be powerful forms of communication.

Clustering, on the other hand, is done quickly. Its power lies in the process more than in the resulting graphic — although that, too, can be very useful. I’ve used clustering to write books (11, as of this writing), to write articles (many hundreds), to design presentations (many dozens), to create business plans, to plan Web sites, and to plan phone calls.

For those want to play with clustering on the screen of your PC or tablet, there are numerous mindmapping programs available. Freemind, for example, is free. Mindmanager, from Mindjet, has a trial version. There are numerous apps on the iPhone and iPad, such as MindNode, which have both free and inexpensive versions.

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr, Principal of Orr Associates International, and Chief Visionary Emeritus of Cyon Research Corp. Write him: joel.orr@gmail.com

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.