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How to Write the Second Draft of Your Speech

Read earlier posts in the ‘How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life‘ series here.


First drafts are defining your idea. Second drafts are shaping your idea into a meaningful message. I think of a first draft as writing and the second draft as editing. You will bounce back and forth between these two mindsets. Keep rewriting your first draft as many times as you like, carefree and happy, without answering the questions below. When you’re ready to evolve your first draft to a more powerful superhero of a message, it’s time to write your second draft. Like your first draft you may write many second drafts. It’s the mindset of a first and second draft that’s important more than writing just two drafts.

First draft – writing

Second draft – editing

What is the purpose of my speech?

Most speeches have one of three types of purposes.

  1. Inform
  2. Entertain
  3. Inspire

Informational speeches might be a presentation you give to your team at work. An entertaining speech is your best man/woman speech (hopefully). An inspirational speech is a pitch or a candidate’s rallying message. Read more in-depth about the purpose types here.

A good speech may have all three elements baked into your message but identify your primary purpose. Ask yourself: what’s the one thing I want my audience to do as a result of my speech?

  1. Inform = Understand
  2. Entertain = Smile
  3. Inspire = Act

The purpose determines how you structure the rest of your speech. An informational speech may repeat the same information multiple times in multiple ways to hammer home what your audience should learn. An entertaining speech can be less structured and still hit the mark. An inspirational speech typically takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster from some conflict to a glorious breakthrough. See the Vonegut video referenced later in the storytelling section for the storytelling structure that inspires. That emotional payoff makes people more willing to act. Use it wisely, young Jedi master.

What is the theme of my speech?

Now that you have a first draft and know your purpose, identify your theme. The theme is your core message. Ask yourself: what’s the one thing you want your audience to remember about your speech?

Hi, I’m sitting in your audience.

You’re saying a lot of words.

The space in my brain is limited.

And I have to pick up groceries.

TLDR it for me.

What’s the one thing you want to store in my precious mental-real-estate?

every audience member at your speech

Read your first draft and ask these questions.

  • What’s the common theme in everything you’re writing?
  • What overlaps?
  • What stands out?
  • What’s unique?
  • What do you want to shout at the top of your lungs to everyone you meet and scream, “CHANGE THIS ONE THING! Please. Sorry for shouting. It’s just…it’s important”?

The answers might not all be the same, but now you have a list of suspects.

I normally have three or more themes baked into my first draft. It drove my mentor crazy. It made everyone who evaluated my speeches crazy until I learned to recognize it. Communicating multiple core messages is confusing, overwhelming, and tiring. The message is hard to receive. Audiences won’t stand for it. They’ll sit. And worst of all, they’ll tune out. Mission failure.

To clarify your core message, write it down in a single sentence. If that’s hard, simplify it. If you have multiple themes, pick what’s most important. Throw away the rest.

Multi-message example = “I want people to recycle, think about green energy and their CO2 emissions, and identify how their meat consumption impacts the planet and changes they could make”.

Single-message example = “I want people to recycle more”

Matt Dever, amateur environmentalist/pro writing refactorer

Cutting to one message is hard. But you won’t influence anyone by overwhelming them. Keep cutting away at the complexity until it’s one sentence that anyone in your audience can understand. You’re more likely to get action from your audience if you ask for a single thing: do this or remember that.  We want to think our audiences are as motivated as us.  Maybe, there will be a handful of motivated people.  Maybe, you’re speaking to a group of many like-minded people.  Still with our limited memories, if you ask me to do three things, it’s much less likely I’ll do any of them than if you ask me to do one thing.  

  • You might get 5% of your audience to do three things.
  • You might get 10% of your audience to do one of three things.
  • You might get 25% to do one thing, but only if you ask them to do just one thing.  

Now that you’ve cut to one core message, put that sentence in the first one minute of your speech. Keep it there. People tune out quickly if they don’t know why they should pay attention to you. Your core message is the most important reason why they should care. If your theme isn’t enough to sell the importance of your speech, nothing else will be.

Example Themes:

The fighters journey grows character traits every parent wishes for their child.

My family created the environment to heal my depression.

When I create the space to listen, it makes the best moments in life possible.

Matt Dever

How will I structure my speech?  

Now you have a fat blob of text, add a little structure.  You could skip this part and call it a first draft.  Before showing the first draft to a mentor for feedback, I want to have a semblance of structure.  Finding a mentor and getting feedback is will come later in this ‘Best-Speech’ series.

If you’re new to this process, use a classic structure to start: 

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them – Introduction
  • Tell them – Body
  • Tell them what you told them – Conclusion
How to structure your speech by telling em what you'll tell em, tell em, tell em what you told em
Credit – Yosemite Sam image, Creative Commons license

Structure Example:

  • Introduction – I’m going to tell you three things about web development today.
  • Body
    1. Web development blends three skills.
      • programming
      • user experience
      • product design
    2. Good web developers use engineering basics.
    3. The best web developers create like modern artists.
  • Conclusion – Today I told you three things about web development.  Oh and one more thing — web developers get girls and $.

In between each section add a transition sentence and you’re good to go.  Example for between point 1 and 2 above “Besides these skills, learn engineering principles to build great sites.”  Now talk about engineering. Good transition statements are short, connect the dots, and set up what follows.

How will I edit my speech?

