For the past few weeks, I’ve been working, in between-times, on an article for the website of the Manchester Salon (if you’re interested, please click through and read my views on Public performance: defending quality in a dysfunctional society) and it occurred to me the process of getting this out of my head and on to the page was similar to the process of writing a long speech or presentation. Similar but not the same. Since people sometimes ask me how to set about preparing a talk of half an hour or more, I thought it would be worth discussing it here on the blog.
It starts with brainstorming. Whack down on paper or screen all your ideas, everything you might want to cover in the course of your talk. Don’t worry about the order, don’t worry about the wording; just make brief notes of all the points you can think of that you might want to say. When you’ve done this, you can begin moulding your material into some sort of shape. This shape will almost certainly change as you work but this is an integral part of the process. The thing to watch is that you don’t let your creation take on a life of its own: keep the central theme constantly in mind and be strict about what you include. However interesting your asides and rambles may be in themselves, if they don’t support your core message, you will, I’m afraid, have to discard them on this occasion. (If I come across something I really like but can’t fit into a talk, I record it in a separate document, in case I have an opportunity to use it another time.)
The big difference between writing an article and preparing a speech or presentation is that if you’re going to be delivering it verbally you must focus on how it sounds when you say it, rather than how it sounds when you read it. Even for a long talk, I believe you’re better off with bullet points than with a script. This involves investing a bit more time and effort at the rehearsal stage but it will pay dividends on the day, allowing you to build a much stronger rapport with your audience. Concentrate especially on the opening and the ending but you need to have practised saying all of it out loud until you know exactly what you’re going to say at every point.
One issue common to all tasks of this type is procrastination. Particularly if we legitimately have to do some research for the speech/ presentation/article in question, it can be all too easy to allow ourselves to get sidetracked; the internet is a wonderful tool but it provides endless potential diversions from the job in hand. Although we may be sufficiently aware and disciplined not to allow ourselves to wander away from our desk, make or take telephone calls or indulge in any other obvious distractions, the line between research and reading something that catches our eye can be difficult to draw accurately and, before we realise it, hours of our time can disappear into the black hole of cyberspace. Stay focused!
I was lucky with this article that the Salon has no policy on word-count, so I was free to write as much as I wanted to. There is a great deal more I could have said but I’ve tried to keep it as concise as possible – and I suggest you do the same with your speech or presentation. Make your points clearly but don’t labour them and, as I’ve already said, only include points that fit the flow of your talk and contribute to your central message. When you’ve finished your first draft, say it all as you intend to say it on the day and time it. This is an important part of the process because your content has got to fit your allocated 30/45/60 minutes – however long you’ve got – and it’s difficult to estimate how much you can say in that time. This is another reason it’s essential you hone your wording: if you make a point in a significantly different way every time you say it, you will obviously take a different length of time to express it.
Whether you’re preparing something to be read or to be heard, my advice to you is get started early. This will save you stress and also help you create a better finished product because you’ll have time to look over it again, to tweak and improve it, before you have to finalise it. Get the first couple of stages of the job done – the brainstorming and the initial shaping – and then let your ideas ferment at the back of your mind for a few days as you get on with your life. You may be surprised by what insights, turns of phrase and metaphors emerge from your subconscious.