Don’t Begin at the Beginning
There you are staring at a blank Word doc on your computer screen. The same blank page you’ve been looking at for the last half hour. It’s time to write your presentation and nothing even remotely creative is happening. Where to start? What to use as the intro? What to leave in? What to leave out? You start, stop, delete and start again. This is a tortuous process. Been there? I think we all have at one time or another whether writing a presentation, a speech or book report back in the fifth grade. It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s a tip. Don’t begin by trying to write the first line. Instead, focus on the following process.
Pick a good topic. This should something that provides value to your audience and enhances their condition in some way.
Define your audience. Who are you talking to? How old are they? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What are their attitudes, beliefs and feelings about your topic?
Define your goal. What do you want the audience to think, feel, remember, repeat or act upon when you are finished?
Then, figure out how you are going to organize information to take them from where they are to where you want them to be one idea at a time.
In his great book, Perfect Pitch, legendary ad guy, Jon Steele, says, “The point of any presentation is to take the key decision-maker or makers from the place they currently occupy to the place where you want them to be. From Point A where you don’t have their business to Point B where you do. Point B is your objective. Point B is where you win.” Jon knows what he’s talking about after spending over 35 years pitching new business for some of the world’s biggest advertising agencies and working with some of the biggest brands. When he wrote Perfect Pitch, he had won over 90% of the new business he pitched including an account that led to a campaign with 2 words we’ll never forget: Got Milk?
Point A is where the audience is mentally and emotionally when you begin the speech or presentation. You need to know this in order to lead them where you want them to be at the end of the speech, Point B. To paraphrase an example in Perfect Pitch, if someone called me and asked how to get to the Santa Monica Pier, the first thing I would need to know is where they are currently located. The directions from Orange County would be entirely different than directions from Beverly Hills. It’s been said that the best speakers are the best listeners because they listen, do research and gather all the information they can about the audience so they know their wants, needs, attitudes, beliefs, etc. All of this is Point A.
Point B is your goal, what you want the audience to think, feel, remember, repeat or act upon at the end of your speech or presentation. When you determine where you want to lead the audience, start listing all the ideas that will help you prove your premise and take them to where you want them to be. This is known as “brainstorming” or the “data dump” when you get all of your ideas, research, quotes, examples, anecdotes, illustrations, pictures, everything you have out where you can see them. For simple projects, this can be done fairly quickly with pen and paper. An advertising agency preparing a new business presentation, however, will spend months doing focus groups, market research and testing creative concepts to develop their message. One of the methods you can use to get everything out where you can see it is with Post-it Tabs, a felt pen and a flip chart. Write your ideas and material as brief notes on the Post-its and slap them on the board. I use different colored post-its: yellow for my main points, pink for supporting material and green for exercises.
Draw a Map from Point A to Point B
To organize all of this material, many speakers use something called “Affinity Mapping” which actually comes from the world of design. Affinity mapping is a way for groups to identify and organize data in a meaningful way. I find it helps individual speakers do the same. Here’s a wonderful little video on YouTube that explains all.
Using the Affinity mapping technique, organize the information into a flow structure. There are many flow structures you can use. Jerry Weissman, one of the best presentation coaches in the country, lists 16 in his great book, Presenting to Win. They include Modular, Chronological, Physical, Spatial, Problem/Solution, Issues/Actions, Opportunity/Leverage, Form/Function, Features/Benefits, Case Study, Argument/Fallacy, Compare/Contrast, Matrix, Parallel Tracks, Rhetorical Questions and Numerical. The book goes into great detail explaining each one and the advantages and disadvantages of using each approach. Keep in mind, the idea is to take the audience from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way possible.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else”
– Yogi Berra
The Premise Approach
For most speeches and presentations, I like to use the simple premise structure recommended by speech coach Patricia Fripp. This method organizes the information around a simple premise which is a clear statement of the idea you are selling and a statement that causes the audience to ask, “how? or “why?” An example would be, “Anyone can be a more effective speaker” or “My favorite color is blue”. These are statements which cause the audience to ask, “How?” or “Why?”. Follow the premise with three points that support your idea and then write the open, close and work on the transitions. It’s a very clear, simple structure which looks like this:
Supporting Point #1
Supporting Point #2
Supporting Point #3
Putting it on Paper
Once you’ve organized the material, it’s time to write it all out. Should you write out your entire speech? Some people think that kills spontaneity and it’s way too much work. If I’m conducting a seminar or workshop where I’m working with a group for several hours, I won’t write it out but work from notes or bullet points I’ve memorized. If it’s a shorter speech, I always write it out. I don’t read from the script but I use the process to find the most effective way to say what I want to say using the most effective language possible.
