How to Avoid Pain Writing Toastmasters Speeches (while keeping the quality)

Writing my first ever Toastmasters speech was an unimaginable pain.

The task was to write “something about myself” (aka The Icebreaker). But how do you compress 28 years of life (my age in August 2012) into 500-600 words?

With my initial attempt, I ended up listing adjectives, such as: “Optimist” or “Strategist” and descriptions, such as “Love to be in control” and “Have the perception that time is limited”. Sweating out 500 words along those lines took me a full Saturday, at the end of which I decidedly rejected the whole thing and started over.

My second attempt was so bad that I even deleted it from my Evernote (at least, I can’t find it there now).

The Saturday of the coming weekend was spent in agony again, as I learned about the “Rule of Three” and attempted to introduce myself with “Three things I learned about the world and myself during the university studies:
1) Who doesn’t try doesn’t succeed
2) Sometimes it’s good to fail
3) It’s real fun to entertain”

At the end of the day, I was at 650 of words, which I – rightfully – evaluated as “disgustingly cliche”.

Only on Sunday evening – 2 days before the meeting with the last couple of hours of free time ahead, I got the revealing idea of “why don’t I just describe the ‘Day in the Life of a Management Consultant'”, and before going to bed, I had a passable draft ready.

Looking back, I’m rather proud of the result (the speech was fun to give, and the script is now, almost 9 years later, fun to read). But the process? Appalling! Writing speeches should not be painful – at least, not that much.

Most Toastmasters I know escape the pain by skipping the preliminary drafts altogether – as they start preparing their speech only a day or two ahead of the delivery. It’s true that when you must deliver a speech on Tuesday, you will have the speech on Tuesday, whether you start writing it two days, or two weeks before (and you won’t spend that much time on writing it in the “2 day variant”). The problem with the “2 day variant” is that two days are – at least for most – space for producing just a single draft. 2 days are not enough time for your ideas to incubate. This often results in shallowness – a bland speech lacking any true insights.

But how to limit the “pain” to a minimum when starting the writing process ahead of time?

The answer is: Aim for writing 4 drafts from the beginning.

The cardinal mistake of any creative work I made when writing my first IceBreaker was not starting too early – but always committing emotionally to the draft I was working on at the moment. When an idea struck me, I started developing it with the thought of “this must be it!”. That robbed me of the ease and playfulness any creative effort requires; made the writing feel like hard labor; and ultimately resulted in a disappointment, when at the end of the day I evaluated my day’s creation as “not passable”.

Had I changed my attitude to “No matter how the first draft turns out, I will write other three anyway”, I would have put myself at ease. Pursuing a train of thoughts that is “original, but possibly stupid” becomes way less risky when you know that if you go too crazy, you’ll have another 3 attempts to “get serious again”.

Ron Berger – a teacher whom Adam Grant introduces in his book Think Again, used the same approach to expand the thinking of his students:

“For architecture and engineering lessons, Ron had his students create blueprints for a house. When he required them to do at least four different drafts, other teachers warned him that younger students would become discouraged. Ron disagreed—he had already tested the concept with kindergarteners and first graders in art. Rather than asking them to simply draw a house, he announced, ‘We’ll be doing four different versions of a drawing of a house.’

Some students didn’t stop there; many wound up deciding to do eight or ten drafts. The students had a support network of classmates cheering them on in their efforts. ‘Quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing,’ Ron reflects. ‘They need to feel they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board. . . . They soon began complaining if I didn’t allow them to do more than one version.'”

Adam Grant, Think Again

Seth Godin, who blogs daily and whose first blog post was posted on January 15th 2002, describes this as “Cracking the Pottery”:

“For every post that makes it to this blog, I write at least three, sometimes more. (…) It turns out that this is an incredibly useful exercise. I know that there’s going to be a post, every morning, right here. What I don’t know, what I’m never sure of, is which post.”

Seth Godin, Cracking the Pottery

There are enough stressors in our days already. Why add another one? The next time you set out to write a speech (or a blog post, if that’s more your cup of tea), set out to to write four drafts from the start.

While writing the first, the second, or the third one, it will be too early to stress out – and once you start writing the fourth draft, you’ll be able to draw confidence from the first three drafts already in your pocket.

More on Speechwriting:

Photo by Richard Dykes on Unsplash

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