January 11, 2022

Getting started when you don't know where to start

Public Speaking , Presentation Tips , Three Things

For most people, writing speeches and creating presentations isn't their primary work; it's part of how they get their most important work done.

So it can be frustrating when a presentation won't come together easily, especially when we know the audience is important or the topic is complicated. Procrastination may be tempting but not the preferred approach. So what can you do?

You can try any one of these three simple ways to get going:

1. Put your thoughts on index cards

When there's a lot of information or you have a lot of ideas, but the organization isn't apparent, index cards can be a huge help. (Sticky notes work, too.)

Write one idea per card. Get all your ideas onto cards. Add more when you think of them. Arrange and rearrange the cards on a table or pin them up on the wall as you look for themes and patterns. Set aside the ideas that don't seem to fit. 

2. Use a timer and a question

Give yourself a five minute limit, a question to answer, and zero expectations.

Your question can be What am I trying to get across? or What do I need this speech to do? or What do people need to understand?

Write for the entire five minutes and write whatever comes to mind.

You can write I have no idea but I need to figure it out. Or you can even do a little whining: I don't know and I don't have time for this stupid exercise. 

But if you'll keep writing the entire five minutes, you're likely to hit on themes that can help you focus your message and get going.

3. Change it up

If you're trying to work in PowerPoint and getting nowhere, switch to storyboarding with pen and paper. If you're writing by hand and the words aren't there, write on a laptop. If writing isn't working, try talking it through; you can tell a friend what you're trying to say or record your voice and transcribe the audio.

And sometimes, it can help to just stand up and start presenting—not in front of your audience, of course, but to a colleague, a mirror, or a camera.

Presenting your topic before you're ready can speed up the process of determining what's important and where your gaps are. And a friendly listener can give insights about what makes sense, what's interesting, and where there are questions to be answered. 

"I haven't had writer's block. I think it's because my process involves writing very badly."

– Novelist Jennifer Egan

Think production not perfection

We often see speakers at our school write and re-write the first line. They have trouble getting past their goal of a perfect open. Yet, years of revising speeches has taught us that the first paragraph often gets cut entirely—because it's not getting to the point quickly enough. 

Free yourself from this need to create perfection by realizing it can all change and probably will. Save yourself time and frustration. Write a quick first draft, full of problems. Then edit your way to a better version.

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