Writing for the Spoken Word
When you deliver the speech, however, you don’t want it to sound like you’ve written it out, like you’re reading a script. You want your talk to sound like, well, a talk. You want it to sound like you’re having a conversation so write for the spoken word, not the page. I’ve worked with a lot of speakers who are great writers but they write for the page which is much different from writing for the spoken word. They’ll write a speech like they are writing an article for a magazine. A speech is something different. We don’t speak like we write. We don’t speak in perfect sentences and fully formed paragraphs. We speak in phrases with little regard for punctuation. An article is written to be read. A speech is written to be heard and seen. There are advantages to both forms. When you are giving a speech, you are not only delivering the content, the words (verbal) but also communicating with how you say the words (vocal), how you look when you’re saying the words (visual) and how you feel when you say the words (emotional). You are able to do so much more by standing in front of a group and delivering these 4 forms of communication simultaneously.
Write for This
Not for This
Tell a Friend and Take Notes
I personally think we’re at our best when we are with our family or good friends. That’s when we’re most relaxed, confident, engaging, animated, caring, charming, playful, and funny. It makes sense that if you want to be this “best you” when you’re in front of an audience, you should organize and write your material like you’re talking to a good friend. To capture this tone, simply imagine you’re telling your friend about your topic. Using your outline (flow structure) imagine you’re at Starbucks with your friend and this is the topic of conversation. Grab your phone and record yourself telling your friend about whatever it is you are speaking about. Then, play it back. Note the tone, the way you spoke, the words and phrases used. Transcribe what you said. This is the first draft of your speech.
A good speech or presentation is simply a conversation you’re having with the audience one person at a time so why not start by having a conversation, real or imagined with a good friend?
Rehearse, Record, Re-write, Repeat
The great part about this process is that you can now go back and make what you said even better (not something available in real life). If you’ve ever wished you could go back to a particular interaction and say something differently, now you can! Take your first draft and read it out loud. How does it sound? Then rehearse again while you record it. Watch the video and analyze. Then rewrite and repeat the process. Rehearse. Record. Rewrite. Repeat. As you tweak the copy this way, you’ll get it down to how you want to deliver the speech. Jerry Seinfeld would spend hours trying to take an 8-word sentence down to 5. You don’t necessarily have to be that obsessive but you get the point.
Sometimes, you only deliver the speech once which is a shame. When you deliver the speech in front of a live audience, it becomes something else. Now, the audience is a part of the conversation. A speech is one thing when you’re practicing in your office in front of your virtual audience and something else when you are in front of a group of living, breathing and reacting people. You’ll quickly see what actually works, what connects, what communicates and what doesn’t. It’s really fascinating. And to make it even more fun, no two audiences are alike. A live speech is an experience that happens only once, in the moment. It’s something that’s shared between the speaker and the audience and will never happen that exact same way again.
And Now, for a Dated Social Reference!
I once heard that Bob Dylan believed that a song should be different each time you performed it. Which is to say that the recorded version of “Like a Rolling Stone” was the version that happened that day in the recording studio, warts and all, and would never sound the same way again. An audience, months later, in concert may hear something totally different. The recording simply captured a moment in time. Conversely, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was focused, some say obsessively so, on creating the perfect recording. This is obviously something that couldn’t be recreated in concert but would live forever as a perfect, recorded piece of music. What approach should you take? I’ll go with Team Bob. I like the dynamics of having a 2-way conversation with a live audience which will be exciting, unpredictable and different every time you do it. That’s what makes it fun.