You’re great at writing copy, articles, and other long-form content. But do you stare blankly at the computer screen when it comes time to write a speech?
Maybe it’s because you are nervous about actually giving the speech live — which produces much more anxiety than clicking “publish” to make a blog post go live.
You can always go back and edit the post if you find a mistake or get an idea that will improve it. You can’t do that when giving a speech, though.
Once the words come out of your mouth, they’re out there and the moment is gone. And when giving a speech, the only thing that matters is the moment when all eyes are on you.
In this post, I’m going to address how to create content that is ready for prime time and how to be ready to steal the show when it’s your moment.
You’ll find these topics and more detailed in my new book, Steal the Show.
Writing speeches and stories
Excellent public speaking can be used to promote your big ideas, as well as change and transform the way people think, what they feel, and what they do.
Your performance can save the world. Literally.
- If your performance results in one person in the room making a positive change in his or her life, you’ve changed the world.
- If your performance results in a big sale that will make your company so much more successful that it will create more jobs and hire new employees, you’ve changed the world.
- If your toast at your son’s wedding makes his new bride feel like a member of the family, you’ve changed her life.
If you want to make a world-changing impact, you must:
- Put together a well-informed plan anchored by a big idea that delivers on a promise.
- Choose the right framework for organizing the content.
Sometimes, the “expert” doesn’t know that much more than the novice. He or she is often perceived as an “expert” simply because his or her information is better organized.
Hey, what’s the big idea?
A big idea supports the promise of your speech.
Sure, it’s the main point you want to make, but it’s also a statement of conviction that takes a position on whatever your topic may be.
A big idea shows the audience the world as it is and how much better the world could be if your idea became a reality — that’s the promise of your speech.
It also demonstrates how much worse their world will be if they don’t adopt this new way of thinking or being.
You don’t need to be different to make a difference
Your big idea doesn’t need to be original, as long as your big idea is rooted in your overall expertise and beliefs.
The same goes for your content. It doesn’t necessarily need to be different to make a difference.
Your big idea is the foundation of your entire performance. It delivers a big promise to the audience.
However, no matter how world-changing your big idea is, the audience must connect the dots between the message and the messenger.
Your big idea won’t resonate if your audience doesn’t understand why you are a credible messenger and why it has to matter to them.
The message must have a messenger
In one of my masterclass seminars, a young U.S. Navy officer was working on a keynote speech about domestic violence and approaches for reporting and stopping these behaviors in the military.
For personal reasons, he wouldn’t reveal why he had chosen to deliver this speech. The result was that no one in the seminar could understand why the officer had taken ownership of this topic.
Had he committed abuse and was making amends? Was his sister a victim of abuse?
If he’d only been able to discuss the situation a little more openly and explain why this topic was so important to him, the audience would have understood and seen him as an impassioned messenger.
The following questions will help you develop and evaluate your big idea:
- What matters most to you? What are you passionate about?
- How could your message make the world better?
- What is your personal connection to the subject matter?
- What does the audience’s world look like in terms of this idea? What are their limitations, concerns, hopes, and dreams?
- What are the costs of not changing?
- What is the promise? What will the audience get out of listening to you?
- What will the world look like if the audience adopts your big idea? Remember, your “audience” could be one person sitting across a desk from you.
Next, frame your content.
Frame and organize your big idea
When you organize your information for your audience, you organize the way they hear it and think about your topic.
That’s a great service for them whether you’re talking to two venture capitalists or an auditorium of 150 colleagues.
It also helps you give the presentation. The better organized it is, the easier it is for you to remember the structure and content.
Thankfully, you can organize your ideas using a few blueprints that have worked for countless nonfiction bestsellers, keynote speeches, group presentations, panel talks, and lectures.
These frameworks give you the tools to lead your audience to your big idea and underlying themes. They can also be combined and used together.
I’ll use books as examples rather than speeches, because it’s more likely people have read the same books than have heard the same speeches.
