If you’re content with delivering a mediocre speech, please stop reading. If you want to create a speech without investing much time, come back in the future when I write that article. This is not it. This article is how to write the first draft of the best speech of your life. That takes time. Still, it’s the first draft. It will be bad. You should expect this. You can’t write your best speech without writing the first draft. The point is to start moving in the right direction. Producing a great speech requires not just writing words on paper (the how) but thinking upfront about your what and why and establishing a writing habit for when and where you’ll write. You can easily write a first draft that sends you on the path to a boring, meaningless speech. Follow these steps to avoid that doom.
Even though first drafts are bad, if you’ve never used these techniques, your first draft may be the ‘Best-Speech-of-Your-Life’. Once you’re hooked from that high of creating something great, you may yearn for more like an addict seeking a fix. Subsequent posts in this ‘Best Speech’ series will show you how to upgrade your speech first drafts to shiny polished diamonds.
If you already know what you want to write about, skip the ‘what’ section and JUST WRITE.
When I have an idea burning in my mind, screaming to be put on paper, I don’t waste that opportunity by adding process. Skip other sections if you’ve already answered a question for your topic. These questions (what, why, who, where, when, how) are designed to help you generate your idea, dig deeper into your motivation, understand your audience, establish a writing habit, and create an engaging story. If you’ve mastered a technique already, use the other sections to sharpen your skills.
What will I speak about?
Pick a topic that you care about enough to invest significant time. If you already have a pre-defined topic, skip ahead. Otherwise, start asking yourself questions. Write these down.
- What bothers me?
- What do I want to learn about?
- What lessons have I learned from a mentor?
- What do I want to see changed in the world?
- What do I know about more than my audience?
- What’s a story from my life no one would believe?
- What’s a story that I want to tell?
- What’s happened in my life that I learned a lot from?
Some of these overlap. Ask yourself questions in different ways. You might combine the answers into a single speech. Generate ideas. Write them down.
One of my favorite techniques for generating speech ideas is writing down ten ideas. Any ideas. I repeat this process until I have thirty to fifty ideas or one stands out. Use James Altucher’s guide for more details on this process.
Repeat the idea generation process every day or every week. Then take a break, a day or two or a week depending on how frequently you’re generating ideas. Review your ideas. Eventually, you’ll write something down or review an idea and think “That’s it! I have to write about that.”
If this process of identifying the right idea to write about takes longer than you like, welcome to the world. Writing is hard. Creating is hard. Finding a message you care to invest in is worth the failure of initial idea generation. That doesn’t make it easier but know that you’re not alone.
Why do I want to speak about this?
Once you have your idea, ask:
- Why do you care to invest time speaking about this topic?
- Why is it worth it to you?
This might be a simple, obvious answer. Great, move on. If not, spend time thinking about it.
Either way ask “why” two, three, four, or five more times like a curious kid tugging at his daddy’s shorts or an exhausted engineer struggling to determine the root cause for a defect. Asking why multiple times uncovers a depth of meaning that a single why doesn’t.
5 Whys Example:
Note – you don’t always need to ask why five times if you get the root answer earlier.
Why 1: “Why is this speech worth it to you?”
Answer 1: “Because I want to learn about web development”
Why 2: “Why do you want to learn about web development?”
Answer 2: “Because I want a better job.”
Why 3: “Why do you want a better job?”
Answer 3: “Because programming in COBOL ain’t what it used to be.”
Why 4: “Why ain’t it?”
Answer 4: “Everyone is dying, retiring, or getting laid off. Literally.”
Okay, survival sounds like a deep purpose. Time to write.
Clarifying your purpose creates more material for your speech. It’s easier to draw upon a clear motive than a vague notion of what you want to do without a why. Would you rather hear an overview of web development or the story all the Cobol developers dying, retiring, or getting laid off? Easy answer, most people want to hear a story and emotion which you get with layoffs, retirement, and death, not web development facts. Include both but don’t skip the deeper meaning.
Who is my audience?
Do you know the audience members? Family, friends, co-workers? If the audience is unknown, can you get information about them beforehand? Demographics, attitudes, strong opinions, open vs close-minded, off-limits topics, any information can help you prepare. I speak to engineers often and you need very logical, accurate, bulletproof communication. Plus, good engineers can find an angle to tear apart even the strongest, logical arguments since there are many “correct” ways to view almost any topic. Other times I present to managers, creatives, and more artistic types. Using emotional appeals and storytelling works better with this audience. These are simple stereotypes. We’re aiming for broad generalizations since we can’t develop a speech for every complex, nuanced snowflake in your audience.
It’s not always a viable option to adapt a message for each audience or know them in-depth before your speech. In these situations, aim for the middle. You might narrow your audience down to adults, middle to upper class, generally close-minded but influenced by stories, with off limits topics like religion, politics, sensitive social issues. If your message depends on your audience’s beliefs about your topic, ask your audience questions up front to gauge their reactions (ex. “No judgment here but I want to know you all better – Who’s a Democrat? Who’s a Republican?”).