Cut the fat

Read your current draft and for each sentence ask: does this support my purpose? If not, cut it. That doesn’t mean eliminate transition sentences. Your speech still needs to flow. If this is an entertaining speech, your objective is to make people smile so you can keep just about anything. But to educate or inspire, you’re building a tower and each word, sentence, and paragraph represents a building block in your foundation with your core message the tower at the top. If the foundation is weak, the tower will fall.

Next, ask what’s good but not great? When I work hard and write something good, I’m reluctant to cut it. That’s why I take a day or two break before editing. By cutting the good parts, the great parts shine even brighter. Don’t let your audience get lost in a sea of goodness. Aim for great. It just takes a bit more time to create.

Finally, review your jokes and eliminate anything that doesn’t make you laugh-out-loud. If you’re not beaming with pride at a joke, it’s not good enough. Test it on someone else to be sure. But test it. There’s nothing worse than smiling at your audience waiting for them to laugh and…silence.

Repeat this process often asking these questions:

  • Does this support my purpose?
  • What’s good, not great?
  • What’s funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny?

Don’t confuse people with unrelated information, barely-good stories, or kind-of-funny anecdotes. Stay on point. Be lethal with your editing sword.


Simplify words

Eliminate extra words, complicated words, words people don’t recognize, smart-sounding words, anything that’s more complicated than it needs to be. For example, where I work, it’s baked into the culture that people use the word “utilize” instead of “use”. You could also say they utilize the word “utilize” but that would just be ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as using the word utilize instead of use. Use has one syllable and three letters. Why use three syllables and seven letters to say the same thing? Because it sounds a little smarter…except to smarter people. Don’t sound smart. Keep it simple.

Simplify sentences

Now eliminate complicated sentences. Look for sentences with more than ten words. Can you say the same thing in less words? Your threshold might be higher depending on the complexity of your topic but don’t overestimate your audience. Most people appreciate the effort to simplify message.

If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.

Pascal, Locke, Franklin, Thoreau?

Look for sentences with commas, ands, buts, compound and complex sentences. Can you say the same thing in a simpler way? Would a compound or complex sentence be easier to process verbally if it was two sentences?

First draft showing written text.  Second draft showing edited version.

Simplify the rest

You can apply the same principles to your paragraphs, then your introduction, major body points, and conclusion, then the whole darn speech. You’re just looking at these larger chunks from a higher ten-thousand-foot level. Can restructure this paragraph to make it simpler for someone to process? Can you eliminate this section and still make the same point? Does your introduction foreshadow what’s coming? Does your conclusion drive home your core message?

In software engineering, we call this process refactoring. Refactoring is making your code easier to read and maintain while serving the same function. I can have 1000 lines of code add 1 + 1 or I can have 1 line. Which is easier to read? Easy – it’s the one line. That’s the extreme example but we apply it even in less extreme circumstances. Don’t say in two lines what you could say in one. Don’t say something in one complicated line when it would be clearer in two. There’s a bit of art to this but a good English major or writer can help you with the science.

If you don’t know where to start with simplifying your speech, contact a friend who writes well. Ask them to review your draft and mark it up with improvements. Or maybe save this part until you identify a speaking mentor which is coming in a future post.

‘Kill your babies’

To me, this means to cut your favorite stories, lines, jokes, anything that makes you feel good if it’s not serving your purpose so your audience understands your core message better. Even if you love it. Especially if you love it. It has nothing to do with human babies. I heard about “killing your darlings” from reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. Apparently, many other writers have said this which you can read about here.

I reframed King’s line to “kill your babies” because it’s easier to remember. Because it’s sadistic. I know. But we’re talking about writing, not humans. This is the hardest part of writing a speech for me so a line like this keeps it front and center. The gruesome contrast makes it more memorable to me than “darlings”.  Once you’re done cutting and expanding on points that support your purpose, you can always bring back these points from another angle that support your purpose.  They’re not dead, just lying dormant waiting to be resurrected.

How to ‘do your job’ as a writer

Football fans know about Bill Belichick’s catchphrase ‘Do Your Job’. If you don’t what ‘Do Your Job’ means read more here. As someone creating the ‘Best-Speech-of-Your-Life’,

your job is to write every – single – day

even when it’s hard, even when you don’t want to, even when on vacation.

Can you imagine someone creating a great speech without a lot of effort? You’ve probably seen someone give a great speech at a company meeting, at an event, or on video and thought “Wow! They’re gifted. I wish I could speak like that.” Each of those great speakers would tell you they worked damn hard to develop that speech or that ability. Maybe they’ve developed so much speaking ability that they don’t need to invest as much time as you will in this speech. That’s because they already developed those skills and you’re developing your skills.

There’s a story about a woman asking Picasso to draw him a picture.

Picasso draws it on a napkin in a minute and gives it to the woman.

The woman asks “how much?”

Picasso says, “one million dollars.”

The woman says, “but it only took you one minute to draw that.”

Picasso says, “no it took me a lifetime to be able to draw that in one minute.”

When you’re frustrated, stick to the process.  Same bat-place, same bat-time every day.  Ask yourself more questions. 

  • What’s a different way to think about your topic?  
  • What’s a question no one has answered?  
  • What broad concepts haven’t been connected?
  • What hasn’t been explored deeply?

See the theme: Better questions lead to the best speeches.  Creating better questions is hard but they begin to appear once you understand your topic more deeply and more broadly.  Unless you’re already an expert, it’s hard to say something interesting about a subject without diving in headfirst to the bottom.  That requires time and effort.  Sorry.  No shortcuts here.

Do your job. Write daily.

Read more posts in the ‘How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life‘ series here.