Speech Preparation #4: Wrestling Writer’s Block to Write the First Draft
Writer’s block is debilitating.
Writer’s block is discouraging.
Writer’s block stops average speakers from becoming great speakers.
Don’t let it stop you!
The previous article in the Speech Preparation Series gave tips for writing a speech outline.
This article shows you how to wrestle writer’s block by transitioning from a speech outline to the first draft.
How to Write the First Draft of a Speech
First, recognize the two most common causes for writer’s block, in the context of speech writing:
- Lack of Direction: You lack clarity about what you want to say.
- Large Ego: You believe the first draft must be a perfect speech.
The first cause — lack of direction — is easily avoidable if you are following the steps recommended in this article series. Previous articles have covered how to how to select your speech topic and core message through audience analysis, and how to craft a high-level outline. With your core message as your target, and your outline providing a blueprint, writing the first draft is within grasp because you know which direction to head.
The second cause — large ego — manifests itself by causing you to edit every sentence the minute you’ve written it in the hopes of producing a perfect speech on the first try. Even worse, perhaps you are editing and striking sentences in your head! This slows the speechwriting process like molasses flowing on a winter’s day.
Realize that the first draft is not the final draft — it need not be perfect. You will probably hate the first draft. That’s good. Channel that hatred into aggressive editing… later. Your goal in this stage is to capture the main concepts and ideas, not to have them in deliverable form.
Tips for Writing the First Draft
Writing the first draft used to be the most painful part of speech preparation for me. You can ease the pain with these mental tricks:
- Set a deadline. If you know your core message and you have an outline, there’s no reason why you can’t produce a rough first draft in a single sitting. A deadline is motivational magic.
- Write in bullet form. Write in sentences if you can, but if sentences aren’t flowing from your mind, then start with key words or phrases in bullet form.
- Write out of sequence. You don’t need to write the blocks of your speech in the order they appear on the outline. Quite often, speakers get hung up on trying to write the perfect opening. If the opening isn’t coming to you, start with a section in the body of the speech.
- Don’t worry about transitions. If your first draft doesn’t flow from one outline point to the next, don’t worry. Those can be fixed later. Often, my first draft contains notes to myself like this: “[Whoa… need bridging between these ideas.]“
- Don’t worry about words. Just get the ideas down using whatever words first come to you. You can edit for precision and better words later.
- Don’t worry about the length. It’s okay if your first draft is way too long. (It’s also okay if it is way too short, although most people don’t tend to have this problem.) This is an issue to solve in the editing phase.
My Speech has Slides. What is a Good First Draft?
If you adopt the advice in Presentation Zen (my book review) or Beyond Bullet Points, then don’t worry about slides in your first draft at all. Focus on drafting the oral component of your speech first. The slides, which are complementary, can be designed later. This is the process I recommend.
However, everyone has different habits, and if yours involve working on slides early in the process, then do what works for you. Keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t get too detailed. A good first draft slide might include a few words (a “title”, or maybe a quotation) along with a sketch of a figure (or a table, or chart, or some other visual component).
- Go low-tech. You can produce your entire first draft of slides on paper, or sticky notes, or on a whiteboard. There’s no need to tempt yourself with all the whizbang features of PowerPoint or KeyNote at this stage.
- Avoid the temptation to perfect the slides. Don’t worry about detailed drawings, or colors, or font sizes, or any other design criteria. Leave that for the next iteration.
- Slides alone are not a first draft. Produce a first draft of the oral component of your speech along with the slides. Producing a parallel written speech will help you avoid the temptation to insert all those words onto slides. Audiences hate reading text-heavy slides.
First Draft Example — Face the Wind
Here is the first written draft for my 2007 contest speech Face the Wind. This draft is more polished than the first draft of most speeches I write for two reasons:
- The core message for the speech was ruminating in my mind for several months.
- Though this is the first written draft, I drafted it virtually while commuting to and from work over several days.
However, as we’ll see in later articles, this draft bears little resemblance to the final draft.
Note that the draft headings correspond with the outline elements.
