How to work on an idea: write a treatment

idea developmentIt’s on the tip of your brain. An idea. You think you’re onto something. You’ve figured something out that nobody else realizes. What should you do next?

Write an idea treatment.

I’ll explain how.

I hear from people who say they have ideas all the time. They say stuff like this:

“I think I want to quit and start a company.”

“I want to write a book.”

“I think I’m onto something big.”

“I’ve noticed this thing that no one else has, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

This is a great place to be, because ideas are tantalizing. They could go anywhere. But what are you going to do about it? If the answer is nothing, then you’ll become one of those people.

You know, the people who see somebody else doing their idea and say, “I thought of that first.” But when you say “I thought of Google first” or “I could have written The Tipping Point,” let’s face it, you’re a loser. They did the work and you didn’t.

Don’t be that person. Work the idea.

You need a treatment

I think the biggest problem that people have with ideas is that they have no achievable short-term milestone to aim for. Building a company or writing a book or starting a blog seems daunting, so they just sit still. So I’m going to give you something to aim for: a treatment. You know, like what they do in Hollywood.

Here’s what a treatment is:

A treatment is a 500- to 1500-word explanation of an idea. It includes a title, a quick summary, a story, evidence, and a conclusion.

That’s not so hard, is it? That’s maybe a page or two. You can write that.

Actually, it’s harder than you might think. Here are the elements of a treatment.

  • A title. You need to sum up your idea in 5 or 10 or 12 words. A subtitle explaining it in a short sentence is optional.
  • A short summary. Two or three sentences that explain the idea. For example, “Most of what people write in business is bullshit. It’s slowing us all down. We need to learn to communicate in a direct, pointed, bullshit-free way.”
  • A story. What story helped you to realize this idea? What’s the customer’s or reader’s story? People remember narratives — you need one.
  • Evidence. What statistics can you cite? What examples prove your point? You don’t need a hundred, but three or six would be great.
  • A conclusion. Suppose I like your idea. So what? Should I quit my job? Vote for Gary Johnson? Stop using passive voice? Hire you? Tell us what the idea means to people.

Unlike everything else I’ve told you to write in this blog and in my book, I’m not going to tell you how to assemble these things. You need to collect them. You need to write them down. But when you’re ready, it will just flow. Every treatment is different — they don’t follow a formula. But they all need to have these ingredients.

How to get started

Now you have an assignment. How should you go after it? Here are some suggestions.

  • Create a place to keep stuff about your idea. Use Evernote or Scrivener or Google Drive or a Moleskine notebook or a manila folder or a bulletin board with stuff tacked on it. Use whatever works for you, but you need a place that you collect what you’ve learned.
  • Talk to everyone about it. Talk to your husband. Your colleague. Your college friend. Your client. Describe your idea; see how they react. When they light up, you’re getting closer. When they object, you need a counterargument. When they get that confused look, you need to keep working on clearer ways to explain it. Take notes about what you’ve learned.
  • Write down or draw bits and pieces. Write down a story that you heard. Write down stats and links to articles. Do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on a spreadsheet. Draw something on a whiteboard and take a picture of it. Collect stuff that matters.
  • Do a title jam. Get three or four people together — people you trust who are creative. Open a Google Doc and Now start talking. Write down words that resonate. If something sounds cool, Google it to see if someone else is using it.
  • Do a modified ROAM analysis. Who is your audience (Readers)? What will change in their minds once they’ve heard your idea (Objective)? What will they do, or do differently (Action)? What will they think of you (iMpression)? Answering these questions will force you to think more clearly about your idea.

Writing the treatment

Eventually, all those bits of the idea will be floating around in your head. You’ll have a title you like and a clearer concept of what your idea is. The time to write the treatment is when you think you know what you want to say and it’s bursting to come out.

To prepare, review the materials you collected.

Set aside two hours. You can’t do this piecemeal. Find a place where you will not be interrupted. Sit down at a keyboard, start writing in a notebook, or start dictating on a recording device.

Write the title down or say it out loud.

Now just write. Don’t worry if it’s any good. Just don’t stop. Imagine that your friendly mentor is listening and tell him your story. Drop in your anecdotes and your stats and graphics to prove your point. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling and sentence fragments. If stuff is missing, write a placeholder (“Example of somebody winning at this goes here.”) And at the end, tell people what they should do about it.

Once you’ve written it down, put it away. Come back a day later and rearrange, cut, add, include a diagram — make it better.

Show it to someone who is smart and cares about you. Find out what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what’s great. Revise. Make it as wonderful and persuasive and personal as possible. Make it the shining description of your idea.

Now what?

Now you can get started.

Start the blog. Write the book proposal. Write the business plan or the slide deck. Get to work.

Because you have more than a raw idea. You’ve got a treatment. Now you can really get started working on it.

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