- The problem/solution framework: Dramatize and illustrate each problem and then offer a compelling solution. You’ll alternate problem with solution and your prescription for addressing the solution. Weave in stories and data, and build up to a big result. Politicians often use this structure.
- The numerical framework: Well-known to consumers of business books and speeches, the numerical framework is an old standard. You’re probably familiar with Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Numerical frameworks allow you to break up recommendations or new ideas into easy-to-understand chunks. Your numbered sections can be keys, principles, elements, rules, or values. The numbered points will always lead up to your big idea.
- The chronological framework: Present information in sequential order based on time or logical consistency, going from past to present to future. Your Pregnancy Week by Week by Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler uses this structure. Steve Jobs’s epic presentations on iPods and iPhones used sequential structures and pitched one feature at a time, as he lead his audience to understand the latest release’s features.
- The modular framework: This is the framework I used for Steal the Show — each part can be read and applied separately. You can go to different modules for the information you need first, rather than read the entire book from beginning to end.
- The compare and contrast framework: This framework is best suited in a discussion of two major subjects or thematic points where you’ll be showing differences. Jim Collins used the compare and contrast framework effectively in his book, Good to Great, and the hundreds of speeches he’s given based on it. Collins and his team analyzed more than 1,400 companies, identified 11 that became great, and then compared and contrasted the variables that led to the 11 standing out over all the rest.
- Aristotle’s famous three-act structure: I’m talking about the situation-conflict-resolution story arc universal to theater and drama, but it is also the core of virtually every story ever told. Many plays and movies have three acts built on this structure, as does the action within a single act.
Seven steps for effective content development and speech writing
Speeches don’t have to be written word-for-word and, if they are, they certainly don’t have to be memorized.
Just don’t read them off a piece of paper. Instead, you can create an outline with key points, supporting points, stories, and more.
But, that doesn’t get you off the rehearsal-hook.
I teach some of my students to write and memorize speeches. They learn how to perform with spontaneity, authenticity, and ease; the audience feels like the entire speech was crafted in the moment.
Others prefer to follow the outline structure explained above and improvise their way through the framework (that’s not the same as winging it). They often use sticky notes to organize and memorize all the various components of the speech: key points, stories, audience interaction, call-to-action, and more.
To do either well, rehearsal is required. If you’re interested in learning how to rehearse, read Steal the Show. I’ve dedicated chapter 14 to this topic.
In the meantime, use these seven steps for creative and effective content development and writing.
- “Brain dump” everything you know on the content topic. Tap your creative and associative powers without activating the judgment of the linear brain. Start out with a session of free-form writing or audio recording just to get it all out. I usually do this verbally and have someone take notes for me.
- Organize the brain dump by compartmentalizing related ideas. Look for the main points and supportive material. You may enjoy using sticky notes or a mind map to separate the main points from the supportive material. Or, you may thrive by talking through and notating the brain dump with a trusted colleague over lunch or even a beer after work.
- Note direct experiences that relate to your main topic. How can you talk about your experiences to support the change you will be asking your audience to make? If you are speaking on health, what health issues have you overcome? If you are trying to get a school board to change a policy, what experiences did your child have with the current policy?
- Gather the direct data, either anecdotal or scientific, that support your topic. Do preliminary searches for relevant data. Tap the most respected and credible sources that are heavily used by journalists and academics first, and ignore a lot of the less authoritative “research” you’ll find randomly in Google searches.
- Identify any vulnerabilities of logic or persuasiveness in your content. What arguments could your audience present? How can you skillfully address those arguments? Identify the various objections that people might make to your theories, experience, or personality.
- Let the editing process begin. Good content creation tends to be messy for a while. Don’t get discouraged if you need more than a few drafts — that’s how writing works. I suggest you go through your notes and choose the best pieces, stories, and data — the unifying theme of your speech. Or, choose what not to include, removing anything and everything that doesn’t serve the through-line, and advance the big idea and what you want your audience to think, feel, or do. This then becomes a recurring process: brain dump, organize, edit.
