You have a big talk coming up. So you say to yourself, I’m going to sit down right now and write it.
You type one sentence: “Good afternoon.”
You delete it. You wonder if you’re a fraud. You wonder why you’re doing this. You wonder what to have for dinner.
Then: Oh would you look at that. I just got an email! I better go see what it’s about.
There isn’t a person who’s ever been asked to speak who hasn’t done this. Not. One.
Myself included. I also delay, procrastinate, worry. Except I have the best out ever. I can easily avoid prepping my talk—I’ll work on yours instead!
As a consultant who helps people identify their messaging and develop their talks, yes, working on yours is a whole lot easier than working on my own. But I also realize that sitting down to a blank page will stop anyone cold.
For most of us, sitting down to “write a talk” from start to finish just doesn’t work.
You’ve got to give yourself something to work with first; think of it as getting a lot of clay on the table so that you have something to shape.
So here are my tips for working on your talk–without writing it from scratch.
First, do a big ol’ brain dump.
Note, this is NOT the same as “writing your talk.” Fact is, you don’t know what you really think about a thing until you express it—it’s in the cognitive act of putting it into words that you give form to the ideas. You may even be surprised about what comes out. I know I often am.
Here are some prompts to use to fuel this writing session. Use whatever ones work for you, or do them all:
- What I love about this topic is:
- What frustrates me about this topic is:
- The thing people don’t realize about this topic is:
- The one thing I want the audience to walk away with and why:
The only rule is that you KEEP WRITING. If you hit the brakes as you do it, you will not get to the good stuff. Whether you type or handwrite, set a timer for 15 minutes and just write out your opinions and thoughts on the topic—in no particular order. Jot down any stories or scenes or examples that come to mind. But just a quick sketch–don’t get bogged down.
Remember, this is not for anyone to see but you. This blurt onto the page captures your first thoughts, which often prove valuable.
I started my TEDx talk process this way–I tried to get out of the way of my internal editor and just say everything, messy and loose and all over the place. Just to get it OUT of my head. Say the unpopular things. Say the things you really think.
The only rule is that you don’t hit the delete button and you don’t pause to reread or think about it. You keep your pen or fingers moving, even if what you write is nonsense. Don’t judge, revise, or edit. Just get it out.
Now, put it away and don’t read it until later. Let it sit. Like a good stew, those ideas will mingle and marinate and be better tomorrow.
Next: Get it onto cards (or stickie notes!).
Grab a stack of index cards or stickie notes. Whatever you prefer. Think of each one as like a tiny dish to hold a single mouthful of an idea. The only rule: You must do this by hand, with pen and paper, not on your computer.
Here’s why this works: In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says he has an analog desk, where there is no digital equipment, just paper, markers, and other physical tools.
“The computer is really good for editing your ideas,” he says, “but it’s not really good for generating ideas…The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us–we start editing ideas before we have them.
Here’s what to do now:
- Identify your key ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Go back through your brain dump and pick out the ones you know you want to include. The rule is that each card gets ONE idea; i.e., “Companies overestimate the value of perks,” or “Searching for your passion is a waste of time.”
- Sift and feel around for examples, stories, or anecdotes that you want to share. And you need several! A talk without scenes or stories is dry indeed. Write ONE story or scene per card. So you might write, “The day I quit my job,” or “what my father said to me”—you know what these things are. You just need a phrase to capture the idea so you can include it in the talk. What scenes do you want to show in your talk? What moments or stories matter?
- Capture the evidence you want to share. What information will help create the frame and context for your talk? Maybe it’s a few statistics or other things, experts, case studies you want to include. Again, one per card— “Seth Godin quote about how to stand out,” “Domestic violence stat,” or “Client case study: XYZ company”
OK! Now you have a stack of cards, and you will continue to add more. In fact, spend a few days doing this. The benefit is it’s non-linear–so you’re not worried about what you’re saying in what order. Just capture the key stuff and put it in the stack.
- Shuffle the deck. When you have a solid set of cards, start shuffling them, or put all those stickies up on a wall. Stare at them. Move them around. This is what’s so handy about using cards vs. writing out your talk first: You can physically manipulate them and look at them in a few different ways.
- Experiment with flow. Move them around, look at them, and see how doing so changes the shape and flow of your talk. This is way more fun than trying to write it from beginning to end, which is too hard.
- Talk it through. Once you have your cards in an order (and it can change), start talking them through, out loud, as if you’re giving the talk, but you don’t have to be all formal. Do it as if you’re telling someone a story (which, by the way, you are). The talk actually can take shape this way, without having to write down or memorize a script.
Rather than write a script and memorize it, practice talking it through with the cards. You’re not writing for your audience; you’re speaking! So practice speaking. Because every time you do, you’re burning it into your mind and walking those words across your tongue so that they get used to being there. You may never say the same thing the same way twice. That’s ok! You can’t forget your own stories and ideas.
(Tip: Those cards may be a clue as to where you might use a slide. You don’t need a slide for every single thought. Think of slides as a place for the audience to perch while you unpack your idea.)
Boom. You will have a talk on your hands, without blank page syndrome. That’s a win!