By invitation, I put on the speaker's shoes and walk around in their world, exploring their perspectives and their ideas as best I can. And then I put my shoes back on to interrogate those ideas and perspectives, recast them, and articulate them in a way that captures the imagination of the people listening. I ask myself questions about what I don't know I don't know. I ask myself questions I think the audience would want to know. I go down internet rabbit holes, unearth question marks around every corner, interrogate everything I hear and read in the media that might pertain to the speech, and wrestle with structures and frameworks and central themes. I ask questions right up until the last period on the first draft, knowing that if I start from a place of ignorance and am willing to put in the work, this curiosity, openmindedness, and fearlessness will take me where I need to go. It is a grueling but blissful process.
As a speaker, your own shoes are familiar and comfortable. You know your subject. You know your experience. You're close to it. But wearing your own shoes will always limit how far you can go in writing a speech, and—like a worn-in, worn down pair of slippers-may even cause you to stumble. As you begin to think about how to package and share your thoughts and ideas, you will always do best to suppose you know nothing about your speech at the outset and commit to treading this long, circuitous journey of revelation. The danger of not doing so and anticipating your success prematurely is that you trip up when it's too late to recover.
* * *
I can't promise that this book will magically turn you into a brilliant wordsmith. What I can do is show you how to notice things that I notice—the observations that motivate my hundreds of questions, the subsequent investigations of which turn a mediocre narrative into a smart, gutsy, and emotionally resonant address.
You don't have to be a literary mastermind or to have climbed a mountain (and onto a TED stage) to be a brilliant speaker. As Chef Gusteau says in that grade-school cult classic 'Ratatouille,' "Anybody can cook." It doesn't mean everyone will be able to use truffles like Thomas Keller. But it acknowledges that everyone can make something that leaves their guests wanting more.
First, you have to know how to ask the right questions. Here's mine. Are you ready?
(Great) Expectations and Intentions
Deciding What Kind of Speech You're Going to Make
Where the hell do I begin? It's a common dilemma for anyone faced with the momentous and intimidating task of sorting through anything jumbled—be it the kitchen junk drawer, your dead grandma's house, or that secret storage unit filled with embarrassing mementos from the time you were in an improv troupe (that little storage space you worked so hard to keep hidden from your new girlfriend but whose $100 monthly fee has become problematic now that she's your wife). And there's nothing more psychologically defeating than when that jumble is a nebulous and intangible collection of thoughts, ideas, and memories that you can't pick up one by one, label with a Sharpie, and shove in a pile somewhere.
I'm not going to lie—writing a speech is a messy affair. You have to roll up your sleeves and commit to a few days, consecutive or otherwise, submerged in chaos and unanswered questions. But the good news is that by the time you get around to crafting language around those early turbulent ruminations in your head, you'll already have figured out exactly where to put them and how to label them, and you'll have thrown out the garbage you don't need. And while the steps you might take are far from orderly or sequential, the process of writing a speech is just as intentional and strategic as cleaning out any hoarder's house, every bit as satisfying, and far less likely to reveal a commune of rabid stray cats living in the bathroom vanity.
This wasn't unfortunately the case for Carly, who had a litter of metaphorical stray cats in her metaphorical bathroom. I will say, it's not every day that I'm asked to help craft an autobiographical eulogy from beyond the grave for a person who is alive and kicking and will be for the foreseeable future. But this is what Carly wanted, and her list of specifics was long, including the expectation that the eulogy would be delivered at the funeral by her daughter. The funeral, she explained (and hoped), wouldn't be for another thirty years. She was still young and, as far as she knew, in good health. But she was determined that, once she was in the ground, she would finally get to air out her grievances. She wanted everyone to know exactly how overwhelmingly they had failed her. How her father had been the only one in a large family who made her feel loved. How alone and isolated she felt, even with five siblings, after he had passed away.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book THE FRICTIONLESS ORGANIZATION by Bill Price and David Jaffe.