- Cut, cut, cut! As you get to the later stages of the editing process, it’s time to “murder your darlings.” Why is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s phrase from his book On the Art of Writing (1916) so often offered as advice to writers? Because many of us tend to add more details and examples to make important points to be sure the audience “gets it” or because we want them to think we’re smart and know what we’re talking about. Cut to the meat: choose the strongest detail, example, or data point at critical parts of your story. Your audience needs a lot less information to get to the “Aha!” moment than you might think.
Elements of the spoken story
As you begin thinking about and writing potential stories, it’s time to incorporate the elements that make up good stories for public speaking and performance.
You may have heard that it’s important for stories to have a beginning, middle, and end. That’s like telling me it’s important to kick a soccer ball “with a foot and five toes.”
A story may have a beginning, middle, and end, but knowing that won’t necessarily help you tell a better story.
Use this three-step process for telling terrific true tales
- Choose stories that demonstrate the philosophical or practical application of your promise.
- Have a passion for the story and an urgent reason to deliver it.
- Sculpt and shape the story to support the changes you’re asking the audience to make.
How to shape every story with the three-act structure
Here’s an example of how you can also use the three-act structure in each story you tell.
Let’s say I was telling a story about meeting my fiancé’s parents. (This is a completely fabricated story. It’s fake. It didn’t actually happen. I don’t drink wine, I was never engaged to a woman named Mimi, and I definitely don’t bake pies!)
Act One: The given circumstance. Setting, time, and place. Hopes and objectives.
Mimi’s family is very close … much closer than mine. They still live in the same house where she grew up. I couldn’t wait to see her old tree house and sit on the roof when everyone else was asleep.
The first time I met her family was during Thanksgiving. I made a pie, my secret recipe. She promised her parents would love me. I was going to prove to them that I was perfect.
They would say, “How did we ever survive without Michael?”
Act Two: The conflict. A struggle. Obstacles in the way.
Everything went wrong. I dropped the pie, and the dog ate it. Then the dog got sick.
We drove the dog to the vet while the turkey was burning in the oven. The dog turned out to be allergic to my secret ingredient — coconut.
And then we got in a car accident with her parents’ car. No one was hurt, thank God. But all the food was cold by the time we got back, and no one had eaten a thing. We had to have hamburgers for Thanksgiving dinner.
The whole time, I just thought about how I had let Mimi down. I knew this would be our first and last holiday together.
I was sneaking another glass of wine in the kitchen when I heard Mimi and her mom talking in hushed tones. I snuck over to the door so I could listen.
She wanted us to go. She wanted me to go. I understood why. This was not the picture-perfect holiday they had envisioned.
Act Three: The resolution. A change. Progress. A transformation.
But you know what Mimi said?
“This has been my favorite holiday. Because all the people I love are here together. Give Michael another chance. Give Michael a hundred more chances. Maybe he’s not perfect. But he is perfect for me.”
We’ve had four more Thanksgivings since then. And each time something has gone wrong. But now it feels like home. It’s better than perfect. It’s ours.
Turn a decent story into a great story.
The example above is a decent story on the page, and a great story when told with passion, connection, intensity, urgency, and heart.
A good verbal storyteller can make an average story on the page sound really darn good.
Moreover, if you know how to tell a story, then you know how to tell a joke. Most jokes are told like stories. They include exposition, conflict, and a resolution. Suspense is the key.
There is much more on storytelling in Steal the Show.
All’s well that ends well
Anyone can start something. Only a few finish.
You, my friend, are a finisher. And that is something that should make you proud.
Together, we set out to demystify speech writing, and I think we did a bang-up job.
We peeked inside the presentation process, so you could see where big ideas start and how they can come alive through your performance to change the world.
We also dissected the three-act structure so we can tell compelling stories out loud — not just on the page.
To learn more, head on over to StealTheShow.com and pick up a copy.