February 24, 2011 Tony Morgan

How I Write a Conference Talk

mapping talkEarlier this week, I shared a new conference talk for the very first time at Velocity. The whole talk was on systems. If you didn’t hear it this week, you’ll have an opportunity to catch it either at Exponential or Whiteboard later this spring.

I thought it might be helpful if I walked through the process I use to write a new talk. This is what works for me. Obviously, it may not be the best solution for you.

  1. Research Phase – I take several weeks to accumulate potential content. That means, of course, I need to plan ahead and clarify my topic so that I know how to study and pray about what I’m going to share. During this phase, I’m capturing Bible passages, thoughts, articles, data and illustrations on the topic. Additionally, I go back through my blog archives to find anything I’ve read or written on the topic in the past.
  2. Identify the “Big Idea” Phase – I pull up my document (Google Docs) where I’ve captured thoughts and ideas and I begin to pray and think through the big idea. How do I need to help people shift thinking? What’s the next action step I want people to take? During this phase, I also try to reword key thoughts to best capture what I’m trying to communicate. And, if I have time, I like to test those thoughts with other people (both online and offline) to see what thoughts and phrases stick. That also gives me the opportunity to capture their ideas.
  3. Mapping Phase – At this point I play a little game. I print out every thought and reference I’ve captured and I cut each one out separately (literally with scissors). Then I place everything on the table (literally on a table). I start grouping ideas and illustrations. I crumple up the thoughts that don’t fit. Then I start working through the flow. I use Post-It notes to fill in the gaps and link the sections of the talk. I end up throwing away more thoughts than I keep.
  4. Outlining Phase – After I have the final picture of the talk on the table, I create the outline I will use to deliver the talk. I don’t write a full manuscript. I know several great speakers that teach effectively from a manuscript. I don’t. For me to be a better communicator, I’ve learned I need to sweat the outline. The great thing is that if I get really familiar with the outline, I can modify my talk as I’m delivering it based on the response from the crowd, the time I have available and (this will sound overly-spiritual) how God is prompting me. I’m always amazed at the lines that are shared on Twitter after a talk that were not in my outline.
  5. Preparation Phase – This will also sound counter-intuitive, but I don’t rehearse my talks. For me, I’ve actually found that rehearsing my talk is a lot like delivering it from a full manuscript. If I feel like I have to say something word-for-word to be effective, I get so focused on saying the “right thing” that I’m not able to engage my audience. So, I’ll read through my outline several times to get familiar with the key thoughts, stories, flow, etc., but I won’t ever practice it word-for-word before I’m ready to deliver it.

I’ve always been a little jealous of the guys that can lock themselves in a room and focus for a day or two on a talk and pull everything together in a concentrated amount of time. I can’t do that. That’s not the way I’m wired up. At most, I probably only send a couple of hours at a time on any of these phases. If I invest more time than that on one thing, I lose focus and my time becomes less productive.

If you’ve heard me speak in recent years, you’ll be in the best position to know whether or not this strategy is really effective or not. The feedback I get from folks (including those closest to me) is that this method has improved my communications. Granted, I think I’ve also improved as I’ve had more opportunities to speak.

How does your message preparation compare with this? What strategies have you found to be helpful? Join the conversation by sharing your comment.

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Tony Morgan

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.
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