Don’t underestimate understanding your audience in depth. You will make thousands of small decisions developing your speech from the initial writing to feedback to practice and delivery. Those decisions can be lightning fast when you know how your audience will receive your message. Decisions plod along at frustratingly slow pace when you don’t understand an audience.
When you understand your audience, you can steelman your arguments based on what objections you expect they’ll have with your perspective. If you haven’t learned steelmanning, read why it’s important to use not just in speeches but to strengthen and adapt our core beliefs.
When and where will I write?
What’s the biggest change you can make to create a great speech?
write every day
You can stop writing daily once you have a finished speech, ready to deliver and wow your audience. If you skip this part because it’s too hard or takes too much time, remember that you just chose to write a mediocre speech. No judgment here, but don’t fool yourself into thinking magic will happen. To start writing daily create an implementation intention, a specific plan for when and where you will write and what will trigger you to start.
Where will I write?
Set a space for writing. An office, a room, your couch, wherever. Preferably it’s a space separate from the rest of your daily activities. Associating a space with writing doesn’t help much at first. Once you’ve used the same place for a few weeks, your brain begins to flow more easily just from stepping into your writing space.
When will I write?
Block a consistent time every day to write. You might be an early writer or a late writer. I’d plan to write within the first four hours when you wake-up to start since it’s easier to predict your mornings than your nights when everything that may go wrong during the day has delayed your plans. If you have a day job, this will most likely be within the first two hours on workdays. If the morning doesn’t work for you after work is another option or later at night. I jot down some of my best ideas on my phone after laying down in bed, running through my speech in my head. I prefer late writing to stay rare so I avoid poor sleep and negative impacts on my morning writing routine.
If you want a more systematic approach to identifying your ideal creative time, check out When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing or The Circadian Code for learning your chronotype. From the When book I learned that most larks and third birds (early morning and mid-morning risers) technically are most creative in late afternoon. For these groups morning is best for analytical work and creativity peaks after that clear thinking wears off around mid-day and you get your second wind after that mid-day slump around late afternoon. Owls are the opposite peaking creatively soon after they wake-up.
What if I can’t block a consistent time?
Some people are forced to write at odd, varying times every day. This should be the exception, not the rule. Most consistently productive, professional writers write on a schedule. Turning writing into a habit leaves you with just the hard part: the actual writing. If you have to plan when and where you’ll write every day, the hard part is logistics. You’ll never produce much this way. If you do, you’ll waste more time than if you stuck to a schedule.
What will trigger me to write?
I don’t like leaving things to chance. The implementation intentions described for when and where you will write will dramatically increase the odds of writing consistently. The last piece to the consistent writing puzzle is knowing what will trigger you to start writing. For example, I wake up, take a shower, stretch for five minutes, make a cup of coffee, and sit down to write on weekdays. You don’t need to write down all that detail. You could just write down that one activity that precedes you starting to write (ex. making coffee for me). I like to follow a script. I don’t have to think about it. I know what events precede me writing. There’s minimal variability. This is also why I like writing first thing in the morning. There’s a lower chance of a major time delay derailing writing plans.
How will I write?
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.Blaise Pascal
This is the hardest part.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
You’re going to sit alone in a room with just your disorganized thoughts. Your job is to write down those thoughts and shape them into something that makes sense, draws a smile, and impacts people. That’s not easy. But you don’t have to do all that with your first draft.
My first drafts aren’t good but they’re good enough to start. I have no magic pixie dust for you to produce a good first draft. I don’t even know what you’re writing about. I wouldn’t worry too much about producing a good first draft anyway. Just commit thoughts to paper. Let it all out. Move on to your second draft.
I use two techniques to write first drafts:
- Just write
- Ask questions
Just write is self-explanatory. If the words are flowing, don’t stop. If not, ask yourself questions.
- What stories do you have to tell?
- What experiences have you had?
- What information do you want to deliver to your audience?
- What do you know that your audience might not?
- What have you learned from your research? Research is good. Use the google. Keep the references in case you need to strengthen your credibility by citing it.
- What’s a funny way to think about it?
- What’s ironic?
- How can exaggerate something about it to highlight an absurdity?
- How can you contrast it with something else that’s funny or the contrast is unexpected and funny?
- What have other people said about it that was funny? Steal and rewrite from your perspective.
Don’t worry if you write material seemingly unrelated to your main topic. You can edit later. You may find a random or thin connection (i.e. creativity) or you can cut it later. Creativity is higher when you feel like you’re writing in a Planet Fitness ‘judgment free zone’.
If you need a little extra motivation, remember the Pascal quote above. While other people are creating problems from their inability to sit quietly with their thoughts, you’re solving a problem for yourself and maybe some friends or strangers through the work you’re doing by writing alone. It’s not easy. But it’s important.
Ask questions. Write daily. Be uncomfortable. Edit later. Create now.
Get after it.
Read more posts in this series at mattdever.com/best-speech.