Hook / Opening
Mister Contest Chair, Fellow Toastmasters and guests…
A year and a half ago, my wife and I traded our condo keys for house keys. Our floor space doubled, but there were two much larger changes. First, our mortgage jumped from something quite manageable to something which scares me considerably. Second, the few hours that I once affectionately called “free time” became known as “yard work.” Yard work is a bit like working at MDA for me. I don’t have any clue what I should be doing half the time, but somehow I always end up being terribly busy.
Japanese Maple Tree
The first big project I tackled was to take care of numerous bushes and trees that were either dead or located in places where my wife didn’t want them. Most of this involved pulling dried sticks out of the earth. The Japanese maple tree was a bit different…it had leaves! So, rather than chop it out, we decided to move it to a prominent spot in the front yard.
The tree was only seven feet tall. I quickly estimated that I would be done in time to enjoy a mid-morning lemonade. I started digging a hole around the tree about two feet in diameter. Unfortunately, the roots seemed to extend beyond that. I extended the hole to three feet… no luck. Four feet. No luck! After a few hours of digging, I had a moat around the tree, several feet wide and deep.
I exposed all the roots that I could see, and pulled on the trunk.When the tree didn’t pop out of the hole, I tugged harder. Tugs turned to yanks… yanks turned into full-fledged wrestling. Yes, when nobody is looking, this is what I do in my back yard… wrestle trees! Eventually, the tree took pity on me and fell over. I then discovered the source of the tree’s strength… roots as expansive as its branches! Strong roots… strong tree.
Planting it in the front yard was quite a bit easier. As I gazed up, exhausted, my eye was drawn to my neighbour’s yard. Specifically, the fifty-foot monster tree in my neighbour’s yard looming over my garage. I put on my engineering cap, and walked a few houses down the street so I could get a good perspective. No doubt about it… that tree would easily crush my garage if it ever toppled over. Good thing trees have such strong roots.
Many months later, the yard work mercifully ended with the rainy season. Or, perhaps I should call it the wind storm and snow season. During the first big wind storm, I was in Quebec on a business trip. I flipped on the news, and was amazed to see footage from BC on the national news – gigantic trees falling to the ground and on buildings.
Terror flashed before me… could my neighbour’s monster tree be toppled by the wind? I called my wife. She reported that the gas BBQ had been lifted off the deck and slammed into the house. However, the monster tree stood tall, and only a few of its branches littered my yard.
Yet, the television footage was real. This hit home when my wife and I were driving through Stanley Park some weeks later. It was impossible to imagine how so many trees could be knocked over.
A theory was put forth by several arborists in Greater Vancouver. Perhaps it was not the force of the wind alone. Rather, it was the force combined with the direction. Apparently, the wind storms of 2006 came from an unusual direction. Each time the wind blows, trees become stronger as they resist it. But, since these trees had never had to face a strong wind from this particular direction, they were “side-swiped” and unable to cope.
In case you were wondering… my Japanese maple tree was hardly touched by the wind.
The events of this past week reminded me of the importance of facing the wind head-on.
Over the past few years, my sister-in-law Michelle and her husband Lance have had a pair of pregnancies cut short by miscarriage. This was obviously heartbreaking, but Michelle and Lance have strong roots. When the wind came, not once, but twice, they faced the wind head on, and did not let it topple them or their dream.
On Sunday night, a phone call a few minutes shy of midnight announced the birth of their son, Maximus. The name is Latin for “greatest”, and he certainly is a great joy. However, Maximus was born a full month premature, and so he is confined to an incubator. It seems he still needs to face the wind a little longer… but his roots are strong, so I’m confident he won’t be toppled.
Fellow Toastmasters, we can’t control when the wind comes, how powerful it is, or its direction. However, we can control our response to it. We can try to evade it, and risk being side-swiped… or we can face the wind head-on.
Mister Contest Chair…
Next in the Speech Preparation Series
The next article in the Speech Preparation Series discusses six power principles for speech editing. You’ll see these principles were applied to transform Face the Wind as well.