Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

I recently had to give a speech at a graduation, and I decided that I wanted to try to prepare it without writing it out. I have nothing against speeches that are pre-written, nor do I think that an extemperaneous speech is inherently better. My desire came from a place of curiosity.

I wondered, how hard would it be to prepare a speech that had structure, meaning and a clear message without any notes?

The answer is, “really freaking hard.”

The picture above is a diagram of my speech written on a small whiteboard.

The goal of the arc is to show me how the story (or arc of the speech) is supposed to flow and where my final payoff is in the bottom (the only sentence that I carefully worded and wrote out). This diagram is the final evolution of at least a dozen versions that I wrote on the board and then a few more that I wrote in a notebook. Each one contained different elements, but the core message and desired effect was the same.

What I discovered in the process:

Anyone who has ever given a speech knows that having a clear message is paramount. Writing out our speeches helps us to construct a clear message, keep the rhetoric tight and clear out meandering thoughts. I didn’t have that luxury. I would have to keep the structure tight, clear and energetic without the safety net of a script. That’s when I came up with a concept that probably isn’t new, but it was a new discovery to me.

1. Lily pads.

The concept is like this. When trying to structure a careful argument or make a point that is going to go beyond 30 seconds, one can quickly get lost in the amorphous thoughts that exist in our brains. What if I start thinking about American Idol in the middle of my speech? Will I just start talking about that? Probably not, but I might say a lot of “uhs” and “ums” until I can get my mind back on track.

My diagram at the top of the page is an example of setting out a series of main resting points or “lily pads” that will help me cross the water of the speech. Once I reach those points, I can relax because it is either a story that I know well or point that has a clear shape. From these points, I can see how the arc of the story will continue.

2. Practice leaping.

This is one of the hardest parts about not writing it out beforehand. I needed to practice leaping from pad to pad (point to point) even though I was still revising the speech as I went along. What I found, however, is that rather than make me more anxious, it comforted me. As I felt more comfortable with the stories and the arc of the speech, I could tell when a leap wasn’t working and that I needed something else. The result was that, once I was giving the speech, I felt very confident with what I was saying and how I was going to say it. The practice and the structure also helped me to know that I was going to keep it within my allotted time limit of 12 minutes. As long as I was disciplined and didn’t add any new stories, I would be fine. It also helped my to figure out the pace and rhythm of the speech.

Finally, I am not going to try to judge whether it was more successful than a written speech, or if it even was a success. Here is what I will say, I didn’t lose my place. I could look at the students while talking to them, and even move around in front of them, reacting to their own reactions.

Why not just write it and memorize it? Good point. You certainly can do that and present it naturally (like a play). I suppose I wanted a different challenge. I wanted to speak from my heart in the language of the heart, which a good writer can also do on paper, but I wasn’t feeling confident in my skills. Also, I hate the feeling that I might forget something in the speech and have to find my way. The end result was a speech that was more of a conversation, that held very few pauses to find my way and that had a definite shape and message.

In any event, if you are interested in crafting a speech or doing a talk without notes, this post should give you some practical advice to get started.

Once you have an idea of what your message is, then figure out what the lily pads or main points (stories) are. Draw them out on an arc like the one above and practice making your way from point to point. Time yourself to see how you are doing and if you need to take things out or add things in. The more that you practice saying it, the more familiar you will become with the feeling of the leap.

1. Clear message
2. Lily Pads
3. Practice, practice, practice.

Good luck!


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